One of the most famous ships in polar history has been found at the bottom of the Weddell Sea off Antarctica, more than a century after it sank. The name is still clearly visible on the stern: Endurance. The sailing ship, with which the British-Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton set out on his penultimate South Pole expedition, has been traced at a depth of more than 3,000 meters by the international research team Endurance22 – and extensively filmed. An earlier attempt to locate the wreck, in 2019, failed.
The rudder, the portholes, even some crockery – everything turns out to be in exceptionally good condition. One of the crew on the Endurance22 expedition, British historian Dan Snow, wrote on Twitter: “The seabed around Antarctica has no wood-eating microorganisms, and the water has the clarity of distilled water. We were able to film the wreck in extremely high resolution. The result is magical.”
The name of Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874-1922) is often mentioned in the same breath as that of two other great nineteenth-century polar heroes: the British Robert Falcon Scott and the Norwegian Roald Amundsen. Shackleton first came to Antarctica with Scott during his Discovery Expedition from 1901 to 1903. But Shackleton contracted scurvy, and had to be pulled on a sled. To restore his name, he planned a new expedition on his own and sailed to Antarctica in 1907 with the ship Nimrod. His goal was to reach the geographic South Pole, but he had to turn around just 180 kilometers away due to a shortage of time and food. It would be Amundsen and Scott who reached the South Pole in 1911 and 1912 respectively.
Shackleton didn’t give up, and planned a third trip to Antarctica, this time crossing the entire continent. Thus, in 1914, he bought the Barkentine Endurance – a 44-metre sailing ship with three masts, made of oak and Norwegian spruce. Shackleton bought it for £11,600. He renamed the ship Endurance, a reference to his family’s motto, Fortitudine vincimus (“By endurance we conquer”).
On August 6, 1914, the Endurance set out from Plymouth, England – initially without Shackleton, who was still raising funds for his journey. He arrived in Buenos Aires by steamboat in October and joined the rest of his expedition team. The sailing ship set course for Antarctica, but got stuck there in the pack ice in early 1915.
Although the Endurance held out for a long time, the ship was damaged so badly that Shackleton and his crew disembarked for good in late October 1915. In November of that year, the Endurance sank. The coordinates of the wreck were noted in the ship’s logbook: 68°39′30′′S 52°26′30′′WL.
The Endurance22 team also arrived at that location, east of the Antarctic Peninsula, in mid-February. The expedition was set up by The Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust as a tribute to Shackleton. He had succumbed to heart failure during his very last South Pole voyage, which had taken him to circumnavigate the entire continent of Antarctica.
His crew wanted to return him to Britain, but Shackleton’s widow insisted that he remain in the Arctic. He was buried on the island of South Georgia on March 5, 1922.
Exactly a century later, Saturday, March 5, 2022, the Endurance22 team found the shipwreck at a depth of 3,008 meters in the Weddell Sea, about 7.5 kilometers southwest of the coordinates recorded in 1915. Because the wreck is considered a monument under the Antarctic Treaty, it may not be lifted. For that reason it has not been touched by the submarines with which the film recordings and scans were made.
“Shackleton would have been very happy that his story has continued with this,” says Dutch historian Adwin de Kluyver, author of several books about past polar expeditions. “He was a storyteller, a businessman in a sense, trying to sell himself and his expeditions as best he could. It was also a beautiful story with which he returned after the Endurance expedition. Although the Antarctica traverse had failed, he had managed to get the entire 28-man crew home safely. Unfortunately, they came home while the First World War was raging, and many on board had to go straight to the front.”
Shackleton and his crew were forgotten. De Kluyver: „It was not until the 1970s that rehabilitation was made. And since then, his name has even popped up in management books, as an example of how to take good care of your team and keep the mood in it.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of March 10, 2022