In Brief

What happened to Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance ship?

Scientists on the SA Agulhas II hope to find wreckage of the lost vessel within days

A British-led research team is hoping to find the wreckage of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance in the Antarctic by the end of this week. 

Headed by UK researcher Julian Dowdeswell, director of Cambridge University’s Scott Polar Research Institute, the international mission has been studying the Larsen C Ice Shelf, a floating platform of glacial ice, in the Weddell Sea.

The team have now launched a quest to find the lost ship, which sunk in the same waters more than a century ago.

What happened to the ship?

Born in Ireland to Anglo-Irish parents, Shackleton had gained great acclaim as a polar explorer when he set out to cross Antarctica via the South Pole on the 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

But he and his crew were forced to abandon their vessel, the Endurance, after it was crushed between enormous ice floes in January 1915. The ship remained trapped for ten months before finally sinking into the depths of the Weddell Sea, watched by Shackleton’s team, who had set up camp on the floating ice.

After taking to the seas once again in the ship's lifeboats, they finally managed to get to Elephant Island, off the southern tip of Cape Horn, in spring 1916. From there, Shackleton and five of his crew embarked on what is “widely regarded as the most remarkable boat journey of all time”, says Time magazine.

They navigated their way towards South Georgia and trekked 22 miles over unmapped, glacier-draped mountains to reach a whaling port, where they organised a rescue mission to recover the rest of the team.

All 28 men who sailed on the Endurance survived, but the ship remained at the bottom of the Weddell Sea, where it is believed to lie still, 3,000 metres (1.86 miles) below the waves.

Can it be found?

“Thick pack ice and extreme weather are among challenges faced by those who venture to the isolated and wild region, much as Shackleton faced more than a century ago,” says The Independent.

Dowdeswell’s group, which also includes researchers from universities in South Africa and New Zealand, will have to break their way through 75 miles of sea ice on the SA Agulhas II, adds The Guardian.

“We hope to achieve what we thought was impossible,” said Mensun Bound, director of exploration on the 2019 Weddell Sea expedition. “Although the odds of success were initially against us, the mood within the team is upbeat given the favourable ice and weather conditions, which we think will allow us to reach the search area.”

The Guardian says the Endurance’s final resting place is known with some precision, thanks to coordinates recorded by Shackleton’s skipper, but “what remains of the Endurance is unknown”.

What happens if it is found?

“If the expedition finds the wreck we will survey, photograph and film it and document its condition,” said Dowdeswell. “However, we will not remove any items from the wreck.”

Several other missions have attempted to find the Endurance, but this will be the first to use autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs).

“Because AUVs can free swim, it is not necessary for the vessel to be directly above the wreck location,” Dowdeswell added. “So long as we can get close enough to the location with the ship, we can deploy the AUVs under the ice and conduct the search.” 

The Endurance will be protected under international law and listed as a historic monument if the mission is successful, The Daily Telegraph reports.

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