A feat of Endurance: lost vessel of explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton found 107 years after sinking

Posted on: March 24, 2022 by

Media outlets last week revealed that scientists had found the wreck of Endurance more than a century after she sank in the Weddell Sea, a find many had claimed to be impossible.

The find has been hailed by marine archaeologists around the world. The BBC reports that Mensun Bound, a member of the expedition team, calls it

“…the finest wooden shipwreck I have ever seen – by far”.

Similarly the mission’s leader, veteran polar geographer, Dr John Shears, has described the moment of discovery as “jaw-dropping”.

The ship and her fate forms part of the lore of Shackleton’s 1914-5 Trans-Atlantic Expedition, which aimed to make the first land crossing of Antarctica, ending in a fight for survival when Endurance was holed up in sea-ice. It is believed that the Endurance was crushed by sea ice before she sank in 1915. Shackleton – nicknamed “The Boss” – and his crew were forced to make an escape on foot and in small boats earning renown for their courage.

Remarkably, and relatively unusually for a wooden shipwreck, footage remains showing Endurance in dry dock in 1914 before her departure for Antarctica. Footage also remains which shows Shackleton looking over the broken hull of his ship – which had been trapped in sea-ice for months – before her plunge. It is believed that she was last shot by Shackleton’s film maker, Frank Hurley.

Reports confirm that the wreck was found in a little over 3 km (10,000 ft) of water. For comparison, the wreck of RMS Titanic lies in approximately 3.8 km of water. Shears, however, terms this “the world’s most difficult shipwreck search” on account of the fact that his team endured constantly shifting sea-ice, blizzards, and temperatures which plunged to -18 degrees centigrade. Although unwelcome as a consequence of global warming, the project was able to take advantage of the fact that this past month has seen the lowest extent of Antarctic sea-ice recorded since the satellite era began in the 1970s.

The project to find the wreck was mounted by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust (FMHT) using a South African icebreaker, Agulhas II. The wreck site was located by ROV submarine search, by combing a pre-defined search area.

Apparently coincidentally, they located the wreck site on the 100th anniversary of Shackleton’s funeral and burial at Grytviken Whaling Station on South Georgia.

Photographs from the sub Endurance22 (reproduced by the BBC courtesy of the FHMT and National Geographic) show the vessel sitting upright on the surface. Her three masts are down and her rigging out of place, but other than damage to the bow – doubtless as a result of impact with the sea bed – the wreck is said to be “broadly coherent” including reportedly the porthole of Shackleton’s cabin.

Crucially for identification, still visible is the ship’s name written across the stern directly below the taffrail (a handrail near the stern) also adorned with Polaris – the five-pointed polar star – in brass, after which the ship was reputedly originally named.

Unlike the fate of other deep-water wrecks, such as the wreck site of RMS Titanic (whose iron hull is imploding), deep-sea polar biologist Dr Michelle Taylor suggests that there is little deterioration to the wooden structure of the hull. Taylor adds that the Endurance while “looking like a ghost ship” has attracted a host of deep-sea marine life such as sea squirts, anemones, and brittlestars.

Equally unlike some other deep-water wrecks, Endurance is subject to specific protection made under international treaty which should guarantee her preservation in situ.

The wreck and wreck site comes within the ambit of the Antarctic Treaty done at Washington DC on 1 December 1959 and which entered into force on 23 June 1961. Article 1 of the treaty provides that:

Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only. There shall be prohibited, inter alia, any measures of a military nature, such as the establishment of military bases and fortifications, the carrying out of military maneuvers, as well as the testing of any type of weapons.
The present Treaty shall not prevent the use of military personnel or equipment for scientific research or for any other peaceful purpose.

Article 2 guarantees freedom of scientific investigation.

By way of Article 10, each contracting States Party undertakes to exert appropriate efforts, consistent with the Charter of the United Nations, to prevent anyone from engaging in activity in Antarctica contrary to the principles or purposes of the Antarctic Treaty.

For present purposes, however, the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, adopted in Madrid in 1991 is key. Annex 5 to that Protocol allows for the designation of an Antarctic Specially Protected Area in order to protect “outstanding environmental, scientific, historic, aesthetic or wilderness values”. Under Article 3, this may include sites or monuments of recognised historic value. Article 8 makes specific provision for historic sites and monuments and provides that they “shall not be damaged, removed or destroyed”.

With effect from 9 October 2019, at the prescient request of the UK, the site was added the List of Historic Sites and Monuments in the following terms:

“Wreck of the vessel Endurance, including all artefacts contained within or formerly contained within the ship, which may be lying on the seabed in or near the wreck within a 150m radius. This includes all fixtures and fittings associated with the ship, including ship’s wheel, bell, etc. The designation also includes all items of personal possessions left on the ship by the ship’s company at the time of its sinking.”

For the time being at least, this designation should prevent the removal and recovery of artefacts (or indeed parts of the wreck’s hull itself) which has been part of the experience post-find of many wreck sites. At the present time, although 42 states have acceded to the Treaty the contracting States Parties to the Protocol are fewer in number than the number of parties to the Antarctic Treaty but they include the main historic maritime nations such as the US, the UK, the Netherlands, France and Spain.

For its part the UK Government gave effect to the Protocol via the Antarctic Act 1994. As a result of that Act, no United Kingdom national and no non-national on a British expedition may damage, destroy or remove any part of a site or monument designated by regulations as an Antarctic Historic Site or Monument, except in accordance with a permit granted under the Act or under the written authorisation of another Contracting Party. Any person who contravenes that provision shall be guilty of an offence. The Secretary of State may not grant a permit unless satisfied that the relevant activities will be carried on for the purposes of conservation or repair, i.e. not for commercial exploitation. Given the context of the wreck site, it is difficult to envisage where those requirements would be met.


Image: The Endurance frozen in 76-35 South, 1915, photographed by Frank Hurley (3534625867) State Library of New South Wales collection, via Wikimedia Commons