Explorers Plan New Mission to Locate the Wreck of the Endurance

The final moments of the Endurance, Nov. 21, 1915 (Frank Hurley / public domain)

Published Jan 7, 2022 2:58 PM by The Maritime Executive

Explorers are preparing an epic expedition in the Antarctic to find the wreck of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance, the ship that disappeared under the ice in the Weddell Sea in November 1915.

The Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust (FMHT) has announced that come February 5, a team of polar explorers will embark on another mission to locate the famous wreck. The expedition, dubbed Endurance22, comes one month after the 100th anniversary of Shackleton’s death on 5 January, 1922. The British Antarctic explorer led three expeditions to the frozen continent, playing a central role during a time that was in later years called the "Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration."

Endurance was one of two ships used by the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition of 1914–1917, which aimed to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic. In January 1915 the ship became trapped in the ice, stranding Shackleton and his 27-member crew.

After drifting around the Weddell Sea for 10 months, subject to the constant crushing pressure of the ice, the ship sank. Shackleton and his men then made their escape on foot and in lifeboats across the frozen wastes. Miraculously, all of them survived, making Shackleton a legend in the annals of leadership.

“After two years of meticulous planning for the new mission, I believe we have a great chance of finally finding the wreck deep under the ice of the Weddell Sea. If we do locate Endurance, it will be a fantastic moment,” said Dr John Shears, British polar explorer who will lead the expedition.

The Trust intends to sign a charter agreement with the South African government for the use of the South African research and supply ship SA Agulhas II, which will depart from Cape Town in early February to locate, survey and film the wreck. A team of 50 will be on board the SA Agulhas II to undertake the mission.

In 2019, another attempt to find the wreck ended in disappointment. The effort was abandoned due to encroaching sea-ice and loss of equipment, despite managing to reach the suspected wreck site. “The 2019 Weddell Sea Expedition came so close to finding Endurance and I’m confident that we have learnt the hard lessons from our past experience,” noted Dr Shears.

According to FMHT, finding where to search for the wreck of Endurance is not the problem because the ship’s captain, Frank Worsley, logged the position using a sextant and a theodolite. The main obstacle to getting to the site and locating the wreck is the ice. SA Agulhas II, her master and ice pilot showed their capability by reaching the site in 2019 despite warnings that one ship could not achieve that on its own.

In the latest expedition, the search team will use advanced underwater technology to locate the wreckage. Specially built hybrid autonomous underwater vehicles called Sabertooths have been fitted with high-definition cameras and side-scan imaging capability. Made in Sweden by SAAB and operated by the underwater search specialists Ocean Infinity, the Sabertooths can search and map huge patches of ocean floor to depths of up to 4,000 meters, sending the data to the surface in real time.

If the ship cannot get close to the wreck site, the expedition plans to create one or possibly two ice camps, where holes will be drilled through the sea ice and the Sabertooths lowered to try and locate, survey and film the wreck. The team will use the Sabertooths’ cameras and scanners to undertake a high-resolution digital survey of the wreck to find out what Shackleton’s team had to abandon in 1915, including a biology lab located below decks.