Search for Shackleton's Endurance


Steve Smith

An expedition is to be mounted in an attempt to locate and film Endurance under the ice off Antarctica. The belief is that the ship and artifacts should have been well preserved because of the low water temperature.
A rival bid - led by David Mearns, who found HMS Hood - is apparently looking at raising the ship

Tom Pappas

Is it possible for searchers to steam back and forth towing magnetometers in the time-honored fashion? The pictures I have of that site seem to show a lot of ice year-round. The celestial fix left by Worsley is probably only good for a mile or two, since they chose not to use GPS, so a lot of icebreaking would be involved.
David G. Brown

David G. Brown

Tom -- Frank Worsley was an unsually talented navigator. He not only hit South Georgian Island "dead nuts" in the middle, but then he took the rescue ship back to the rest of the crew on Elephant Island. If anyone could have pinpointed the spot where Endurance vanished, it would have been that man.

I'm not surprised Worsley did not use the GPS of his day. Those coal-fired units were notorious for giving back azimuths.

--David G. Brown

Tom Pappas

Well, I did say "a mile or two," and that's within the parameters of your colorful rubric.

By the way, I think the voyage of James Caird is one of the most extraordinary maritime feats of all time. What a shame that A&E only gave it only five minutes of screen time.
David G. Brown

David G. Brown

Shackleton as leader of the expedition gets deserved credit for bringing back his whole crew after a catastrophic shipwreck. After all, they were at the "other end" of the world without radio or other means of long-distance communictions. Shackleton kept the group focused on survival--which they did.

Frank Worsley is the "best kept secret" of the sea. His navigtion in the James Caird was a quatum leap beyond anything any one else had done to that time--or probably ever will do again. He had only one chance to make South Georgian Island in a boat not as big as the average yacht today. He put them right on the island despite horrible conditions which included his navigation tables turning to paper mache.

Three of the men from the Caird then walked across South Georgian, a feat not believed possible by men not equipped for mountain climbing. In his book, "Shackleton's Boat Journey" (W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0-393-30376-4), Worsley described that terrible journey in detail. The men involved in the cross-island trek were Worsley, Shackleton, and Crean. Afterward, the navigator wrote:

"...Sir Ernest and I, comparing notes, found that we each had a strange feeling there had been a fourth in our party, and Crean afterwards confessed the same thing."

Of course, there had been no fourth man, at least not one of the Endurance crew. But, all three remembered a strong arm helping them down the mountains. At the time the trio was tired beyond human endurance, cold, and hungry. Halucinations are not unusual under those conditions, but for three people to have a shared halucination...???

Make of it what you will. One thing certain, if they ever build a hall of fame for navigators, Worsley's statue will be in the front lobby.

-- David G. Brown

Tom Pappas

Point taken. But very little footage of seabirds nesting is more than enough for me. I thought the sight of Hurley clinging to the topgallant yard with a 40-pound cine camera was worth the price of admission, though.
Inger Sheil

Inger Sheil

As all Shacks officiandoes know, the fourth man that Shackleton, Crean and Worsley all had an impression of became the inspiration for the following passage from T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
- But who is that on the other side of you?

Worsley was perhaps not at his best as a leader of men, and he perhaps became a bit colourful in some of his taller yarns, but as a navigator he was without doubt superb. Might have a fiddle later and try to upload some photos I took of the James Caird in January - Fiona and I hauled along a crew of family and friends to an exhibition in Sydney, the centrepiece of which was this small craft.

My father worked with Frank Hurley's daughter in his early career as a newspaperman (chief of staff and photographic editor). Jemma might have something to say on Hurley as well, as his expedition with Mawson, pre-dating the Shackleton pan-Antarctic attempt, is of particular interest to us. I know I've enjoyed his words on Ninnis, a figure that Jemma is currently doing some ground-breaking research on here in the UK with unpublished personal and official documents. One of the most intriguing things she's uncovered is Belgrave Ninnis' extraordinary friendship with Shackleton (even Huntford's comprehensive Shacks biography only makes a passing reference to Belgrave Ninnis , and none at all to his relationship with Sir Ernest). It will be remembered that Belgrave's cousin accompanied Shackleton in 1914.


An exciting bit of news.

A new search will soon get underway to try and locate Sir Ernest Shackleton's legendary ship. This will be big news if they do indeed find her - or rather if the Antarctic ice lets them find her !

It is one of the most unreachable shipwrecks in the world.

We know with good accuracy where Sir Ernest Shackleton's Endurance vessel ended up after sinking more than 100 years ago. So far, however, all attempts to sight its wooden carcass on the Antarctic seafloor have been defeated.

Although it's deep, some 3,000m down, that's not the major difficulty a new expedition to find the ship will face. It's the sea-ice. The cruel, evil sea-ice, as the Anglo-Irish explorer Shackleton came to think of it.

The frozen floes that squeezed, snapped and then swallowed his polar steam yacht in the Weddell Sea between October and November 1915 smother its grave and protect it from discovery.

Even in this age of satellites and metal icebreakers, locating the Endurance has represented an impossible task.

"Believe me, it's quite daunting," says Mensun Bound, the marine archaeologist who's about to set out on yet another search attempt.

"The pack ice in the Weddell Sea is constantly on the move in a clockwise direction. It's opening, it's clenching and unclenching. It's a really vicious, lethal environment that we're going into."

So, why bother? Why put yourself forward again for what seems inevitable disappointment?

Well, that's the fascination with Shackleton.

Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition lasted from 1914 to 1917. It was meant to make the first land crossing of Antarctica, but Endurance became trapped and then lost in that cruel sea-ice. The voyage became widely known for the amazing escape the explorer subsequently made with his men on foot and in boats.

It's the stuff of legend. That's the appeal.

Mensun Bound asks: "What would it mean to find the Endurance?"

He adds: "This is the greatest shipwreck hunt you can undertake. To locate it - it doesn't get better than that. So, by definition, my life would be downhill afterwards."

The archaeologist is part of the Endurance22 project. Its hunt for Shackleton's missing ship is organised by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust, and departs from Cape Town this weekend.

Search team members include key figures who came tantalisingly close to finding the wreck in 2019.

Operating from the South African-registered research ship, the Agulhas II, this earlier effort actually managed to get over the sinking location, recorded by Shackleton's skipper and skilled navigator, Frank Worsley, as 68°39'30.0" South and 52°26'30.0" West.

Once on site during this previous expedition, they deployed an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to survey the seafloor, but after 20 hours below, the robot dropped communications and that wretched sea-ice then closed in to force the Agulhas II to retreat.

Endurance22 expedition leader, Dr John Shears, says important lessons were learned and the new team goes back with a few tricks, which include the support of helicopters.

"We'll deploy our search submersible from the aft deck of the Agulhas. But we wanted to have the contingency that if we hit really severe ice conditions and we can't get over the wreck site, then we can fly an 'ice camp' to the search location," the veteran polar geographer tells me.

"We'd put down on the ice and drill through it, and deploy our underwater vehicle that way."

The team has recently been practising its hydraulic drilling technique on specially prepared 3m-thick "ice cubes".

The sub technology is different this time, too.

In 2019, a Kongsberg Hugin AUV was used. When it ran its sweep of the seafloor, no data on what it was sensing was sent to the surface in real time. As a consequence, when the sub failed, all the mapping information it had collected was also lost.

For this latest search, the chosen submersible - a Saab Sabertooth - will be tethered via a fibre-optic cable. If the wreck is sighted, the survey will be halted and the process of documentation will immediately begin.

"The Sabertooth is fitted with long-range side-scan sonar which supplies images of the seabed to you on the topside (on the surface), either on board the ship or in the tent of the ice camp," says Nico Vincent, who'll oversee the operation.

"If a target appears beside the vehicle, we can, at the flick of a switch, interrupt the task plan and fly like a drone to the target to double-check it."

Endurance22 has two Sabertooths that will work around the clock.

The search area is relatively small: just 8km by 15km. But such was Worsley's genius with a sextant and a chronometer - maritime navigation instruments - there's high confidence in his calculated coordinates.

One of the big questions concerns the likely state of the wreck. The water is too deep for the remnants to have been bulldozed by a passing Antarctic iceberg.

Sediment is building up slowly enough on the wreck that the timbers are probably still standing proud of the seafloor, but they could be spread out over a large distance. And, of course, there's every possibility that Endurance was wrenched wide open on impact with the bed, its contents "exposed like a box of chocolates", as Mensun Bound puts it.

While the type of worms that normally consume sunken wooden ships do not thrive in the cold conditions of the polar south, the Weddell's bottom-waters are almost certainly well oxygenated, which means many other types of organisms could still have colonised the wreck.

"Anything hard that sticks out above the sediment is fabulous, rare real estate," says Dr Michelle Taylor, a deep-sea biologist who took part in the 2019 hunt but is not involved in this latest quest.

"If you get yourself even just a few centimetres above the sediment into the flow of the current, you're more likely to feed and survive. So, like boulders dropped to the sea-floor by passing icebergs, the Endurance will probably be an oasis for life. It should attract a lot of filter feeders, such as crinoids. And I wouldn't be surprised if we see some anemones and some sea-cucumbers," the Essex University scientist told the BBC.

What, though, does it really add to the Shackleton story if we see its sad, shattered hull 100 years after it sank to the deep?

The drama and heroics were well documented at the time. We have the crew's diaries and there are no mysteries about what happened.

Some polar researchers have told me that the money behind Endurance22 would be better spent on a dedicated science voyage in the Antarctic. It's the "climate front line" after all, and there's much we still need to study and learn about what is going to happen to the White Continent in a warming world.

But the allure of Shackleton is strong.

There's no doubting there would be considerable curiosity in video of the wreck and the sight of the crewmen's belongings which may be strewn around it.

Somewhere down there is the storekeeper Thomas Orde-Lees' bicycle; the honey jars in which expedition biologist Robert Clark kept his samples; and the rocks geologist James Wordie collected from the bellies of penguins.

"We may see supplies, or we may see things that connect us with the actual people who over 100 years ago had to abandon this ship, live on the ice and then take brutal small-boat journeys to safety," says historian Dan Snow, who will be travelling on the expedition.

"I hope and think the wreck will have lots of interest, not just for the super-geeks like me but there'll be stuff that will enrich the story for everyone."

If Endurance22 succeeds in finding the lost ship, no artefacts will be pulled up.

The vessel is a site of historic importance and has been designated as a monument under the international Antarctic Treaty. It mustn't be disturbed.

Mensun Bound says the team will instead make a highly detailed 3D scan.

"There's no point raising something like the Endurance, anyway. What would you do with it? There isn't a museum on Earth that could accept it. The cost of its conservation, preservation and display would be at any museum's throat forever."
I really hope they find her, that would be wonderful.

Oh, and posthumously awarding Chippy McNish the Polar Medal he rightfully deserved would be be good to see too !
Arun Vajpey

Arun Vajpey

That is excellent news! I feel a thorough search has a great chance of finding Endurance.

I have always been fascinated with Shackleton's famous "MEN WANTED" advertisement with mainly negative points highlighted. I know that some people dispute its authenticity but one way or another, it reflected the adventurous spirit of those days.


A follow up article about the problems of locating the Endurance.

I'm delighted to see that Dave Mearns is on the case, he is a superb "wreck hunter" probably best known for locating HMS Hood.

For many, the lost ship of Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton is the greatest of all undiscovered wrecks.
In part that's because of the extraordinary story that surrounds the 1915 sinking of the Endurance - an epic tale of 28 men who somehow survived and escaped the calamity of becoming stranded in the frozen wastes of the Weddell Sea.

But the allure also has something to do with the daunting challenge the wreck now presents to anyone who might consider trying to find it.

What remains of the Endurance is 3,000m down in waters that are pretty much permanently covered in thick sea-ice, the same sea-ice that trapped and then ruptured the hull of Shackleton's polar yacht.

You need a good strategy, immense skill and an enormous dollop of good luck just to get near the sinking location. A team of hopefuls is on its way to the Antarctic right now.

There's an assumption we know well where the ship lies on the ocean bottom because Shackleton had a brilliant navigator on his ill-fated voyage, a man called Frank Worsley. Using a sextant and chronometer, he calculated the coordinates for the position where the punctured Endurance slipped below the floes on 21 November, 1915.

It's in his log book. 68°39'30" South; 52°26'30" West.

But how accurate is this? Three modern-day researchers - Lars Bergman, David Mearns and Robin Stuart - have long pondered this question.

They've tried to sum the various errors that may have crept into Worsley's measurements and have concluded in a new pre-print paper that the true sinking position may be several kilometres to the east of where the navigator computed it to be.

"There's a lot of things to consider; you cannot just take Worsley's position for granted and go right to that location. You've got to use your judgement," said David Mearns who's found many historic wrecks in his career.

Mearns and his two colleagues have submitted their paper to the Journal of Navigation but have taken the decision to publicly release it now because it could be useful to the search that is about to get under way.

The paper's central concern is the performance of the marine chronometers, or clocks, used by Worsley to get a longitude fix.

Previous work by Bergman and Stuart had suggested these were running much slower than the crew of the Endurance had realised or accounted for - an error that would put the sinking west of Worsley's recorded position. But Mearns has now picked up a really quite critical error in the clocks' calibration that pulls the location back and off to the east.

The investigation highlights the story of Reginald "Jimmy" James, the ship's physicist on Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

It was James who showed Worsley how he could work out the drift in the time-keeping of the chronometers from lunar occultations.

There's a picture of the two men at the stern of the Endurance observing stars as they disappeared behind the Moon. The timing of these movements had been predicted and published in a nautical almanac. Its tables kept the chronometers honest. And it's fair to say that without the occultation observations, Shackleton's crew would have misjudged their location by many, many kilometres.

But here's the fascinating part in this story. Modern maps of the sky are remarkably precise, far more so than the catalogues used to compile the almanac employed by James and Worsley. Had the men been in possession of today's information, they'd have realised their clocks were actually running 22 seconds faster than they were accounting for. Just this error would have put the Endurance more than 3km east of Worsley's log coordinates.

However, this is but one uncertainty that needs to be considered when examining the reliability of those coordinates. Not often recognised is that Worsley didn't get a fix on the expedition's position until fully 19 hours after the Endurance had gone down.

On the day of the sinking, a view of the Sun, needed to make a navigational observation, was impossible because of thick cloud. And neither was it possible in the two days before the sinking. Worsley's coordinates rely on an estimate of the direction and speed of the shifting sea-ice during those three "missing" days.

Bergman, Mearns and Stuart are convinced, though, having looked at all the issues, that the real longitude is off to the east. Their latest paper, they say is "a more complete, accurate and reliable basis for determining the most probable sinking location of Endurance". It's been shared with the Endurance22 project which is currently headed into the Weddell Sea to look for the wreck with underwater robots.

The project's exploration director, the marine archaeologist Mensun Bound, said the paper had been read with interest, although he did not disclose whether its analysis would influence his team's thinking. Everyone must have their own assessment.

Interestingly, this past week has marked the 30th anniversary of the start of Ice Station Weddell (ISW). This was a joint US-Russian ice camp that came very close to the presumed sinking location.

"It was set up from the (Russian ice-breaker) Akademik Fedorov on a multi-year drifting ice floe near 71.4° South," recalls Laurie Padman from the Seattle-based Earth & Space Research institute.

"The camp's track paralleled the last days of Shackleton's Endurance in 1915. I spent several weeks at ISW, my first Antarctic 'cruise', as US Chief Scientist.

"We collected atmospheric, sea-ice and ocean data for about four months, before ISW was recovered near 66° South by the (US icebreaker) Nathaniel B Palmer," he told BBC News.

Beyond the crew of the Endurance and the Ice Station, very few people have ever ventured into the west-central Weddell Sea, one of the most inhospitable parts of Antarctica.
Steven Christian

Steven Christian

A follow up article about the problems of locating the Endurance.

I'm delighted to see that Dave Mearns is on the case, he is a superb "wreck hunter" probably best known for locating HMS Hood.

Hope they are able to find it. The whole saga of the Endurance expedition is fascinating. Especially when they went to South Georgia island in an open boat in some of the roughest seas on the planet and then hiked across it. They were some really tough dudes. No matter what was thrown at them it was like "no problem", we'll handle it. Cheers.
Steven Christian

Steven Christian

Like I said earlier I hope they able to find it. Is there any possibility that some of the film survived? I don't know how they stored/sealed it aboard ship or if the temperature works for or against it's preservation. Would be cool but not holding out too much hope for that. Most here have probably seen stories of old camera's where they are able to recover the photo's on them. Cheers.