In the fall of 1915, polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance sank off the coast of Antarctica, stranding its crew on drifting sea ice and setting in motion one of history’s most dramatic tales of overcoming seemingly hopeless odds. While all of the expedition’s 28 crew eventually were rescued, the ship’s final resting place has remained a much-discussed maritime mystery—the unwritten last chapter in a legendary story of survival and triumph. That is, until today. A team of researchers has announced they’ve located the wreck at the bottom of the treacherous Weddell Sea, adjacent to the northernmost part of Antarctica.
The first images of the ship were transmitted via autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) from nearly two miles down on March 5. As the camera glides over the wooden deck of the ship, video captures century-old ropes, tools, portholes, railings—even the masts and helm—all in nearly pristine condition due to cold temperatures, the absence of light, and low oxygen in the watery resting place."
“I’ve been hunting for wrecks since my mid-twenties, and I have never found a wreck so coherent as this one,” marine archaeologist Mensun Bound, 69, said via satellite phone as he and fellow crew members began their long journey back to Cape Town after more than a month of searching for Shackleton’s ship. “You could see the bolt holes, and everything.”
Director of exploration for the Endurance22 expedition, Bound says when they saw the first images beamed from the AUV, he and other members of his 65-person team were confident it was Endurance and not another wreck. But unequivocal proof soon came literally into focus: a closeup of the stern revealed shiny brass letters spelling out Endurance above a polar star. “You see that, and your eyes pop out on stalks,” Bound says. It was “one of those wormhole moments when you tumble back in time. I could feel the breath of Shackleton on my neck."
What was Shackleton’s goal?
Endurance was part of Shackleton’s grandly named Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Backed by the British government and private donors and supported by Winston Churchill, who was then the First Lord of the Admiralty, the plan was to deliver a group of explorers to the coast of Antarctica, where they would disembark and then travel overland across the continent via the South Pole.
A 144-foot, three-masted barquentine specially built for polar waters, Endurance had solid oak hulls that were two-and-half feet thick. It set out from South Georgia on December 5, 1914, shortly after the outbreak of the First World War. Even at the bottom of the planet, war was close by. As Endurance entered the Weddell Sea, British and German fleets squared off north of them in the Battle of the Falkland Islands.
But the enemy that Shackleton and his men faced was of a different sort. The Weddell Sea, covering an area of more than a million square miles, is one of the most remote and unforgiving environments in the world, littered with icebergs and roiled by strong surface winds. Shackleton called it “the worst sea in the world.”
But if anyone was prepared for such an endeavor it was the Anglo-Irish adventurer Ernest Shackleton: A veteran of previous Antarctic explorations, he’d been part of the great race to reach the South Pole before Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen claimed it.
For this ambitious cross-continent journey, he’d handpicked the crew and endeared himself by dining with the men, telling jokes, leading sing-alongs, and organizing games. They affectionately referred to him as “the Boss."
The expedition made good progress at first, but as the Antarctic winter of 1915 closed in, the men found themselves trapped in the sea ice. “At 7 p.m. very heavy pressure developed, with twisting strains that racked the ship fore and aft,” Shackleton wrote on Tuesday, October 26. “We could see from the bridge that the ship was bending like a bow under titanic pressure.”
The next day, the men removed tools, instruments, and provisions and set up camp on the ice floe. Shackleton wrote, “But though we have been compelled to abandon the ship, which is crushed beyond all hope of ever being righted, we are alive and well, and we have stores and equipment for the task that lies before us.”
Endurance finally sank on November 27. “This evening, as we were lying in our tents we heard the Boss call out, ‘She’s going, boys!’” one of the crew wrote. “We were out in a second and up on the look-out station and other points of vantage, and, sure enough, there was our poor ship a mile and a half away struggling in her death-agony. She went down bow first, her stern raised in the air. She then gave one quick dive and the ice closed over her forever.”
Why was Endurance so difficult to find?
And that’s where Endurance remained, entombed beneath the polar ice at a depth of 10,000 feet. In 2019, the Falklands Heritage Maritime Trust mounted its first expedition to find the ship but had been unable to locate the wreck. This winter, they tried again, organizing and funding Endurance22.
One of the knottiest problems was establishing the ship’s location. After Endurance was initially trapped in the ice, it continued to drift as the floes moved with the current. When the vessel was eventually crushed and sank, the captain of Endurance, Frank Worsley, took measurements of the location using a sextant and recorded it in his diary. Due to poor visibility on the day the men abandoned the ship, however, Worsley had been unable to take proper measurements that would help calculate the direction and speed of the floes.
One of the first tasks of Endurance22’s team of scientists and navigational experts was to review Worsley’s records to come up with a more accurate location.
“Worsley’s last observation was November 18, then he made another on November 20, the day after the ship sank,” Bound says. “He made another on the 22nd, but by then he was some distance away. So, he had to guess at the speed of the ice drift.”
There was also the question of the crew’s chronometers. Using today’s far more accurate sky maps, researchers calculated that Endurance’s clocks were running faster than the crew accounted for, an error that would shift the location of the vessel west of Worsley’s last recorded position. Using these calculations, the expedition narrowed their search but still faced long odds of finding the vessel.
“We were down to three or four days left and still hadn’t found it,” Bound said. “There were three areas still to look at. But often the ice decides where we look. And it was running west to east, which took us across the southern portion of our search area. And there it was!”
“It was actually only 4.16 nautical miles from Worsley’s position, which shows the incredible accuracy of his calculations,” adds John Shears, the leader of the Endurance22 expedition.
Besides establishing the location, the greatest challenge the expedition faced was the sea ice. “One expert in London said he gave us a 10 percent chance of even getting through the ice,” Shears recalls, chuckling. Luckily, their research vessel, S.A Agulhas II, was capable of smashing through three-feet thick ice at a speed of five knots. But even that did not prevent it from becoming briefly “nipped” by the ice in February, when the temperature dipped to -10 Celsius. “The press made a big thing of it,” Shears said. “But we were only stuck for about four hours, on a small ice shelf, until the tide floated us off.”
The research ship eventually reached their designated search area on February 18, and the team began the underwater hunt for Endurance. To search the seabed 10,000 feet down, they used two AUVs fitted with sonar and visual survey technology. Widely used in the offshore oil industry, the expedition’s 12-foot-long gadgets resemble giant computer hard drives. Capable of operating autonomously 100 miles from an operating vessel and able to withstand extreme pressures and temperatures, they were able to retrieve the first-ever images of the Endurance wreck site.
Bound and Shears were taking a walk out on the ice when the first images were relayed from the AUVs, Bound recalls. “The moment we got back to the ship, we shot up to the bridge. One of the subsea guys was there, grinning from ear to ear. When he showed me a screengrab, it was like my whole life funneled down into that moment.”
Final chapter revealed in the Shackleton saga
Shackleton famously said, “What the ice gets, the ice keeps.” But Endurance’s story did not end with the ship’s sinking. Shackleton’s journey back across the Weddell Sea to get help for his stranded crew would become one of the most celebrated narratives of exploration and survival.
On April 4, 1916, Shackleton left his crew on Elephant Island, and he and five others set off in one of Endurance’s modified lifeboats for the island of South Georgia. It was an 800-mile,16-day journey across freezing, rough seas whipped by hurricane-force gales. “The wind simply shrieked as it tore the tops off the waves,” Shackleton wrote. “Down into valleys, up to tossing heights, straining until her seams opened, swung our little boat.”
Arriving on South Georgia’s south coast, they then faced a 36-hour hike across the rugged, mountainous island to reach a whaling station at Stromness. Shackleton willed himself to make it, even though, as new research suggests, he probably had a hole in his heart.
When the men staggered in, the station manager, Thoralf Sorlle, could hardly believe his eyes. “Our beards were long and our hair was matted,” Shackleton wrote. “We were unwashed and the garments that we had worn for nearly a year without a change were tattered and stained.”
Nearly six years later, as he prepared for another expedition to Antarctica, Shackleton would die of a heart attack on South Georgia. He was buried there on March 5, 1922. Exactly 100 years later the Endurance22 team captured its first images of Endurance.
Bound says that he and his fellow crew members will stop in South Georgia on their way home to visit Shackleton’s grave. “We are sad to be leaving the site,” he said. “But there is a great sense of pride and achievement. And we’ll stop to pay our respects to the Boss.”