Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance Found in Antarctica

More than a century after it slipped beneath the icy depths of the Antarctic waters, Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance has been found.

The legendary ship was located by the Endurance22 expedition, which set off from South Africa for the Weddle Sea a month ago. The team used high-tech underwater drones and sophisticated sonar to locate the vessel, which now sits 3008 meters (9868 feet) beneath the ocean. Despite its age—and the circumstances surrounding its sinking—it is remarkably well preserved, giving us an amazing glimpse of a bygone era.

Ernest Shackleton's Endurance
Photo Credit: Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust/James Blake/NatGeo

Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition

By now, most regular readers of The Adventure Blog already know the story of Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance. A veteran polar explorer, Shackleton, and his men set off from London in August of 1914 with the goal of becoming the first team to cross the Antarctic continent. But when they arrived in the Weddle Sea, they discovered the ocean covered in thick ice that quickly surrounded and trapped the ship. After weeks of being frozen in place, the tremendous pressure of the ice floes cracked the hull, and on November 21, 1915 the Endurance sank at long last.

Before the ship was completely lost, the crew abandoned the vessel and set up camp on the surrounding ice floes. Knowing they couldn’t stay there forever, however, the men loaded up the lifeboats and made a perilous crossing of the Southern Ocean to reach a desolate place called Elephant Island. From there, Shackleton and a handpicked team made another crossing to reach South Georgia Island, where they trekked across mountains and frozen lakes in search of help from an active whaling station.

It took several more months for Shackleton to return to Elephant Island aboard an ice breaker, but eventually, he was able to retrieve his remaining men. The rescue took place on August 30, 1916—two years after they had left London. The crew had spent more than 18 months stranded in the Antarctic under the harshest conditions imaginable and yet there was not a single man perished, making the tale of the Endurance and her crew one of the greatest survival stories ever told.

Shackleton's Lost Ship

Finding Endurance

Over the past few years, there have been a couple of attempts to locate Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance. The most high-profile of those efforts came in 2019, although that expedition came to an abrupt end when it lost an underwater drone while attempting to find the ship. The COVID pandemic delayed plans to return sooner, but the Endurance22 team includes some members of the 2019 crew. Most notably, Mensun Bound, a maritime archaeologist who has been looking for the lost vessel for quite some time.

Bound has been spearheading the search for Endurance for years. He and his team had a good idea of where to start thanks to the meticulous records and navigational skills of the ship’s captain—Frank Worsley. An incredibly skilled navigator, Worsley recorded the exact location of where Endurance sank. Despite having those coordinates, however, there were still challenges and obstacles to overcome. Most notably were the icy waters and great depth found in the Weddle Sea. The wreckage could have also shifted with moving currents, creating a vast area to explore.

In the end, though, the Endurance22 team was successful, discovering the remains of the ship on March 5. That was scheduled to be their final day in the Weddle Sea, as the crew was preparing to leave the following day. March 5 also marked the 100th anniversary of Shackleton’s funeral, which took place on South Georgia where he remains buried today. The team is currently en route to that place to pay their respects to the explorer.

Amazingly Well Preserved

The Endurance22 team has shared a few incredible images of their find, which show the ship in remarkable condition after 107 years beneath the sea. The cold waters of the Southern Ocean—along with a complete lack of microorganisms that could attack the wooden hull—have left Endurance in amazing shape.

“The discovery of the wreck is an incredible achievement,” expedition leader Dr John Shears told the BBC. “We have successfully completed the world’s most difficult shipwreck search, battling constantly shifting sea-ice, blizzards, and temperatures dropping down to -18C. We have achieved what many people said was impossible.”

“Without any exaggeration this is the finest wooden shipwreck I have ever seen – by far,” Bound added. “It is upright, well proud of the seabed, intact, and in a brilliant state of preservation.”

The underwater drones were able to capture fantastic imagery of the ship, including its name still emblazoned across the rear of the hull. While its mast and rigging are down and entangled, the hull remains in much the same shape that it was when photographed by Frank Hurley back in 1915. Footage of the vessel reportedly shows items left behind by the crew still in place. Future expeditions could return to the site for further excavation and discovery, which will be made easier now that its location is known.

For those of us who are fans of Shackleton and the Endurance story, this is an exciting discovery. It brings another chapter to this amazing story, which continues to enthrall and teach a new generation of explorers and adventurers to this day. Having personally been to South Georgia, I can attest to how the shadow of Shackleton still looms over that wonderful place. I look forward to hearing more about this exciting find in the days ahead.

Kraig Becker