Search for Ernest Shackleton’s lost expedition ship The Endurance in Antarctica

The Endurance (photo: Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust)
The Endurance (photo: Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust)

History journalist Andrew Southam considers mission to find famous explorer’s missing vessel, crushed by ice while watched by crew as it sank into the ocean.

‘Not a life lost and we have been through hell’.

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Renowned explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton described his world-famous rescue mission to his wife 100 years ago.

His leadership kept 27 men alive through two years of hardship and danger in a failed expedition to cross the South Pole between 1914 and 1917.

Tragedy

Early in 1915 an ice floe trapped his ship, Endurance, in the Weddell Sea before reaching Antarctica.

The Endurance (photo: Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust)

After ten months living on this ‘winter station’, Sir Ernest camped his crew on the ice where they watched the vessel sink.

Epic voyage

Two months later they dragged three life boats to the sea and sailed 350 miles over five days to uninhabited Elephant Island. Here the crew built a make-shift camp using upturned boats and lived on penguins and seals.

With no prospect of rescue and 1916 now moving to spring, Sir Ernest decided to reach a South Georgia Island whaling station another 800 miles away.

Setting out in April, he and four men sailed for two weeks through the perilous Southern Ocean.

A hurricane made them change direction just when they saw distant lights – this same storm sank a 500-foot steamer travelling to South Georgia.

Grim determination

Sir Ernest decided to walk the remaining distance when landing on the southern shore.

He and two others tapped nails into their boots to make climbing shoes and headed out with only 50 feet of rope and a cutting tool.

They trudged 32 miles across an uncharted mountain range for a day and a half reaching Stromness Bay whaling station on May 20. The world had presumed them dead.

Rescue

He swiftly sent a boat to rescue his two men from South Georgia and organised the rescue of his crew from Elephant Island.

Ice foiled three attempts until he finally reached them in late August. All were alive.

He then helped rescue his other crew, the Ross Sea Party, laying supplies on the far side of Antarctica.

These suffered their own hardships, three dying on land and becoming adrift before reaching New Zealand stranded without money.

Sir Ernest died 100 years ago this January.

Marking centenary

To mark this centenary, the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust plans to find Endurance 3,500 metres down in the Weddell sea.

Experienced marine archaeologists, scientists and engineers aboard one of the world’s largest polar research vessels, SA Agulhas II, expect to find the wreck in a month.

Aerial shot of SA Agulhas II (photo: Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust)

Aiding them are the captain’s log book recording where the ship went down and two underwater vehicles which travel for 100 miles taking videos and photos.

Endurance22 preparatory expedition (photo: Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust)

Grim history repeating

Leaving Cape Town on February 5, history came eerily close to repeating itself last week when the expedition itself became stuck in ice.

Among the crew is historian and broadcaster Dan Snow who says that “the hunt for Shackleton’s wreck will be the biggest story in the world of history in 2022 … We are going to tell the story of Shackleton and this expedition to find his lost ship like never before. It’s a dream come true.”

SAAB Sabertooth underwater search vehicle (photo: Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust)

Restless Anglo-Irishman Sir Ernest grew up in London where his family moved from Kildare when he was six.After a boring school life, he served a merchant navy apprenticeship working up to master mariner.

He cut his teeth on Captain Robert Scott’s early Antarctic expedition before accomplishing his own records including travelling farthest south on the white continent.

Knighthood

These exploits produced a knighthood and influence to launch his ill-fated expedition.

Norwegian Roald Amundsen had already reached the South Pole in 1911 and Captain Scott died trying a year later, so Sir Ernest instead decided to make the first Antarctic crossing.

Thousands applied for the expedition which he whittled down to two crews of 28 men.

Books and films portraying the journey include 2002 television film, Shackleton, starring Sir Kenneth Branagh.

Debt

Reputation didn’t solve Sir Ernest’s perennial debts made worse by unsuccessful business ventures or help a worsening heart problem aggravated by drinking.

Nonetheless he still helped the First World War effort when returning to Britain.

Age and health ruled out a fighting role, so the Government used him in South America, Norway and then in Russia against the Bolsheviks – earning him a mention in dispatches.

Sir Ernest planned another Antarctic expedition in 1919. Many of his original crew signed up despite some not yet receiving their full pre-war expedition pay.

Premature death

Tragedy struck. On the morning of January 5 1922 he suffered a fatal heart failure in South Georgia aged 47.His wife Emily had him buried in a small grave at the whaling station of Grytviken.

Despite never reaching the pole, Sir Ernest Shackleton bequeathed a legacy of leadership and courage besides expedition firsts. His common touch created a bond with his men who knew him as ‘Boss’.

When Endurance expedition photographer lost his mittens, Sir Ernest handed over his own suffering frostbite in consequence.

Full expedition details can be found at Endurance22 – The Hunt For Shackleton’s Lost Ice Ship and on Dan

Snow’s History Hit History Hit, Little Dot search for Shackleton’s Endurance – Televisual. Shackleton’s first ship RRS Discovery can be visited in Dundee.