In January 1915, polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, got stuck in the ice of Antarctica. What happened next has become legend: Shackleton and his crew watched their ship slowly sink, survived a year and a half stranded on the ice, and finally secured their own rescue with an 800-mile voyage in a canoe from open rescue. All members of the 28-man team survived.
Now, 106 years later, the wreck has been found, in remarkable condition, at a depth of almost 10,000 feet in the Weddell Sea. A Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust expedition team led by polar geographer John Shears located the wreck using an autonomous underwater vehicle on March 5, after a month at sea. They announced the discovery to the world four days later.
The mission to locate Endurance had other goals, focused on environmental dynamics and scientific research that Shackleton and his men probably never could have imagined a century ago. The crew spent nearly six weeks off the coast of Antarctica aboard the South African icebreaker polar research vessel Needles IIduring which scientists and researchers conducted studies on a wide range of topics, including maritime navigation and how climate change has affected ice levels around Antarctica.
“Many of these properties of snow and ice that we are measuring here are necessary to learn more about the structure of ice and snow in the Weddell Sea,” says Lasse Rabenstein, chief scientist of the expedition. . “It’s complicated and special, more complicated than other parts of Antarctica or the Arctic.”
Researchers often assess ice thickness in specific areas of Antarctica via satellite imagery, but as Rabenstein said Outsideat some point, scientists must study the ice and water on site.
Not all the researchers aboard the ship studied. Rabenstein, a geophysicist, recently founded his own company, called Drift and Noise, which specializes in navigating frozen seas. At a 24-hour ice information office aboard the ship, Rabenstein and his crew maintained up-to-date satellite imagery and ice drift forecasts for the crew and underwater team to help them navigate in dark and whiteout conditions. The information they provided helped in the search for the lost ship. He also advanced Rabenstein’s research on ice navigation.
“With my company, we write navigation software for ice research vessels. I learned a lot about what is needed in software to navigate safely, so for me that was the most important goal: to apply our own tools and learn how we can improve them,” says Rabenstein.
Meanwhile, engineering scientists used sensors to learn more about how the Needles II reacted to ice pressure to optimize the safety and stability of future polar ships, Rabenstein explained. Representatives of the South African Meteorological Service deployed weather balloons and scanned the water column, collecting data that was shared with a global research community.
In total, the expedition team was made up of 63 people from various backgrounds and areas of expertise: engineers, geophysicists, doctors, statisticians, scientists, polar field guides, oceanographers, etc.
For a group of individuals whose highly specialized work often takes them to faraway places, the opportunity to be part of the legendary explorer’s story was significant. Nico Vincent, head of the underwater team, said that although the team failed to locate Endurancethe expedition would have yielded interesting results.
“Secondary objectives were also successfully achieved: ice science, weather forecasting, marine engineering research, children’s education and media support,” says Vincent.
Of course, locate Endurance was the main task of the team, Vincent pointed out, and the 63 members of the expedition contributed in one way or another to the search for the lost ship.
the Needles II was equipped with two helicopters, all the equipment needed to set up an ice camp, and plenty of scientific research equipment, including two autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) that did the heavy lifting of wreck hunting.
While many have dreamed of finding Endurance, this is only the second expedition mounted to try to find the wreckage. In 2019, a crew of many of the same individuals boarded an AUV-equipped icebreaker to scan the seabed, but the expedition lost the vehicle in drifting ice. This time around, the group also brought a strong team of physicists and sea ice researchers to help the AUV navigate the ice.
“The Weddell Sea is probably the toughest ocean to navigate in the world,” says Rabenstein. “The goal was to help the ship as much as possible with information so that we could travel smoothly and intelligently through the ice.”
The underwater team completed around 30 dives with the main AUV before locating the wreckage, watching from a computer screen as the AUV scanned the ocean floor for four to eight hours at a stretch . Vincent made sure they were prepared for any eventuality: they brought 50 tons of equipment with them, including three winches, over 40 miles of fiber optic tether for the AUV, homemade ice augers capable to drill ice up to 16 feet deep, and more. . Staff tested the equipment for six months before shipping.
Vincent explained that operating an AUV in these conditions is extremely difficult, requiring high-tech equipment and a strong, experienced crew. “Getting under the drifting ice is harder than landing on the moon in 1969,” he says.
For many members of the expedition team, this was a once-in-a-lifetime mission. “I’ve never had an expedition where we really had a research and discovery target,” Rabenstein says. “Either we succeed completely in finding the wreckage, or we fail. Usually when you do science there’s a goal, but it’s more open-ended, not a pass or fail goal.
After locating the wreckage, the crew traveled to Shackleton’s grave in Grytviken, South Georgia to pay their respects.
The explorer died of a suspected heart attack in 1922 while pursuing another Antarctic expedition.
“Shackleton is probably more important to me than to the average person in society,” says Rabenstein. “He never gave up, but he didn’t push things to the limit either – all his people he took on his expeditions, all of them survived. Other polar explorers didn’t have as much success at that. He was a real hero if you look at how he handled failure.
the SA Agulhas II should make landfall on March 19.