Shackleton’s Endurance shipwreck found intact

The name and polestar emblem at the stern (FMHT / National Geographic)

The wreck of Sir Ernest Shackleton's ship Endurance, unseen since it was crushed by ice and sank in the Weddell Sea in 1915, has been located – 100 years on from the celebrated Antarctic explorer’s death.

The Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust (FMHT), which organised the Endurance22 expedition that began in early February, announced that the celebrated vessel had been discovered at a depth of 3008m, about four miles south of the position originally recorded by its captain. Footage of the remarkably well-preserved vessel indicates that Endurance has lived up to its name.

The wreck is protected as a historic site and monument under the Antarctic Treaty, so can be filmed but not disturbed.

The plan had been to allow up to 45 days to locate the Endurance. Working from the South African government’s polar research vessel Agulhas II, once the wreck had been located the team used Saab Sabertooth hybrid AUV/ROVs to dive it. 

Taffrail and ship’s wheel on the aft well deck (FMHT / National Geographic)

“This is by far the finest wooden shipwreck I have ever seen,” said the expedition’s director of exploration Mensun Bound. “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,” said the British underwater archaeologist. “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 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.” 

The starboard bow of the Endurance (FMHT / National Geographic)

Polar history

Shackleton had hoped to make the first land-crossing of Antarctica, moving from the Weddell Sea via the South Pole to the Ross Sea. An advance party landed on Ross Island and laid supply dumps for his crossing party, but with the loss of three lives.

Endurance meanwhile became trapped in the dense pack-ice, leading the 28 men on board eventually to abandon ship. After months spent in makeshift camps on the ice-floes drifting northwards, they took to the lifeboats to reach inhospitable, uninhabited Elephant Island.

Shackleton and five other men then made a 1,300km journey in an open lifeboat to reach mountainous South Georgia. He and two others managed to cross the island to the Stromness whaling station, from where a rescue of the men stranded on Elephant Island was mounted. No lives were lost other than the initial three.

Mensun Bound, Dr John Shears and the Agulhas (FMHT / Esther Horvath)

The Agulhas is now set to return to Cape Town. “We have made polar history with the discovery of Endurance, and successfully completed the world’s most challenging shipwreck search,” said expedition leader Dr John Shears. “In addition, we have undertaken important scientific research in a part of the world that directly affects the global climate and environment. 

“We have also conducted an unprecedented educational outreach programme, with live broadcasting from on board, allowing new generations from around the world to engage with Endurance22 and become inspired by the amazing stories of polar exploration, and what human beings can achieve and the obstacles they can overcome when they work together.” 

Deploying a Sabertooth underwater vehicle (FMHT / Esther Horvath)

According to subsea project manager Nico Vincent, Endurance22 represented the most complex underwater project ever undertaken, with several world records achieved in the process. The expedition’s chief scientist Dr Lasse Rabenstein led a team that conducted hundreds of hours of studies related to climate change, and a documentary is to be aired by National Geographic later this year.

“Our objectives for Endurance22 were to locate, survey and film the wreck, but also to conduct important scientific research, and to run an exceptional outreach programme,” said FMHT chairman Donald Lamont. “Today's celebrations are naturally tempered by world events, and everybody involved in Endurance22 keeps those affected by these continuing shocking events in their thoughts and prayers.”

(FMHT / Nick Birtwistle)

Further information can be found on the FMHT and Endurance22 sites. In 2019 Mensun Bound led an FMHT expedition off the Falkland Islands and successfully located the wreck of the iconic WW1 warship SMS Scharnhorst, as reported on Divernet.


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