‘Like Time Travel’: The Discovery of Shackleton’s Endurance
The Endurance22 expedition has found, filmed and documented the wreck of Ernest Shackleton’s lost ice ship, Endurance, in the Weddell Sea. Here’s what it was like to participate in that momentous discovery.
Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance is found. The world’s most elusive shipwreck, lying at a depth of some 3000 metres on the bottom of the ice-choked Weddell Sea, has been identified. There were cheers from the exhausted crew when the data showed her on the seabed. Tears when the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) returned safely to the surface. Remarkably, the discovery came 100 years to the day since Shackleton was laid to rest in his grave on South Georgia.
The Endurance22 team have carried out minutely detailed laser scans, filmed the wreck with high-resolution 4k cameras and broadcast those images to the world.
The wreck is in an astonishing state of preservation, at the absolute upper limit of what the Endurance22 team were hoping to find. The cold water temperatures mean that no wood-eating organisms live in this part of Antarctica. The paintwork is glistening, the nails still shine, the planks look like new. The name Endurance on the stern is still in its original colours.
As we watched the footage from the seabed there were amazed exclamations. After weeks of searching, and several false dawns, we had found Endurance.
The elusive ship
Shackleton entered the Weddell Sea in 1914, despite warnings from whalers on South Georgia that it was a record ice year and attempting to sail through the Weddell Sea to the Antarctic mainland would be impossible. As predicted, Endurance was caught in the ice in January 1915.
By October 1915, Shackleton and his men were forced to abandon her as the ice snapped her beams and tore off her rudder. On 21 November 1915, her stern swung into the air and she descended into the black water. Within minutes the pool that she left froze over.
I came aboard the South African icebreaker Agulhas II in early February 2022 with the Endurance22 expedition. We left Cape Town and spent 10 days negotiating the swells and winds of the Southern Ocean.
By 5 March 2022, we were into our last week searching for the wreck in the Weddell Sea. The temperature was plummeting, ice was building and we could have been forced to abandon the search at any minute.
Then the AUV pilot and monitoring team saw something. It was big, and it had height, sitting well clear of the seabed. In a vast area of featureless seabed, it looked manmade.
The bow of Shackleton’s sunken Endurance. Weddell Sea, Antarctica, March 2022.
As the AUV went in for a closer look, a wall of wood appeared out of the darkness. It was Endurance’s port side. The paintwork was still intact, the planks looked like new, held in place by twinkling nails. All hell broke loose.
I was overwhelmed by a wave of relief, of deep gratitude that we would not be going back empty-handed. That the hard work and belief of so many people would be rewarded.
The drone was recovered and recharged. People worked fast, the deck fizzing with energy. Back into the water went the drone, every pass over the target yielding stunning images and data. Endurance lay on her keel, as intact as she had been in the last photos of her by expedition photographer Frank Hurley. There were smashed plates on the deck, hatchways and ladders clearly visible.
The water was clear, with a visibility of 30m at least. It felt like time travel. It was overwhelming. As the drone was piloted around the stern of the ship, we got the view we hadn’t dared hope for: the five-pointed star, and above it, the letters spelling out Endurance, still bright gold.
The sunken stern of Endurance, with the gold star and lettering visible. Weddell Sea, Antarctica, March 2022.
In the hours that followed, the crew headed onto the surrounding ice flow to celebrate. We played football and watched penguins. I took myself off with my copy of Shackleton’s book. I read the passages about the loss of Endurance.
I kept thinking about those 28 men who watched Endurance sink, metres away from where I sat. At the time, the idea that one day humans might be able to reach down and inspect the wreck was absurd. Subsea operations were in their infancy. The primitive submarines being used in World War One were tested to depths of 50m. Some scientists had managed to broadcast moving images but certainly not from underwater. Yet here we are just over 100 years later able to watch a live feed from the seabed kilometres below us.
I think they would have been thrilled that the story of Endurance had not come to an end that day in November 1915. The story of Endurance is still being told.
Writer : Dan Snow Historian