Track Marine Archaeologists Searching Icy Antarctic Seas for Ernest Shackleton’s ‘Endurance’

A team aboard a modern icebreaker will survey the site with state-of-the-art underwater drones in hopes of finding the historic vessel

crewmembers playing soccer near
Crew members of the Endurance enjoy a quick game of soccer while on a three-year Imperial Trans-Antarctica Expedition in 1915. The 144-foot ship sank in the Anarctic Ocean that same year. Frank Hurley/Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge/Getty Images

Marine archaeologists are searching for a historic century-old shipwreck, Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance, in some of the most dangerous seas on the planet, reports Henry Fountain of the New York Times.

Endurance is “one of the most famous shipwrecks, perhaps on par with the Titanic,” writes Fountain. “It’s a relic of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, when adventurers undertook elaborate, risky and wildly popular expeditions to the continent and the pole.”

On August 8, 1914, Shackleton set out from Buenos Aires for Vahsel Bay in the Weddell Sea on a three-year endeavor known as the Imperial Trans-Antarctica Expedition, in an attempt to be the first to cross the ice-bound continent from sea to sea.

black and white image of Ernest Shackleton
Ernest Shackleton, who led an ill-fated attempt to cross Antarctica in 1915, is widely celebrated for his leadership. His crew all survived. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Disaster struck on January 18, 1915, however, when Shackleton’s 144-foot vessel became caught in the shifting pack ice in the Weddell Sea. Ten months later the ship sank. Shackleton’s expedition would fail; but when he saved his crew of 27 and returned to Britain, he was hailed as a hero.

Shackleton continues to be celebrated today in “books, films and even business school courses, where the expedition is considered a case study in effective leadership,” per the New York Times.

Earlier this month, the 64-member exploration team, supported by a crew of 46, boarded the icebreaker Agulhas II  and departed from Cape Town, South Africa, for the Weddell Sea, according to a statement on the expedition’s website, where a live tracker allows the public to monitor the ship’s location and live events of the expedition can be streamed.

The discovery operation, known as Endurance22, plans to break through pack ice and navigate the area of the Antarctic Ocean that Shackleton called “the worst portion of the worst sea in the world.”

The ocean there is buffeted by strong currents, part of the thermohaline circulation system, which helps regulate global temperatures. “It’s the most unreachable wreck ever,” Mensun Bound, marine archaeologist and expedition director, tells the New York Times. “Which makes this the greatest wreck hunt of all time.”

“Believe me, it’s quite daunting,” Bound tells Jonathan Amos of BBC News. “The pack ice in the Weddell Sea is constantly on the move in a clockwise direction. It’s opening, it’s clenching and unclenching. It’s a really vicious, lethal environment that we’re going into.”

Sinking
Crushed by pack ice, the Endurance sank in 10,000 feet of ocean off the coast of Antarctica in 1915. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.5

Using a modern icebreaker and high-tech underwater drones, the international team will try to find the Endurance, using the coordinates recorded by the ship’s captain in his diary. The wooden sailing and steam vessel sank in 10,000 feet of ocean water.

After the Endurance sank on November 21, 1915, Shackleton’s 28-member crew team trekked over sea ice and sailed in the ship’s lifeboats to Elephant Island, a desolate atoll off the coast of Antarctica. With no means of communicating with the outside world, Shackleton and several expedition members then sailed one of the boats to a whaling station on South Georgia Island, a distance of about 800 nautical miles, to alert whalers of their predicament.

Three rescue missions failed but in 1916 the Elephant Island survivors were at last rescued. Historian Caroline Alexander, who authored the book, The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition told CBS News, that the rescue operation is the “greatest survival story” of the 20th century.

Members of Endurance22 expect to spend up to a total of 45 days over the coming weeks searching for the sunken ship using two underwater drones with 3D scanners, reports Mary Kay Linge of the New York Post. If they find the Endurance, they will take photos and videos without disturbing the shipwreck, which is considered a historic monument under the terms of a 1959 treaty

red and white ship on the water
Scientists onboard the modern icebreaker SA Agulhas II hope to locate a historic ship sunk in Antarctica more than a century ago. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 2.0

The team’s website describes how marine archaeologists will use a new type of underwater search vehicle, called a SAAB Sabertooth, to locate and survey the vessel. These state-of-the-art drones utilize the best attributes of autonomous underwater and remote operating vehicles and send digital signals through a fiberoptic cable to the surface in real time.

The expedition, which cost $10 million, is being funded by an anonymous donor, per the New York Times. It is organized by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust, a charity advancing public education of maritime heritage.

“This expedition is made up of polar explorers, scientists, educators and filmmakers… [who] will bring to life one of great stories of polar exploration,” says the trust’s chair Donald Lamont in a statement.

This is not the first time an expedition has attempted to locate the Endurance. In 2019, another team, also using the research ship SA Agulhas II, unsuccessfully searched for the ship at its last recorded position using autonomous underwater vehicles, per a 2019 Guardian article.

“We very much hope we can do justice to this magnificent chapter in polar exploration by capturing images of Shackleton’s iconic Endurance to share with the world,” says Bound per the statement.