Endurance Found

Over a hundred years after her sinking, the most daring polar underwater project has found the lost Endurance...
17 March 2022


Shipping in Antarctica


A century since she was last seen, Antarctic explorers have located the wreck of the Endurance...

The story begins in 1914, when Endurance, a 144 foot luxury yacht, sailed for Antartica as part of Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated attempt to cross the continent. Just over a year later, she would be at the bottom of the Weddell Sea, crushed by moving pack ice that buckled her hull "like an accordian".

The story of the twenty eight men aboard Endurance for her mission is one of the epics of Antarctic exploration. Left on the moving pack ice with only the ship's lifeboats, they waited until the floes took them further North before setting out in some of the world's most trecherous seas in small, uncovered boats.

Making landfall at Elephant island, they soon realised that rescue would not be coming as shipping routes didn't pass that far south.

Shackleton and three others took to the seas again, sucessfully navigating over two weeks to South Georgia, where they made land during hurricane-force winds. After a trecherous journey across the island they found civilisation and respite from the ordeal that had lasted months.

But, for the men back on Elephant island, the ordeal was not over. Eating primarily seals and penguins, and having to contend with frostbite, mental breakdowns and a minor heart attack, they anxiously awaited rescue, unsure if it were ever coming. Eventually Shackleton returned on a Chilean navy tug and rescued the stranded explorers. Miraculously, none of the crew perished.

Nevertheless, the ship itself had perished, and, for many years, the prospect of finding her again was slim. Though the approximate position of the sinking was known due to the captain's meticulous wayfinding, this was approximate for a number of reasons. Consequently, previous expeditions to find the wreck had turned up empty handed, but the prospect was tantalising.

This week, an expedition aboard the S.A. Agullhas II struck gold. The Endurance22 crew used new remote underwater vehicles, together with sonar, to locate the wreck, a mere 4 miles from the estimated sinking position.

Pictures from the expedition show a pristine wreck with very little degredation. According to Dr Adrian Glover of the Natural History Museum, this is to be expected though.

Most wooden shipwrecks are broken down quickly by the sea life that inhabits the oceans. Chiefly among these, shipworms bore into the wood, opening it up for other sealife and microbes to decompose. However, a series of experiments by Glover about ten years ago showed that shipworms were absent from the Antarctic seas. This is partly due to the fact that no natural wood falls into the Antarctic seas due to the conspicuous lack of forest. It could also be partially attributed to the strong circumpolar current that prevents young shipworms from elsewhere accidentally finding themselves in these waters and thus happening upon this wreck as a source of food.

When his experiments in 2013 concluded, Glover and his associates mused that an implication might be that the Endurance, if ever found, might be in good condition. This has been borne out spectacularly. As Mensun Bound muses, "You can see the paint peeling, its that good".

And finding the wreck provides a little closure. John James, son of Reginald W James, the ships physisist notes how emotional he was when he got the news. Viv James, his brother, remarks how similar the wreck looks to the pictures taken by the photographer over a hundred years ago. In a way, the pristine state of the ship underscores the timelessness of the story. As per the Antarctic treaty, Endurance22 didn't disturb the wreck, only taking photos and 3D scans, letting Endurance stay as she has since that day the ice opened and swallowed her back in 1916.


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