New Antarctic Expedition Aims to Locate Endurance—Ernest Shackleton’s Lost Ship

Endurance, which sank in the Weddell sea after being tapped and then crushed by ice, hasn’t been seen in over 100 years.

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Endurance stuck in the ice.
Endurance stuck in the ice.
Photo: State Library of NSW/NSW Government

An expedition departing for Antarctica this coming weekend is seeking to uncover the lost ship of famed British explorer Ernest Shackleton. The crew will attempt to succeed where so many others have failed.

The South African polar research and logistics vessel Agulhas II is ready to depart from Cape Town in an attempt to make marine archaeology history. On board are 65 members of the Endurance22 team, who, with a pair of robotic subs, ice drills, a helicopter, and other equipment, are hoping to find Endurance. Agulhas II will head to the exact spot in the Weddell Sea where the three-masted schooner met its fate in 1915 and from where its crew of 28 began its epic journey of survival.

“By uncovering vital new sub-sea data, the expedition hopes to improve our understanding of the Endurance, the sea ice in the Weddell Sea, and to use that knowledge to contribute towards the protection of the wreck,” the Endurance22 team declared at its website.

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Indeed, in addition to ticking off one of the most overdue items on the marine archaeology to-do list, the discovery of Endurance could shed new light on both the ship and the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which set sail for Antarctica in late 1914. Several attempts have been made over the years to find the elusive ship, the most recent occurring in 2019, but none have succeeded.

Endurance just prior to plunging through the Antarctic ice in November 1915.
Endurance just prior to plunging through the Antarctic ice in November 1915.
Photo: Royal Grographic Society (Fair Use)
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A central goal of the Endurance Expedition was to perform the first ground crossing of Antarctica, in which a team would hike from the Weddell Sea to the South Pole and then to the Ross Sea on the other side. The expedition never got that far, however, as Endurance got hopelessly stuck in dense pack ice in early 1915. The crew of 28 was forced to abandon ship and establish a rudimentary camp on the flowing ice. The ship eventually plunged through, falling to the seafloor on November 21, 1915. The crew drifted on the ice until April 1916 and eventually made their way to Elephant Island. Using a lifeboat, a small party that included Shackelton ventured to South Georgia Island in search of help, resulting in the rescue of the entire crew in September 1916.

On that fateful day when the Endurance sank, the ship’s captain, Frank Worsley, used a sextant to document the exact spot, which he listed at 68°39'30.0" South and 52°26'30.0" West. The Endurance22 team will head to these coordinates and explore the seafloor across an area measuring 5 miles by 9 miles (8 km by 15 km). Here, the water is roughly 2.17 miles (3.5 km) deep.

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Geographer John Shears is leading the expedition, which consists of marine archaeologists, engineers, technicians, and sea-ice scientists. The team will spend 35 days in search of Endurance, which they will do using a pair of Saab Sabertooth underwater vehicles. The Sabertoorths are capable of reaching sites 100 miles (160 km) from the research vessel, collecting photos, video, and survey data. Should the sea ice prove to be too challenging for the ship, the Sabertoths will still be able to survey the wreck (should it be found), even if Agulhas II can’t reach the exact spot. The helicopter will be used to drop a team to a specific location, from where they’ll drill down to the ocean and deploy the subs.

“The Sabertooth is fitted with long-range side-scan sonar which supplies images of the seabed to you on the topside [on the surface], either on board the ship or in the tent of the ice camp,” Nico Vincent, the expedition sub-sea manager, told the BBC. “If a target appears beside the vehicle, we can, at the flick of a switch, interrupt the task plan and fly like a drone to the target to double-check it.”

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The current state of Endurance remains an open question. Portions of the ship might still be standing up, or it could be a scattered, shattered mess. Or maybe something in between. Regardless, it’ll be a fascinating—and goosebump-inducing—sight, should the ship finally be discovered. The ship contained some potential items of interest, such as a bicycle, jars filled with samples, and rocks pulled from the stomachs of penguins, as the BBC points out.

Importantly, no artifacts will be recovered. As the ship is of historical importance, Endurance is protected under an international Antarctic Treaty. Instead, the team plans to create detailed 3D images of the wreck.

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More: Here’s What Protects Shipwrecks From Looters and Hacks.