Quirks & Quarks

Searching for Endurance: Antarctic researchers hunt for the relics of Antarctic adventurers

British polar explorer Ernest Shackleton's ship, Endurance, which sank in the Antarctic in 1915, is the subject of an on-going search today

Researchers hope to find Shackleton's famous ship which sunk in 1915

'What the ice gets, the ice keeps'. Ernest Shackleton. Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton's ship The Endurance stuck in the ice of the Weddell Sea in 1915, shortly before it was crushed and sank. (Royal Geographical Society)

A team of scientists from the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge are currently on board an ice breaker in the Weddell Sea of Antarctica, one of the coldest, harshest and most remote regions in the world. The mission of the Weddell Expedition 2019, is two-fold.

First they will study the Larsen C ice shelf in an attempt to understand the implication of the massive chunk that broke off over a year ago.

Their second mission is to attempt to locate The Endurance, the lost ship of British polar explorer Ernest Shackleton. In 1915, The Endurance was trapped in the ice, abandoned and then sank.

The polar research vessel S.A. Agulhas II gives members of the Weddell Sea Expedition 2019 a close look at the Antarctic's Larsen C ice shelf (Weddell Sea Expedition 2019)

'What the ice gets, the ice keeps'. Ernest Shackleton

Shackleton was a British polar explorer who led three expeditions to Antarctica. In 1901 he was part of Captain Robert Scott's Discovery Expedition. Six years later he returned and came within 180 kilometres of the South Pole. His third trip was the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914 to 1917 — an attempt at the first land crossing of the continent.

The crew of Shackleton's ship The Endurance. (Royal Geographical Society)

But Shackleton's trek across the Antarctic was not to be. In early 1915, his ship, the Endurance became trapped in the dense pack ice of the Weddell Sea. The crew of 28 had no choice but to abandon the ship, and set up a makeshift camp on the ice. What happened next became famous as one of the most epic feats of survival in the history of Antarctic exploration.

Shackleton's second in command on The Endurance, Frank Wild, surveys the wreck not long before it disappeared below the ice. Royal Geographical Society

A heroic voyage

Shackleton's crew trekked to the edge of the ice then sailed in the ship's salvaged lifeboats to Elephant Island. There in a sheltered bay, they found  plenty of seals and penguins to eat, while camped under the upturned lifeboats. However, they soon realized that rescue from such a remote island was unlikely, so Shackleton, along with the ships's captain and a handful of others, set off for a whaling station on South Georgia island.

Antarctic search for Shackleton's Endurance. (Weddell Sea Expedition 2019)

But first came a journey of more than 700 nautical miles on the rough Southern Ocean to South Georgia, followed by traversing uncharted mountain and glaciers to reach the Norwegian whalers. Shackleton then had to make four attempts to return to Elephant island to rescue the rest of his crew. It became Shackleton's most heroic expedition.    

The search for The Endurance

In November of 1915, the Captain of Endurance noted the ship's coordinates as it sat trapped in the ice, so it's position was well established before it was crushed and sank to the bottom 3,000 metres down.  This careful record keeping is what is giving modern researchers hope that they might be able to find the ship.

The plan according to Charlotte Connelly, Curator of The Polar Museum at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, is to deploy autonomous robotic submarines to find the wreck.

Members of the Weddell Sea Expedition take time out from science and exploration to enjoy the vast Antarctic outdoors. (Weddell Sea Expedition 2019)

The researchers are optimistic, given the unusual ice free conditions and clear water at present. If the Endurance is found, it will be filmed and photographed, but nothing will be touched or removed. The goal is to register the wreck as a historical monument in order to ensure that it is protected.     

Ernest Shackleton sometime before 1909. (National Library of Norway, G.C. Beresford)


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