Research Team Heads to Antarctica in Search of Shackleton’s Ship

A highly anticipated expedition to the Antarctic got underway this past weekend when the Endurance22 team set out for the frozen continent. The team, which we first told you about last summer, is headed to the Weddell Sea, where they will conduct an extensive search for one of the most sought-after shipwrecks in history—Ernest Shackleton’s ship the Endurance.

Shackleton's Ship

The Legend of the Endurance

By now, we all know the story of Ernest Shackleton, the Irish explorer who in 1914 set off to the Antarctic in an attempt to become the first person to traverse the continent. But while en route to his starting point, his ship became trapped in the pack ice, where it remained frozen in place for months. Eventually, the heavy floes crushed the hull of the vessel, sending it to the bottom of the Weddell Sea on November 21, 1915.

Shackleton and the crew abandoned ship well before the Endurance sank, and then spent the next nine months surviving in the Antarctic. After living on an ice floe for weeks, they eventually sought refuge on the remote Elephant Island before the captain and a hand-picked team eventually made a desperate open-ocean crossing to reach South Georgia. In the end, all of the members of the crew survived the ordeal, creating a legendary story that continues to amaze more than a century later.

Because Shackleton and his crew kept accurate and detailed records, the location of the Endurance has been known since they were rescued. But despite efforts to locate the ship, no one has been able to actually find its final resting place. The Endurance22 team hopes to change that.

Ernest Shackleton's Ship
Photo Credit: Royal Geographic Society

Searching for Shackleton’s Ship

Maritime archaeologist Mensun Bound is the director of Exploration for the Endurance22 squad. In a recent interview with the BBC, he calls the Endurance “the greatest shipwreck hunt you can undertake.” For fans of the Shackleton story and of exploration history, it is difficult to argue with that sentiment. But, Mensun—who was born in the Falkland Islands not far from South Georgia—also knows that the search will not be easy.

Even in the 21st century, the Weddell Sea remains a foreboding place. The pack ice there still swirls with the ocean currents, surrounding ships that enter its icy waters. While the S.AAgulhas II—the ship carrying the Endurance22 team—is well equipped to handle those conditions, it can still be a treacherous voyage. Still, its modern equipment and ice-resistant hull will give Mensun and his squad a leg up on Shackleton’s men.

The S.AAgulhas II was also used in a 2019 expedition to search for Shackleton’s ship. That attempt came up empty when an expensive autonomous drone went missing in the sea. The submersible had been underwater for hours as the crew looked for signs of Endurance, but suddenly it lost contact and disappeared. The Endurance22 squad hopes to avoid that happening again. This time, the team will have helicopters to assist in the mission too, something that wasn’t available in 2019.

The Search Begins

The mission to find Endurance officially got underway a few days back when the Endurace22 expedition launched from Cape Town, South Africa. The ship is now en route to the Antarctic, where they’ll search an area roughly 8km by 15km (5 by 9.3 miles) in size. That may seem like a lot of ground to cover, but the crew will be working off the coordinates taken by Frank Worsley, who was the captain of the ship on Shackleton’s journey.

In addition to working from Worsley’s notes, the team also has the data collected from the 2019 expedition to assist in their search. They also bring two submersible drones with this them on this expedition, both of which will be tethered to the S.AAgulhas II via a fiber optic cable.

What remains unclear is what condition Shackleton’s ship will be in, if and when it is found. The floor of the Weddell Sea sits 3000 meters (9842 ft), which is well below the ice sheets that float on the surface above. That means the Endurance should have avoided further destruction from shifting floes and may be in relatively good condition. The icy waters off the frozen continent will also have helped to preserve it some.

If the ship is found, the Endurance22 team hopes to explore it in-depth and possibly even probe its interior. We’ll just have to wait to see if that happens and whether or not the ocean and weather conditions cooperate. You can follow the progress of the expedition on the Endurace22 website, where updates should be posted in the days ahead.

Kraig Becker