Mensun Bound tells the epic story of the doomed ship, the incredible survival of its crew and the successful search for the wreck
Sir Ernest Shackleton was the last of the giants from the so-called Heroic Age of Polar Exploration. His burning ambition had been to reach the South Pole before anyone else but this prize had been taken by Amundsen. So for Shackleton, the only thing worth doing was to become the first to cross the Antarctic continent. Shackleton’s ship was to be the Endurance, an ice ship that had been built a year earlier at Sandefjord in Norway. His plan was to traverse Antarctica from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea by way of the Pole, drawing on supply depots set up by a team working out of the Ross Sea under Aeneas Mackintosh, who had been with Shackleton on his previous expedition.
On 1 August 1914. Shackleton set out, having telegrammed Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, offering his ship and team for the service of the nation. Churchill famously replied, ‘Proceed’.
The Endurance sailed via Montevideo and Buenos Aires to South Georgia where it remained a month before setting out for Antarctica on 5 December 1914. It was a bad ice year. Within a day of passing the South Sandwich Islands, the ship was in ice and thereafter struggled until 18 January 1915, when it became beset.
Through the long cold night of the Antarctic winter the men remained on the Endurance, then in the spring the ice began squeezing the hull, and on 27 October they abandoned ship. They planned to head for the islands of the Antarctic Peninsula, pulling their boats as they went, but when this proved impossible, set up a base, Ocean Camp, a mile and a half north-west of their ship. It was here on 21 November that they watched the Endurance slide under. They were now 28 men alone on the floes at the centre of the most hostile sea on earth. Nobody else knew where they were, and even if they did they were beyond reach. Their only hope was to allow the pack, which is constantly moving in a northward direction, to carry them towards the mouth of the Weddell Sea, and then when it began to crumble to take to their boats, which they still had with them.
On 9 April they left the ice in three open boats, the Dudley Docker, the Stancomb Wills, and the now famous James Caird. At first they sailed west, but when this proved impossible they headed north-north-west for Elephant Island at the top of the South Shetland chain.
On 15 April, more dead than alive, the men hauled themselves up the beach. Shackleton realised that if they stayed there they would all perish, so nine days later with five of his crew he set off in the James Caird to seek help from South Georgia. Frank Worsley, captain of the Endurance, demonstrated his exceptional skills as a navigator, and two weeks later in appalling conditions and soaked to the skin, they reached their destination – but on the wrong side of the island. Leaving three men with the boat, Shackleton crossed the Allardyce Mountains with Frank Worsley and Tom Crean, second officer. 36 hours later they stumbled down into Stromness.
The 22 men on Elephant Island were rescued on 30 August 1916 by the Chilean steam tug Yelcho under Captain Luis Pardo. Not one member of Shackleton’s crew was lost. The Endurance went on to become one of the most storied wrecks of all time – but where was it?
The double challenge
The project to find the Endurance was conceived in August 2012. From the outset we recognised that the challenge would be twofold: first getting to the spot, and then being able to conduct a robotic search beneath the perennial ice of the Weddell Sea.
By April 2017 sufficient resources were in place for us to begin planning. At that point, Deep Ocean Search was asked to find a suitable icebreaker, and through intensive research a search box was drawn up. Our project was called the Weddell Sea Expedition (WSE) and, because its main objective was environmental science, the funding came from the Flotilla Foundation. The WSE began on 3 January 2019 at Penguin Bukta on the eastern shoulder of the Weddell Sea. The main search vehicle was a Hugin autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) owned and operated by Ocean Infinity. Ice conditions were difficult, so we were unable to achieve all our scientific objectives. Then a severe loss was suffered when the electronics bottle of the Eclipse ROV (remote operated vehicle) imploded at around 3,000 metres. Many days were lost while waiting for replacement parts to be flown to King George Island. It was only then the ship broke through the pack to reach the Endurance search area, allowing only a short time in which to find the wreck. There would be time for only two AUV dives, and the area we could cover would be no more than 107 square nautical miles. We found an open pool of water only a few miles from the search area, launched the AUV and after a successful beneath-the-ice transit, the hunt was on.
We covered over half the search area but then, on 11 February 2019, the AUV failed to turn up for a projected rendezvous to undergo a routine performance interrogation. We do not know for certain what happened, but the likelihood is that for whatever reason it aborted its mission and returned to the surface. It was something that had occurred many times – but this time it must have come up under the ice so we could not establish its position. After two days in very aggressive ice conditions we aborted both the search and the project as a whole.
Resuming the search
In February 2022 the search resumed using the same ship, the S.A. Agulhas II, out of Cape Town. The equipment and operational expertise were once more provided by Ocean Infinity, but this time the search came under the auspices of the Falkland Island Maritime Heritage Trust, which two years earlier had found Admiral von Spee’s flagship Scharnhorst, sunk in 1914 during the Battle of the Falklands.
The main difference between the Endurance 2019 and 2022 campaigns was the choice of search vehicle. During the WSE an entirely autonomous system had been used from which data was downloaded after each dive; but on Endurance 22 the vehicle was switched to the Saab sabretooth system, a hybrid AUV-ROV that operated in a tethered mode so that the location of the vehicle was always known and the data stream could be read in real time. So if an anomaly appeared on the sonar cascade it could be switched to inspection mode to conduct an immediate evaluation.
Environmentally, too, there was a major difference between the two campaigns. In 2019 the pack had been thick multi-year ice as tough as teak and extremely aggressive. In 2022, by contrast, the pack consisted mainly of relatively thin first-year ice with little muscle, and numerous swathes of open water. The air temperature, however, dropped to an extremely dangerous –40°C.
On 5 March, the 17th day of the search, we found the Endurance. We had been told by the media that we were searching in the wrong place and that the wreck was well to the east of Worsley’s estimated sinking position. This proved incorrect; the wreck was actually situated a short distance to the south of Worsley’s coordinates in an area we would have covered in 2019 had we not lost the AUV.
We had expected the Endurance to be in a semi-intact state, upright, proud of the seabed and in a good state of preservation, and sure enough she was; but nonetheless we were all surprised by her general condition and the detail and clarity of what arose before us from out of the gloom of 3,000 metres. We could see her paintwork and count the fastenings, and in the well-deck was the ship’s wheel in a perfect state of preservation. We shall never forget our first view of the portholes to Shackleton’s cabin and the nine letters of the ship’s name arcing over the Polaris star beneath the taffrail. In the words of Knowledge Bengu, the captain of the Agulhas, it was ‘as if somebody had gently laid her out on the silt and told her to wait until she was discovered’.
And finally, something quite remarkable: Shackleton was buried at South Georgia at close to 4 pm, on 5 March 1922. We found the Endurance 100 years later to the day, at just a few minutes after 4 pm on 5 March 2022.
Expedition Director Mensun Bound is a maritime archaeologist who has led studies of shipwrecks ancient and modern in many parts of the world, including his native Falkland Islands, the Mediterranean and the South China Sea.
The deep-water robotics company, Ocean Infinity (CEO Oliver Plunkett), provided the submersible technology and operational teams. Deep Ocean Search also contributed personnel and technical knowhow. The 2019 campaign came under the auspices of the Flotilla Foundation. The 2022 campaign was overseen by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust (trustees: Donald Lamont (Chair), Bill Featherstone, Saul Pitaluga, Mensun Bound). Gratitude is owed to everyone on both teams, but especially to Nico Vincent, who was in charge of all subsea activity. Others include John Shears, team leader; J. C. Caillens in charge of back-deck, and from 2019 Channing Thomas and Claire Samuel.