The wreck of one of the most famous exploration ships in history has been located. Using a robotic submersible, the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust has found Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance, which was crushed in the Antarctic pack ice in 1915.
In the wake of Roald Amundsen’s 1911 expedition that became the first to successfully reach the South Pole, Sir Ernest Shackleton mounted his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914, which was tasked with the even more ambitious goal of traveling across the entire Antarctic continent from Vahsel Bay on the coast of the Weddell Sea to McMurdo Sound.
Shackleton had hoped that the sea ice would be relatively loose and passable when he reached it aboard the barquentine Endurance in December 1914, but it turned out to be unexpectedly dense. Despite repeated attempts to push through under steam power, the ship could not make much headway and eventually ended up trapped in the ice so fast that Shackleton feared that the expedition would have to spend the entire Antarctic winter there.
What followed was an incredible story of adventure and survival. Endurance drifted along with the ice for months with its engines extinguished to conserve coal. After moving aimlessly for hundreds of miles, a gale rose in July 1915, breaking up the ice, which now pushed and ground against the ship’s hull.
By the end of August, Endurance’s timbers were bending like canes and on October 10, 1915, the damage was so severe that Shackleton ordered supplies, tents, and the three lifeboats moved to the ice and the ship abandoned. However, the Blue Ensign was to remain aloft so Endurance could go down flying its colors, which it finally did when the last of its wreckage sank on November 21.
With their ship gone, the 28 men of the Endurance set out on an epic voyage to save themselves. Living on seal and sled dog meat to stretch their rations, they drifted north with the ice until it broke up, then sailed in their open boats to the uninhabited Elephant Island on the tip of the Antarctic peninsula.
Taking one of the boats, the James Caird, Shackleton and five other men sailed 800 miles (1,300 km) across the open sea to South Georgia Island to seek help from the whaling station established there. As a final frustration, the boat landed on the wrong side of the island and Shackleton and two others had to climb over the Allardyce Range, which forms the spine of the island, to reach their goal by moonlight and without maps.
They arrived on May 20, 1916 and a dramatic rescue effort began that saw Endurance’s entire crew safe on August 30.
Since then, what’s left of Endurance has sat under the ice. Though several attempts have been made to locate it, none have succeeded until now. The Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust’s Endurance22 Expedition operating aboard the South African polar research and logistics vessel, S.A. Agulhas II out of Cape Town used Saab’s Sabertooth hybrid underwater search vehicles to probe the waters, eventually finding Endurance resting at a depth of 3,008 m (9,870 ft) and four miles south of its last position as recorded by its captain, Frank Worsley, 107 years ago.
“We are overwhelmed by our good fortune in having located and captured images of Endurance,” said Mensun Bound, Director of Exploration on the expedition. “This is by far the finest wooden shipwreck I have ever seen. It is upright, well proud of the seabed, intact, and in a brilliant state of preservation. You can even see ‘Endurance’ arced across the stern, directly below the taffrail. This is a milestone in polar history. However, it is not all about the past; we are bringing the story of Shackleton and Endurance to new audiences, and to the next generation, who will be entrusted with the essential safeguarding of our polar regions and our planet.
“We hope our discovery will engage young people and inspire them with the pioneering spirit, courage and fortitude of those who sailed Endurance to Antarctica. We pay tribute to the navigational skills of Captain Frank Worsley, the Captain of the Endurance, whose detailed records were invaluable in our quest to locate the wreck. I would like to thank my colleagues of The Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust for enabling this extraordinary expedition to take place, as well as Saab for their technology, and the whole team of dedicated experts who have been involved in this monumental discovery.”
In case anyone was thinking about mounting a salvage expedition, the Endurance is designated a protected historic site and monument under the Antarctic Treaty System.