By Shannon Devy
Famous explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s lost ship has been found 107 years after it sank – with some help from South Africa! In 1915, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 27 men were making their way across the Weddell Sea in the Endurance, a three-masted barquentine ship on her maiden voyage. They were there to attempt what Shackleton had dubbed the “Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition”, a 2900km on-foot trek across the ice and snow of the Antarctic continent. But it was not to be – after Endurance became frozen fast in an ice floe, later slipping beneath the surface as the spring melt put enormous pressure on her hull, the expedition was abandoned, and what followed was a daring escape which almost cost the explorers their lives.
The party set up camp on an ice floe, hoping that it would drift towards the nearby Paulet Island, where the support crew on the expedition’s second ship, Aurora, had stored a cache of supplies. But after two months of waiting and a failed attempt to traverse the ice to get to the cache on foot, they decided to relocate to a different ice floe. This one would take them within 100km of Paulet Island and its food and fuel supply, but barred by impassable ice, they would never make it. When the ice floe upon which they had built their camp broke in two, Shackleton ordered the crew into the lifeboats to chance the open water. Five harrowing days later, the exhausted men landed on Elephant Island, 557km away from the spot where Endurance sank.
A few days later, Shackleton and a small group of men launched one of the small lifeboats in a Hail Mary attempt to get help. For fifteen days, they risked the rough seas of the Southern Ocean, eventually landing on the British island of South Georgia. From there, Shackleton attempted to cross the island’s steep cliffs alone wearing boots with nails banged into them, eventually making it to a Danish whaling station where he was able to rally help to rescue his comrades on the beach, and the group left on Elephant island.
The Endurance is Found
In March 2022, on the anniversary of Shackleton’s funeral, an expedition led by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust and using a South African Ice Breaker, Aghulus II, located the lost Endurance on the bottom of the Weddell Sea. Images taken by the expedition’s remote-controlled submarines, which were used to scour the sea floor, show the ship in astonishing condition, despite spending over a century 10 000ft under the water. So well preserved is the wreck that cameras even located boots and crockery on board, and photographs show the ship’s name is still clearly emblazoned across the stern.
A Challenging Search
What makes this find so remarkable is the conditions that had to be overcome to carry the mission out successfully. The Weddell Sea is almost always covered in a thick layer of sea-ice, ever-shifting, and the terrible conditions of the area include blizzards and temperatures as cold as -18C.
Under the international Antarctic Treaty, the wreck of the Endurance is a designated monument, so it cannot be disturbed in any way. No artefacts will be removed from it as of yet. It is not often that a piece of history comes alive so vividly, and it makes one wonder what other treasures from the past wait patiently at the bottom of the sea.