The search has begun for an Antarctic pioneer’s lost ship
By Henry Fountain
The hunt is on for Endurance, Ernest Shackleton’s ship that sits 10,000 feet below the icy Weddell Sea in Antarctica.
After an 11-day voyage aboard a South African icebreaker, the expedition, known as Endurance22, began searching for the wreck last week. Underwater drones equipped with cameras, sonar and lasers have been scanning 100 square miles of seafloor looking for the remains of the 144-foot wooden ship, which sank in 1915 after being crushed in ice.
Mensun Bound, the expedition’s director of exploration, said in an email that after a few technical glitches, the submersibles were functioning well, carrying out several dives each day. Images show that the seafloor is flat and consists of fine sediment and small rocks.
“It should be possible to identify quickly any wreckage,” he said.
The expedition, financed at a cost of more than $10 million by an anonymous donor, has about a week left before the icebreaker, Agulhas II, must head back to Cape Town, South Africa.
But the expedition is not only looking for one of the most celebrated wrecks that remain to be found, a ship with a revered place in the history of Antarctic exploration. On board are researchers with a more forward-looking goal: They are studying the Weddell Sea pack ice, looking for signs that it is changing as the world warms as a result of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
Two helicopters aboard the ship have been used to ferry these scientists to ice floes, where ice cores are drilled for later laboratory analysis.
Endurance was lost while transporting Shackleton and his crew of 27 to Antarctica for an attempt to be the first to cross the continent on foot. The sinking, which came months after the ship first became trapped in pack ice, dashed those hopes but resulted in one of the greatest tales of survival in the face of great adversity. Shackleton led some of his men on an epic small-boat voyage to the island of South Georgia, a journey of 800 miles, from where he organized the rescue of the entire crew. He returned to Britain a hero.
As Shackleton learned firsthand, the Weddell is notorious for having thick, years-old ice, a function of the sea’s circular current. But the ice en route to the search site was not too bad, said John Shears, the expedition leader.
“Our transit was much quicker than expected because of the light ice conditions, with plenty of open water leads available for the ship to maneuver through,” he said.
The ice at the search area has also not presented any obstacles, Bound said. It is thin enough that the icebreaker’s propeller wash creates enough open water to launch the submersibles. He said that while the search was in its early stages, the team was making good progress covering the search area.
Endurance’s captain, Frank Worsley, was able to use basic navigational tools to determine the ship’s location when it finally sank. But Worsley’s timepiece, which he used to make noontime sightings of the sun, was off by about 10 minutes. Through analyses of that and other potential errors, as well as modeling of possible drift, a 7-by-14-mile search area was established.
If the remains of the ship are found, the submersibles will take videos and photographs and make laser scans of the wreckage, which will very likely be the basis for museum exhibits and educational materials. But the site, which is classified as a historic monument, will not be disturbed.
The wreck is expected to be in relatively good shape, unlike other old wooden wrecks in warmer waters that are often consumed by marine organisms.
Although photographs taken before the sinking by Shackleton’s photographer, Frank Hurley, appeared to show Endurance in pieces, that was mostly the masts and rigging. Bound and others said it was likely that the hull was mostly intact when the ship sank, though it may have split when it hit bottom.
The expedition crew hopes to find out definitively soon.
“We remain optimistic that with the current sea ice conditions, and the submersibles performing well, we’ll find the Endurance,” Shears said.