Shipwreck From Historic Shackleton Expedition Found After 107 Years

Lying 9,800 feet beneath Antarctic waters, Endurance is standing upright and in a “a brilliant state of preservation.”

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The stern of Endurance with its name and emblematic polestar.
The stern of Endurance with its name and emblematic polestar.
Photo: Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust/National Geographic

An international expedition has finally found the wreck of Endurance, a British ship that got hopelessly stuck in the dense ice pack and sank in Antarctica’s Weddell Sea in 1915.

The Endurance22 team announced the monumental discovery in a March 9 press release, saying the ship was found at a depth of 9,869 feet (3,008 meters) and 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) from the position originally recorded by the ship’s captain, Frank Worsley. Photos and video of Endurance show the ship in remarkably good condition, with its name clearly visible on the stern. The discovery marks an important archaeological achievement, as the ship hadn’t been seen in 107 years.

“The Endurance22 expedition has reached its goal,” John Shears, the mission leader, said in the release. “We have made polar history with the discovery of Endurance, and successfully completed the world’s most challenging shipwreck search.”

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The ship’s starboard bow.
The ship’s starboard bow.
Photo: Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust/National Geographic

Backed by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust, the expedition departed Cape Town, South Africa, in early February, its destination the general area in which Endurance was believed to have sunk. The crew of 65 is working aboard the polar research vessel S. A. Agulhas II and is accompanied by two robotic subs, ice drills, a helicopter, and other equipment. The Endurance22 mission is the first of several attempts to successfully locate the wreck, the most recent being in 2019.

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“We are overwhelmed by our good fortune in having located and captured images of Endurance,” said Mensun Bound, the director of exploration for the expedition. “This is by far the finest wooden shipwreck I have ever seen. It is upright, well proud of the seabed, intact, and in a brilliant state of preservation.”

The ship’s wheel is remarkably intact.
The ship’s wheel is remarkably intact.
Photo: Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust/National Geographic
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The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition set sail for Antarctica in late 1914. Led by Ernest Shackleton, the purpose of the mission was to perform the first land crossing of Antarctica. Endurance never made it to the Antarctic coast, however, having become stuck in the ice pack. The crew of 28 was forced to abandon ship and live in makeshift camps on the ice. Using lifeboats, the crew eventually made their way to uninhabited Elephant Island, from where Shackleton and five others sailed 800 miles (1,300 km) in an extraordinary open-boat journey. The small crew managed to reach a whaling station on South Georgia Island. A rescue expedition was mounted in September 1916 to recover the remaining crew on Elephant Island. Incredibly, all 28 crew members made it home alive.

Remotely operated subs spotted the wreck, which sits in the search area predefined by the team. Said Bound: “We pay tribute to the navigational skills of Captain Frank Worsley, the Captain of the Endurance, whose detailed records were invaluable in our quest to locate the wreck.”

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The state of the three-masted schooner was unknown going into the expedition. That it is well preserved and standing upright is a major bonus, allowing the team to study the wreck in great detail. Ann Coats, a British maritime historian and a senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth’s School of Civil Engineering and Surveying, said the ship’s high level of preservation is due to the dearth of wood-eating organisms in the South Atlantic environment.

“The Antarctic continent has had no trees for at least 30 million years, so there has been no food for wood borers,” Coats, who’s not involved with the expedition, explained to me in an email. “Deep cold water is also a barrier to the dispersal of any larvae.”

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I asked Coats if any new historical information will arise as a result of this discovery.

“Detailed examination of Endurance will reveal more about how the hull was constructed in 1912 and then modified for Shackleton’s 1914 expedition,” she replied. “The archaeological evidence of how the various parts of the ship are positioned on the seabed can be triangulated with documents and Frank Hurley’s photographs to build up a more nuanced story of its crushing by the ice.”

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Endurance is protected by an international Antarctic Treaty, so it cannot be disturbed. The Endurance22 team will strictly observe the ship from a distance and build a 3D model of the wreck. The expedition won’t stay in the area for much longer and will soon make its way back to Cape Town.