Endurance22: Explorers on an icy expedition to find Shackleton’s ship

Endurance22: Explorers on an icy expedition to find Shackleton’s ship
The Endurance three-masted ship of Shackleton’s 1914-1915 Antarctic expedition trapped in pack ice. (Photo: Frank Hurley / Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust

Endurance22, a team of explorers, is setting sail in South Africa’s SA Agulhas II icebreaker on a mission to find Shackleton’s ship, trapped 3,000 metres below the surface in the dark and cold polar waters.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

In the ocean dark, 3km down in one of the most inhospitable places in the world, lies an artefact from the heroic age of Antarctic exploration.

Somewhere on the seabed beneath the ice floes of the Weddell Sea off Antarctica is the wreck of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance.

For more than 100 years the ship’s exact location has remained a mystery, but in a few months a new generation of explorers is hoping to finally find the wreck.  

The Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust announced on 5 July that it would be launching a second expedition to find, survey and film the Endurance. The expedition, called Endurance22, is planned for February 2022.

Integral to the expedition will be South Africa’s own icebreaker and research vessel, the SA Agulhas II, which will sail from Cape Town. The launch of the expedition co­incides nearly a month to the day with Shackleton’s death, a century earlier.    

Dr John Shears beside the SA Agulhas II on the Weddell Sea expedition in 2019. (Photo: Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust

“There is a mood of optimism among the Endurance22 team that we can find, survey and film the wreck because we will have a fantastic vessel in SA Agulhas II, an outstanding and experienced crew, and we will be using the cutting-edge technology of the SAAB Sabertooths. There has never been as good an opportunity to locate Endurance,” expedition leader Dr John Shears said in a statement.

The SAAB Sabertooths that Shears is talking about are remote-operation vehicles that can work autonomously or on a tether. They will travel 3,000m down and scour the ocean floor for the wreck. Once they have found it they will send back photographs of the wreck to their mothership, the SA Agulhas II.

The organisers are hoping that the Sabertooths will work better than the other remote-operation vehicle (ROV) that was used during the first expedition to find Endurance in 2019. That expedition had to be called off when a ROV was lost beneath the ice.  

If they do find the wreck this time, the search will be non-intrusive; the Sabertooths will not be allowed to enter the ship or take any artefacts. The reason for this is that the wreck is protected as a Historic Site and Monument under the Antarctic Treaty.  

Sabertooths with state-of-the-art cameras will be used to survey the Endurance wreck. (Photo: Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust

“Attempting to locate the wreck of Endurance, something long thought impossible and out of reach, is an immensely exciting prospect. Given the harshness of the Antarctic environment, there are no guarantees of success,” Mensun Bound, Endurance22’s director of exploration, said in a statement.

The explorers hope the discovery of the ship, which sank in November 1915, might provide some answers about Shackleton’s epic expedition, which planned to traverse the Antarctic continent from west to east.

Glimpses of the ship will reveal whether its hull, built especially to survive pack ice, is still intact, and also whether marine organisms are consuming the hull. Perhaps a Sabretooth might find some of those glass photographic plates that Shackleton’s photographer, Frank Hurley, was forced to abandon.  

South African tour guide Rob Caskie has grown to admire Shackleton, who for a long time was overshadowed by Robert Scott, the tragic polar explorer who was beaten in the race to the South Pole and later died on the Ross Ice Sheet on his journey back. The two men disliked each other.

“Shackleton was always a man, unlike Scott, who had real empathy for his men and this because he had spent time in the merchant navy, rather than the Royal Navy. He didn’t have that same dictatorial hierarchical means of leadership. He was one of the boys,” says Caskie, who has visited the Weddell Sea and led tours to Antarctica.

A file photo of the Endurance trapped in pack ice. (Photo: Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust

The Endurance sank into the Weddell Sea in 1915. (Photo: Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust

Shackleton had watched from the sidelines as Scott and Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen raced for the South Pole. After it came clear that the South Pole had been conquered, he wondered what was next.

“Shackleton decided the next great geographic prize would be a trip across Antarctica, from west to east via the South Pole. And out of that was born the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition,” says Caskie.

For this expedition Shackleton bought the Norwegian-built barquentine, Endurance. To strengthen her hull so she could sail through ice floes, the shipbuilders used planks of oak and Norwegian fir – some of which were three-quarters of a metre thick.

But it was not enough.  

Explorer Richard Garriott will be joining the Endurance22 expedition. (Photo: Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust

On Valentine’s Day 1915, the Endurance became trapped in ice as she headed for Vahsel Bay on the Antarctic coast. For months the explorers hoped that they could break through the ice, but it wasn’t to be.

On 24 October, Shackleton ordered his men to move boats and essential equipment from the ship onto the surrounding ice, when it was realised that pressure from the ice had seriously damaged the Endurance.

On 21 November, the Endurance sank. What was to follow was one of the great rescue missions of the heroic age. For months Shackleton’s men camped on the ice; as conditions warmed, they used their three lifeboats to reach Elephant Island, 557km from where the Endurance is believed to have sunk.

Elephant Island was too remote and far from shipping lanes, so an attempt was made to reach South Georgia, where there was a whaling station. Shackleton and five men survived the open-boat journey of 1,200km through stormy polar seas. On reaching South Georgia, they were forced to cover 50km over mountainous terrain to the other side of the island, where there was a whaling station and help.

On 30 August 1916, the British whaler Southern Sky reached Elephant Island and rescued the remaining men.

Shackleton would not survive long after this heroic expedition. In 1922, he died of a heart attack on South Georgia, while on an expedition in which he planned to circumnavigate the Antarctic continent.

The Endurance being photographed in 1915. (Photo: Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust

For many decades, Shackleton’s feats were largely forgotten by the public until an unlikely discovery put him in the news again.  In 2007, a case of whisky entombed in ice was discovered at a base in the Antarctic that Shackleton had built during one of his earlier expeditions in 1907.

Caskie believes the whisky was meant to be drunk when Shackleton returned triumphant from the South Pole. He didn’t, and it appears it was forgotten. The blended whisky was no longer available and there were no records of what whiskies were used in its making.

Fortunately, after tasting the whisky, a master distiller was able to replicate it. It is now commercially available, with a portion of the proceeds going to the New Zealand Heritage Trust.

Since then there have been other alcoholic ventures that have used the Shackleton name. In Cape Town a microbrewery makes a limited edition beer called the Shackleton Ice Breaker, which uses melted ice cores from the Antarctic in the brewing process.

The discovery of the Endurance is likely to reintroduce Shackleton’s remarkable achievements to a new generation, but Caskie believes that his ship should be left to its watery grave.

“I feel that it’s almost sacrilegious to be trying to see what condition it is in now, whether it is in one piece or many pieces. They are not retrieving artefacts and there is nothing of value on the ship. So we should leave the Endurance in peace.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Pierre Malan says:


    I am sure that Captain Pardo, captain of the Chilean navy tug Yelcho, would be very surprised to hear that “On 30 August 1916, the British whaler Southern Sky reached Elephant Island and rescued the remaining men.” It was the Yelcho that finally got through and rescued Shackleton’s men from Point Wilde. There is a bust of Pardo at the place where their boat landed.

    I wish the expedition the best of luck in finding the Endurance. It would be a truly great feat.

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