The wreckage of Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance was discovered Wednesday, March 9, 2022, by the Endurance22 recovery project. Photo courtesy of the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust.
The Endurance, the ship made famous by Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, was discovered at the bottom of the Weddell Sea Wednesday, March 9, some 106 years after being crushed in pack ice.
The location of the vessel, missing since the historic ship first sank in 1915, was uncovered after an international collective of adventurers, marine archaeologists, and technicians launched the Endurance22 project.
“We hope our discovery will engage young people and inspire them with the pioneering spirit, courage and fortitude of those who sailed Endurance to Antarctica,” Mensun Bound, director of exploration on the expedition, said in a press release.
Shackleton set sail on the Endurance, leading the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition with the intent of making the first overland crossing of the continent of Antarctica. In August 1914, packed with dog sleds and other supplies, the Endurance set off from the United Kingdom to reach the remote South Georgia island and Antarctica’s Weddell Sea. From there, a small party would accompany Shackleton to cross the continent and arrive at the Ross Sea to meet a second party with supplies. The ground party would then continue its crossing of Antarctica. Unfortunately, disaster struck both parties.
Shackleton’s team faced extreme conditions of dense pack ice starting only two days after departing from South Georgia. For several weeks, they sailed carefully through the icy maze. But when winds packed the ice tightly around the ship, the Endurance was “frozen like an almond in the middle of a chocolate bar,” as crew member Thomas Orde-Lees described it. While the Ross Sea party completed its tasks, three of its crew members died.
The crew of the Endurance lived on an ice floe next to the ship for months until the Endurance finally sank on Oct. 27, 1915. The crew’s journey afterward is now considered one of the greatest survival stories to emerge from the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
The 28-member crew of the expedition were isolated on the drifting pack ice hundreds of miles from land with limited supplies and zero contact with the outside world. The initial plan was to travel across the ice to reach land; however, after crossing only 7 1/2 miles in seven days, Shackleton determined they would set up camp and wait until the ice floes separated enough to allow for travel in boats. In April 1916, Shackleton ordered the crew to board three salvaged lifeboats to sail for Elephant Island, a small, uninhabited rock 800 miles from South Georgia. Shackleton and navigator Capt. Frank Worsley led the lifeboats across the open sea as the crew braved freezing squalls, frigid splashes of seawater, seasickness, and exhaustion from paddling. Six hellish days later, the crew scrambled ashore at Elephant Island, some 497 days since leaving dry land.
For nine days the crew recuperated before some of them set out on their next arduous journey: reaching a whaling station on South Georgia, more than 800 miles away. Shackleton, Worsley, and four others boarded the lifeboat James Caird and for 16 unimaginable days battled monstrous swells and ferocious winds in the most unforgiving waters on Earth. The stormy weather didn’t relent against the open lifeboat, making sleep, eating, and basic navigation almost impossible.
“The wind simply shrieked as it tore the tops off the waves,” Shackleton later wrote. “Down into valleys, up to tossing heights, straining until her seams opened, swung our little boat.”
Sailing with only one sextant and almost no stars to navigate by, Shackleton and his small crew survived. However, in reaching South Georgia, they landed on the far end of the island from the whaling station.
“Landing on the south side of the island, Sir Ernest then had to traverse the hitherto uncharted and uncrossed mountains and glaciers to reach the Norwegian whalers,” the Endurance22 website reads. “Rescue missions to reach the stranded expedition members at Elephant island were thwarted by the thick sea ice. Finally, on 30 August 1916, the fourth attempt was a success, and the expedition party on Elephant Island was taken to safety in Punta Arenas by the Chilean tug ‘Yelcho.’”
The remarkable saga, the subject of books and documentaries, has been newly revived, thanks to the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust, which organized and funded the unprecedented, 35-day mission to bring the mystery of the Endurance to a close.
The Endurance22 mission first launched in February 2022. Using detailed location data first logged in Worsley’s diary, the team navigated through heavy sea ice and freezing temperatures to reach the survey site. From the S.A. Agulhas II, one of the world’s largest and most modern polar research vessels, the team employed Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) called Sabertooths with range capabilities of 100 miles to search for the Endurance.
Remarkably, the Sabertooths, fitted with high-definition cameras and side-scan imaging capabilities, found the Endurance 10,000 feet down on the seabed, only about four miles south of the last location Worsley recorded for it.
The team’s findings, both in video and photographic evidence, revealed the 144-foot, three-masted wooden ship to be perfectly preserved.
“We have made polar history with the discovery of Endurance, and successfully completed the world’s most challenging shipwreck search,” expedition leader John Shears said in a press release. “We have also conducted an unprecedented educational outreach programme, with live broadcasting from on board, allowing new generations from around the world to engage with Endurance22 and become inspired by the amazing stories of polar exploration, and what human beings can achieve and the obstacles they can overcome when they work together.”
National Geographic is currently working on an Endurance documentary for its Explorer series. The documentary event will air globally in fall 2022 in 172 countries and 43 languages, sharing exclusive details on the complete story of the Endurance.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
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