Wreck of Shackleton’s ‘Endurance’ May ‘Decay Out of Existence’

The recently discovered vessel is vulnerable on the seafloor, but raising it from the depths comes with unique challenges

A view of a small ship leaning sideways in the background. In the foreground, a huge expanse of chunks of ice
Endurance immobilized in pack ice, as captured by crew photographer Frank Hurley in 1915 Photo by Frank Hurley / Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge / Getty Images

Though the icy waters surrounding Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance are cold enough to keep shipworms and other wood-eating critters at bay, the sunken vessel will eventually “decay out of existence” if it remains on the Antarctic seabed, according to Mensun Bound, the marine archaeologist who led the the Endurance22 expedition to find the shipwreck.

“If we leave it there, it’s organic, it’s going to decay some time beyond our lifetime,” Bound said at a recent event in London, as reported by the Guardian.

But raising the 144-foot, three-masted wooden ship from the seafloor in hopes of preserving it also presents its own unique challenges, Bound noted. Logistics aside, any plan to bring the vessel to the surface would require deciding which museum would take possession of it, as well as how best to conserve it.

There’s also the matter of respecting the Shackleton family’s wishes. The explorer’s granddaughter, Alexandra Shackleton, has said that she would prefer the vessel to remain where it is, underwater in its final resting place.

Endurance stern
The Endurance's stern Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust and National Geographic

“I had no problem with people photographing, but a lot of problems with people rummaging,” she told the London Times’ Jack Blackburn after researchers identified the wreck in March. “There might be bits and pieces of equipment which are probably very valuable, but whatever there is will stay there.”

Marine archaeologists discovered the century-old wreck resting 9,842 feet below the surface of the Weddell Sea east of the Antarctic Peninsula. The last time anyone had laid eyes on the ship was in 1915, when Shackleton and his crew of 27 men watched it sink to the ocean floor after getting trapped in sea ice. The crew members were trying to reach the South Pole by traveling on land across the continent as part of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

Despite warnings from whalers about unusually poor ice conditions in the Weddell Sea, Shackleton and his men departed from South Georgia Island in 1914. In early 1915, the ship became trapped in sea ice—and it stayed that way for ten months. Crew members waited for the ice to thaw by camping on ice floes, but when spring finally arrived in September, the shifting ice began to destroy the wooden vessel. The ocean finally swallowed the damaged ship on November 21, 1915.

Shackleton and his men, meanwhile, had to figure out how to survive. They spent five days at sea in lifeboats, eventually landing on Elephant Island to cobble together a camp. Then, Shackleton and five men steered a small whaling boat 800 miles across the open sea to get help on South Georgia Island. In the end, rescuers saved all 28 crew members.

Historians have long studied the failed Endurance expedition, but researchers had not known the precise location of the sunken vessel until the Endurance22 mission discovered it.

Now, more than six months after making the find, experts are still trying to decide how best to proceed. Bound described the ship’s future as a “hot potato” issue.

“There are a lot of contrasting views about [raising the ship],” he said at the event in London. “We have a range of ideas on that one, and we have to remember the Shackleton family, who very likely own the ship, they have fairly strong views of their own.”

Endurance bow
The Endurance's standard bow Courtesy of Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust and National Geographic

In a statement, the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust—which supported the Endurance22 mission—noted that the shipwreck is protected under the Antarctic Treaty.

“The Endurance22 Expedition was non-intrusive, meaning the expedition successfully located, surveyed and filmed Endurance, but did not touch the ship itself,” per the statement. “Furthermore, there are no plans, and never have been plans, either by the Trust or the Expedition team, to touch the wreck or to recover any of her artifacts.”

Whatever happens in the future, Bound still wants to explore the shipwreck further. He said he hopes to be able to conduct a marine biological survey someday.

“She’s the ultimate sealed box mystery, it’s an Aladdin’s cave,” he said. “It’s like the film Citizen Kane with all the antiques, everything is there in that box. The technology’s there, we can have a look through some of the gaps.”

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