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Expedition Discovers Wreckage of Ernest Shackleton’s ‘Endurance’ in the Antarctic

Clare Fitzgerald
Photo Credit: Frank Hurley / Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge / Getty Images

The “world’s most challenging shipwreck search” has come to an end after the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust announced the discovery of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance in the waters off of Antarctica.

Four computer screens showing underwater footage of Endurance

Photo, video and laser pictures of Endurance22 displayed in the control room of the AUV onboard the S.A. Agulhas II. (Photo Credit: Esther Horvath / Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust)

The discovery was made 3,008 meters below the waters of the Weddell Sea by the crew of the Endurance22 Expedition. The location is within a search area that was predetermined by the team prior to its departure from Cape Town, South Africa, and four miles south of the position originally recorded by the Endurance‘s captain, Frank Worsley.

The Endurance22 Expedition set off from Cape Town in February 2022. The crew was onboard the S.A. Agulhas II, owned by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment. Once in the Antarctic, Saab Sabertooth hybrid underwater search vehicles were lowered into the water. After two difficult weeks of combing the area, the Endurance was officially located.

“We have successfully completed the world’s most difficult shipwreck search, battling constantly shifting sea-ice, blizzards, and temperatures dropping down to -18C,” Dr. John Shears, the expedition’s leader, told BBC. “We have achieved what many people said was impossible.”

Postcards indicating Ernest Shackleton's Endurance has been found

Photo Credit: Esther Horvath / Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust

The cold temperatures and lack of wood-eating sea organisms meant the wreck was found in relatively good condition. Among the most notable finds were the ship’s name still readable on the wood and gear piled against the taffrail. The rudder was also located beneath the stern, along with the still-intact ship’s wheel, complete with spokes. Sea sponges, anemones and other ocean life have made the shipwreck their home, but do not appear to have damaged it.

Since the discovery, time has been spent photographing and documenting the wreck and the surrounding area.

Endurance leaning to one side in the ice

Endurance leaning to one side during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914-17, led by Ernest Shackleton. (Photo Credit: Frank Hurley / Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge / Getty Images)

Shackleton’s expedition began in August 1914, when the explorer and his crew of 27 left Plymouth for Antarctica’s Weddell Sea. He’d hoped to become the first person to achieve a land crossing of Antarctica, from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea. The Endurance entered the sea passage in January 1915, but became trapped in sea ice, where it remained stuck for 10 months before being crushed by the ice and sinking.

Shackleton and his crew escaped on lifeboats and made their way to Elephant Island on the northeast tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. After suffering a severe food shortage, Shackleton and some of the crew set out in search of aid. They eventually reached a whaling station on South Georgia, leading to the rescue of the remaining crew members on Elephant Island.

Since then, the expedition and the shipwreck have become the topic of legend, with explorers determined to locate the final resting place of the Endurance.

Frédéric Bassemayousse and J.C. Caillens standing with an AUV

Frédéric Bassemayousse and J.C. Caillens, Off-Shore Manager, recover the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) after a dive, in search for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance. (Photo Credit: Esther Horvath / Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust)

“We are overwhelmed by our good fortune in having located and captured images of Endurance,” said Mensun Bound, the expedition’s Director of Exploration. “This is by far the finest wooden shipwreck I have ever seen. It is upright, well proud of the seabed, intact, and in a brilliant state of preservation. You can even see ‘Endurance’ arced across the stern, directly below the taffrail.

“This is a milestone in polar history,” he continued. “However, it is not all about the past; we are bringing the story of Shackleton and Endurance to new audiences, and to the next generation, who will be entrusted with the essential safeguarding of our polar regions and our planet. 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.”

S.A. Agulhas II docked in the ice

S.A. Agulhas II docked in sea ice in the Weddell Sea. (Photo Credit: Esther Horvath / Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust)

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According to the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust, “the wreck is protected as a Historic Site and Monument under the Antarctic Treaty, ensuring what whilst the wreck is being surveyed and filmed it will not be touched or disturbed in any way.”