A century after Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance sank in Antarctic waters, resulting in one of the greatest survival stories in the history of exploration, a team of modern adventurers, technicians and scientists set sail to find the wreckage.
With a crew of 46 and a 64-member expedition team on board, a South African icebreaker is set to leave Cape Town on Saturday, bound for the Weddell Sea. Once there, the team hopes to find the wreckage and explore it with two underwater drones.
Getting there won’t be easy. Crushed by pack ice in 1915, the 144-foot-long Endurance lies in 10,000 feet of water. And it’s not just any water: in the Weddell, a swirling current sustains a thick, nasty mass of sea ice that can rival even modern icebreakers.
Shackleton himself, whose plans to be the first to cross Antarctica were derailed by the loss of his ship, described the sinking site as “the worst part of the world’s worst sea”.
“It’s the most inaccessible wreck ever,” said Mensun Bound, marine archaeologist and exploration director for the Endurance22 expedition. “Making it the greatest wreck hunt of all time.”
The Endurance is also one of the most famous shipwrecks, perhaps on par with the Titanic. 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. Some, like Roald Amundsen, succeeded. Others, like Robert Falcon Scott, died in the process.
Shackleton failed to achieve his goal, but when he returned to Britain after rescuing his entire crew after an epic open-boat voyage through treacherous seas, he was hailed as a hero. He is still worshiped today, in books, movies, and even business school classes, where the expedition is held up as an example of effective leadership.
“I’m as enamored with Shackleton and Endurance as anyone,” said Caroline Alexander, author and co-curator of a 1999 exhibit on the Endurance Expedition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Of the wreckage, she says, “its significance is almost emotional rather than, say, strictly historical.”
The expedition to find her, funded at a cost of more than $10 million by an anonymous donor, will have less than two weeks to locate the wreckage once the icebreaker reaches the Weddell Sea. If Endurance is found, the drones will take photos and videos and perform precise laser scans of the wreckage. But the site will not be disturbed, since it has been declared a historic monument under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty, an international agreement signed in 1959 intended to preserve the continent for peaceful purposes.
The wreck should be in relatively good condition due to the cold water and the absence of wood-boring organisms in the Antarctic seas.
Thanks to the work of Endurance’s captain and navigator, Frank Worsley, who with basic navigational tools was able to determine the location of the ship when it sank, the expedition is confident that the wreck lies in a 7 mile by 14 mile area west of Weddell.
“We pretty much know where we need to go,” said John Shears, leader of Endurance22, which is on its 25th expedition to Antarctica. And so far this season (it’s Antarctic summer), satellite images show the sea ice hasn’t been too bad. “We are very optimistic that we will overcome the wreckage site with the ship,” Mr Shears said.
But a change in the wind or a sudden drop in temperature can change things quickly, as Shackleton learned the hard way. If ice makes access to the wreck site impossible, the expedition has a bold plan B. It involves using two helicopters to send equipment and technicians to a drifting ice floe, where they will drill a three-foot-wide hole and launch the submersibles from there.
Lasse Rabenstein, the expedition’s chief scientist, and other sea ice experts on board should choose sea ice that can safely support crew and equipment. But there is another problem, Dr. Rabenstein said. Because it would take a few days to set up camp on the ice floe, the task for him and others would be to pick one “so that two days later we’ll be at the wreck site,” said the Dr. Rabenstein. “And that is a most delicate question.”
A previous expedition three years ago ended in failure when an older technology submersible was lost before technicians could determine if it had located the wreckage. The most recent will be linked to the surface by a fiber optic cable which will be able to deliver images and data in real time.
Built in Norway from solid timber, powered by both steam and sail, Endurance was designed to withstand the extreme pressures of maneuvering through pack ice.
Shackleton set sail in late 1914 with a crew of 27, bound for Vahsel Bay on the eastern side of the Weddell Sea. The plan was for Shackleton and a small group to cross the vast Antarctic ice sheet to the South Pole, as Amundsen had first done in 1911, but then continue to the Ross Sea on the other side of the continent.
They never arrived at the starting point. In early 1915, about 100 miles out from the bay, the Endurance became bogged down in the drifting pack ice off Weddell. Shackleton and his crew watched for months as the ship suffered from the pressure of ice building up around it. The crew eventually scampered off onto the ice and emptied Endurance of food and stores and almost everything else, including three open lifeboats, before she sank in November.
The rest of the story is legend. The following April, as the ice broke, the 28 men sailed in the lifeboats to Elephant Island, little more than a rocky outcrop north of the Antarctic Peninsula. From there, Shackleton, Worsley and four others, enduring freezing weather and rough seas, sailed one of the 22-foot boats 800 miles to the nearest inhabited island, South Georgia.
It was an extraordinary sailing feat, followed immediately by an extraordinary mountaineering feat, in which Shackleton and two others made the first traverse of the island’s peaks and glaciers to reach a whaling station on the opposite side. From there, he organized the rescue of the other men, who were recovered, alive, within months.
“There are a lot of people who are familiar with the story,” said Donald Lamont, chairman of the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust, which organized the expedition. “But also a lot of people around the world who don’t know the story at all.” The expedition team therefore includes digital media specialists who will chronicle the search via online streaming, and if the wreckage is found, the images and data collected from the site could become the basis for museum exhibits.
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“It’s a stepping stone to the human stories of the people who went down there,” Lamont said. (Former Governor of the Falkland Islands, he won’t be on the ship. “I’m very happy to sit down in the warmth and comfort of the UK and say, ‘Farewell and good luck’.”)
Even if the wreckage is not found, the expedition should help scientists better understand the Weddell Sea ice and how it is changing as the planet warms due to greenhouse gas emissions.
Among the scientists on board will be Stefanie Arndt, a sea ice researcher from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany. Dr. Arndt participated in the 2019-2020 Mosaic Science Expedition, during which an icebreaker drifted with the ice across the Arctic Ocean. But her specialty is actually Antarctic ice, so she jumped at the chance to join this one.
Dr. Arndt will take samples and study the properties of sea ice, which are partly affected by snow falling on it. Unlike Arctic sea ice, whose seasonal extent has decreased over the decades as the Earth has warmed, the extent of sea ice around Antarctica has remained relatively constant. Dr. Arndt will look for signs that possible long-term changes are beginning.
But she also looks forward to the search for Endurance. “It’s a really huge thing,” she said. “And for me, that’s really special. The first book I read on Antarctica was Shackleton’s Expedition. This was for me the kick-off of polar science.