The story of Ernest Shackleton and his ill-fated journey to the Antarctic is a well-known one amongst adventurers and exploration history buffs. In 1914, the Irish explorer set out to the frozen continent for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition in an attempt to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent. But thanks to an unusual set of circumstances met in ‘the worst portion of the worst sea in the world’ as the Anglo-Irish explorer described, Shackleton and his crew found themselves frozen in place by thick pack ice.
Eventually, that pack ice slowly crushed their ship, sending Endurance to the bottom of the ocean and stranding them in the Antarctica. The following 18 months would lead to one of the most grueling survival stories ever told, eventually resulting in the rescue of the crew without the loss of a single man and leaving the ship crushed by pack ice on the sea bed. The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition is considered the last major expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
In the decades since, Shackleton’s story has grown to almost mythic proportions, recounted countless times around campfires, in remote cabins, and over drinks at local pubs the world over. This tale still resonates with many today. So much that a new Weddell Sea expedition is planned for 2022 that will send a team in search of the Endurance — Shackleton’s ship. Presumably, the vessel still sits at the ocean floor, the bottom of the thick sea ice where Endurance was crushed and sank more than a century ago. And what secrets it still holds remains to be seen.
In Search of Endurance
This new expedition to the Antarctic sea ice is being organized and funded by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust, an organization led by Donald Lamont as chairman, dedicated to preserving the memory of rich sailing history of its namesake islands. As the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust points out, before the construction of the Panama Canal, ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans routinely had to brave the Drake Passage and around Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America. Even today, this stretch of water is considered one of the most turbulent and dangerous in the world.
Ernest Shackleton is also a part of the Trust’s long and storied history, having stopped in the Falklands—and of course South Georgia Island—on several of his journeys to the Antarctic ice. As such, the FMHT has applied for a charter to go in search of Endurance with the goal of traveling to the Weddell Sea in February of 2022. That’s where the ship sank back on November 21, 1915, slipping beneath the ice in the Weddell Sea, just east of the Larsen ice shelves on the Antarctic peninsula.
The FMHT has indicated that it will work with South Africa’s Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries when conducted this sea expedition. The plan is to charter the South African research and supply ship SA Agulhas II for the voyage. At the moment, the finishing touches are being put on that agreement, with everything expected to fall into place soon.
After Shackleton and his men were rescued from the Southern Ocean in 1916, they returned home to England. Most, including Shackleton himself, went off to fight in World War I, which was just beginning when they left, but still raged on after their return. When that bloody conflict was finally over, Shackleton returned to his first love however, organizing an expedition to the Antarctic. This time, his goals was to become the first to circumnavigate the continent and in 1921 he set sail once again.
But as fate would have it, the explorer would never reach his destination. While en route, he suffered a heart attack and on January 5, 1922 he would die on South Georgia Island. His grieving men buried him there and visitors to that remote and stunningly beautiful place frequently make the pilgrimage to his grave.
January of 2022 marks the 100th anniversary of the explorer’s death, making it a fitting time to go in search of Shackleton’s lost ship. February marks one of the best times to sail in the South Pole as well, when the waters are calmer and the weather more stable than at other times of the year.
Dubbed Endurance22, the truly historic expedition is set to depart from Cape Town in early February of next year. Endurance22 director of exploration, Mensun Bound said that the team hopes that they can do justice to this magnificent chapter in polar exploration.
From Cape Town, the South African icebreaker Agulhas II will make its way south to the Antarctic to begin its search. The expedition will be led by British polar explorer Dr John Shears, who led a similar search back in 2019. He’ll be joined by a crew of more than 50 that will include Mensun Bound—a maritime archaeologist from the Falklands—and Richard Garriott, a British-born American who is currently president of The Explorers Club.
The team doesn’t expect to have a difficult time reaching the location of where Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurancewent down. The exact spot was recorded by Frank Worsley, the ship’s captain on Shackleton’s fateful expedition. The biggest challenge on this expedition will be the vessel navigating through the Antarctic sea ice. Even Shackleton, the Anglo-Irish explorer, described the site as “the worst portion of the worst sea in the world.” Its swirling current sustains a pack of thick sea ice in particular areas of the Weddell Sea, east of the Larsen ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula, which can cause problems even for modern ice breakers.
And according to David Mearns, one of the world’s leading shipwreck hunters, in terms of shipwreck challenges, it is the most difficult because of the heavy ice conditions. If the ice in the Weddell Sea doesn’t prevent the South African icebreaker Agulhas II from reaching Worsley’s coordinates, the crew will dispatch two teams onto the sea ice itself to drill holes in the surface as a way to conduct their search.
Once onsite, the Endurance22 crew will use a variety of high-tech devices to search for—and hopefully find—the missing ship. That will include special sonar, two underwater drones, high-definition cameras, and autonomous underwater vehicle. The belief is that, thanks to the ice conditions and cold waters of the ocean, the wreckage of the Endurance will be relatively well preserved and not covered in sediment.
Preserving History and the Environment
The goal of the Endurance22 Weddell Sea expedition is to locate the missing vessel, observe its location, and examine its condition. The Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance holds very little in the way of cargo, as Shackleton and his men offloaded everything they could use before it went down in the Weddell Sea. The plan is to leave it mostly undisturbed, no artifacts will be taken, simply recording its current state for historical purposes and following the international Antarctic Treaty.
The same holds true for the fragile environment in the Weddell Sea and around the Antarctic. The team will go to great lengths to have very little impact on the water or ice in the Weddell Sea. At this point, we all know the impact that climate change is having there and efforts are being made to make sure any human interaction will not further exasperate an already delicate situation.
With a little luck, in a few months time we may get our first look at the Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance. I’m sure there are more than a few fans of Shackleton and his story that are eager to see what this crew discovers. We’ll be following along closely and hopefully we’ll have updates on this magnificent chapter in Polar Exploration to share early next year.
Update: According to BBC news Shackleton ship found in Antarctic, Saturday, March 12, 2022, 107 years after it sank.
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