In 1915 Ernest Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, sank off the coast of Antarctica, stranding the crew on drifting sea ice. Shackleton’s desperate rescue mission saved all 28 men. But for more than a century afterward, the location of Endurance eluded archaeologists—until this year. National Geographic photographer Esther Horvath was there, and recounts the moment when the ship was located 10,000 feet beneath the polar ice.
JACOB PINTER (HOST): What are conditions like in the Weddell Sea?
ESTHER HORVATH (PHOTOGRAPHER): It's a landscape of beautiful, white, large ice floes.
PINTER: In the first months of 2022 Esther Horvath sailed through the frigid waters of the Weddell Sea, off the coast of Antarctica. Esther’s a photographer, and she was documenting life aboard a research ship that can break through ice several feet thick.
HORVATH: Sea ice constantly moves, and you have to navigate between these moving ice floes. And sometimes it is—you don't see water in between, and you just see an endless white landscape. And it almost feels that you look at an icy or snowy land. And then you see—as the ship moves forward, you see how it breaks. And then you see, it's actually—it's an ocean.
PINTER: More than a century before, the great polar explorer Ernest Shackleton sailed these same waters. In 1915 the sea ice trapped his ship, the Endurance. Shackleton’s crew watched as the ice squeezed Endurance tighter and tighter, breaking its wooden hull. And they saw Endurance sink into the polar sea. Shackleton told his men, “What the ice gets, the ice keeps.” And for more than a hundred years that was true.
I’m Jacob Pinter, and this is Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at Nat Geo, and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.
This week: inside the search for Endurance. Earlier this year a team of researchers found it—on an Antarctic seabed, almost two miles deep.
But first, adventure is never far away with a free one-month trial to Nat Geo Digital. For starters there’s full access to our stories online. You get new stories published every single day, and every Nat Geo issue ever published is in our digital archives. There’s a whole lot more for subscribers, and you can check it all out for free at natgeo.com/exploremore.
HORVATH: Every time I go on an expedition, I always think, How can I make this a little bit different?
PINTER: Esther Horvath is from Hungary, but she’s made her mark photographing the polar regions. In fact, to join the Endurance expedition she had to fly from one project in the Arctic Circle all the way across the world to South Africa to board the research ship that would sail toward Antarctica.
HORVATH: Just before we left for this expedition and I was, like, transiting from the Arctic to Antarctica, I had a very strong feeling of—that I'm going to write during this trip. Also of course inspired by Shackleton—
PINTER: That’s right.
HORVATH: —had a journal. And then another idea came: What if this journal is not my journal, it is the journal of Shackleton? So I named the journal. It’s called “Shackleton's Very Last Journal.” So I wrote it every day in a way that he would write—so to say, he's writing it as him being there with us and looking at us and being a part of this journey.
PINTER: Could you read me the first entry?
HORVATH: Yes. The first day, OK.
(Reading from her journal)
“Shackleton’s Very Last Journal.” Two thousand twenty-two, February 4, Friday. I have waited a very long time for this moment—exactly hundred years. I have dreamed of finding our ship again. Seeing its beauty and saying goodbye to it in a dignified way. I feel the energy of the people on board, each of them with a different reason for being on board but with the same goal to find the ship—my ship, the Endurance. I wish everyone a good night's sleep, as they will need to rest before diving into the rough seas of the Southern Ocean in the days ahead.
PINTER: That's really nice.
HORVATH: Thank you.
PINTER: How did you channel him?
HORVATH: I love to write. I really enjoy writing, and I always do it in a meditation. For this I always found time. I got into my room and which—this time I was alone in a room with a one-bed cabin. I never had this before. And I meditated, and then I wrote the diary of the day, the journal of the day.
PINTER: I was wondering if you could tell me the story of Endurance and Ernest Shackleton.
HORVATH: Ernest Shackleton was of course one of the greatest explorers of our time—or of the history. But in the same time, he was an explorer who actually never achieved his goals. Like all the polar explorations he had, he never really got into the final line, to the final goal.
PINTER: Can you tell me the story of the Endurance and how it ended up on the bottom of the sea?
HORVATH: So the Endurance with 28 men on board including Sir Ernest Shackleton—they wanted to cross to the Antarctic, completely crossing the continent. That did not happen because of the sea ice was so thick that his boat got stuck and he was drifted for a long period of time with his crew, waiting that the sea ice at the end of the summer—at the end of the melting season—will open and then he can continue to sail. But before that happened, his boat was crashed.
PINTER: In November 1915, the Endurance crew watched as their ship sank into the frigid Southern Ocean. They had no backup plan and no way of calling for help. For five more months, the crew camped on sea ice. Finally, in April 1916, Shackleton and five of his men set off on a last-ditch rescue attempt. They sailed a lifeboat 800 miles across the open ocean, and they made it to a whaling station on a remote island. Incredibly, every single crew member made it home alive.
HORVATH: When we were on Endurance expedition, the only thing I could think about is that I don't understand how they survived on the sea ice for such a long time, with very limited food, with very challenging conditions of the cold. You can't escape from the cold, and it can get really biting cold with the wind. And then trying to survival off raw meat, seal and birds and penguins. I just don't understand how they could manage it.
For Shackleton, it was very important that, yes, they have to do their job. But he was very interested what else they can do. And he was very interested in people who can sing, dance, or perform anything because he thought that's something very important on an expedition for the good mood.
PINTER: So it would be like, “OK, it's your turn to be the entertainment tonight. Go sing us something”?
HORVATH: They had the singalong evenings. And they had performance evenings. They had cross-dressing evenings to entertain themself.
HORVATH: And I think—not I think, I know—that that's something very important on an expedition like that to keep the good mood.
PINTER: So what was it like to be on the ship with the rest of the crew? Like, were you all leading singalongs at night?
HORVATH: It was a very beautiful expedition because of the reason that everyone had the same goal.
HORVATH: So yeah, there were many singalongs. There were—we did many things what Shackleton did. For example, singalongs. And there were—in the evenings there were like playing music and open mic in the evening. There were a lot of activities, like playing games.
PINTER: Did they make you get up and sing at the open mic in front of everyone else?
HORVATH: So it was on a volunteer basis.
HORVATH: But I thought everyone has to do it, so I signed up for it. And I thought, OK, I'm going to sing a Hungarian folk song.
HORVATH: Because I have a thing. I don't know why, but when I'm on the sea ice, I like to sing Hungarian folk songs.
HORVATH: And also because, like, nobody can hear you, so you can sing really, really loud because—especially if there is a wind, you can scream and nobody hears. And it feels so nice. So I'm like, OK, I will sing a Hungarian folk song. But then it turned out like, no, it was just some people on a volunteer basis signed up something like, OK, now I cannot step back, so I have to sing for, I don't know, 60 people. But it was …
PINTER: Did you sing the folk song?
HORVATH: I did.
PINTER: And what did they think? Did they give you a big round of applause?
HORVATH: They did. (laughter)
PINTER: Of course on this expedition there was a lot to do besides group singalongs. More than 60 people worked around the clock to find the wreck of the Endurance. When the ship sank in 1915, Shackleton’s crew logged its coordinates. So the search team had a good place to start. They marked off an area called the search box, and they used remote-control submarines called autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs. The AUVs had lights and cameras, and they sent back images of the dark ocean depths to a control room on the ship.
I'm imagining if there's these AUVs that are searching underwater, right—a lot of the action is happening down there where you can't actually see. So as a photographer, what's your strategy to capture what's going on?
HORVATH: So my responsibility was to photograph everything what was happening on the ship—everything, like, technical and how people are working.
PINTER: What were you able to capture on the ship? What was happening that you were able to see through your lens?
HORVATH: So I photographed all the operation, which was 24 hours. So once we arrived to the Weddell Sea—once we arrived to the search box—24-hours operation started. That means every single team, everyone worked 24 hours. And me being a team only with myself caused that I slept very little because other teams could work—like they worked 12/12 hours. And so they could switch 12 hours on, 12 hours off. But for me, being alone, I was like, OK, 20 hours on, four hours off.
HORVATH: But I photographed everything what was happening on the vessel from the search operation. But I was also very interested for the life on board and what it means to be on the ship for six, seven weeks. What do you do?
PINTER: Coming up: As Esther photographs a slice of life aboard the expedition, the search team closes in on Endurance.
As the search team zeroed in on Endurance, Esther documented life aboard the research vessel. When the crew members weren’t working, there was time to kill. Esther photographed a crew member from South Africa who was training to become a traditional spirit healer. And on one day—after more than a month of searching for Endurance—Esther shadowed a crew member named Dean. Dean was an able seaman, and in his off-hours he served as the ship’s de facto barber.
HORVATH: And I asked him if I could photograph him while he’s with his next customer, so to say. And yes, he let me do that. And I was there with him and with another able seaman for this haircutting session. And while I'm there, I could hear in my radio—there were the two heads of operation. One name was Nico. Other one name was JC. And while I'm there at this hair cutting ceremony, I could hear in the radio that somebody from the operation room from where the AUV was operated called on the radio, “JC, JC, please come to the operator’s room.” Two seconds later: “Nico, Nico, please come to the operation room.” I’m like, something is going on.
So I was rushing to the operating room and it was outside. It was on the deck. It was a tiny little container. And when I arrived there, one person who was sitting in the operating room—and the door was open. I stepped there. He looks at me, and he was just—how you call it when you do this?
HORVATH: Nodding with his head, Yes, and looking at me with a smile from ear to ear. And in that moment, I'm like, Oh my god.
PINTER: And you knew.
HORVATH: From his face expression—looking at me and nodding with his head—I knew we found the Endurance.
HORVATH: And then I stepped in and I saw the Endurance on the screens. And it was absolutely visible that it's a ship. It was absolutely visible that this is Endurance. And standing there, I got goosebumps in a way that's—and I was standing there. I also felt like I can start to cry. And I'm like, OK, well, don't cry. Collect yourself. It was, um—and I think I was one of the first 10 people who saw it.
PINTER: You would think—you might think—that a ship underwater for more than a hundred years would be in rough shape by the time you found it. What was it like? Like what could you actually see? What could you make out from the ship?
HORVATH: It was incredible because it was thought that the ship will be found like kind of opened in a way—that it opens up on the side.
PINTER: Like in more than one piece? Like it broke apart?
HORVATH: That was the thought. That's how we're going to see it, that it must be completely open, completely broken. And it was, I think, the biggest surprise seeing the ship in such a good shape that everything—like it was a complete—the upper part, the upper deck is broken. It's gone. Also because they use of wood material from it. But the entire ship is in one beautiful piece, and so it did not break as it landed on the belly. And also additionally, because the water is very cold and there are less—because of the temperature of the water and also because the amount of nutritions in the water, the amount of species in the water living there—the ship is still in a beautiful shape and is preserved in that in those waters. And it will be also preserved for a long time. It actually—the ship looks like that it sank yesterday.
PINTER: Wow. You're the only photographer chosen for this trip, and you know how many people are paying attention to this and how many people around the world are going to be—as soon as the notification comes to their phone, they're going to click it and they're going to see your pictures. Were you thinking about that in the moment and how to capture that?
HORVATH: I did not think about that at all. It was very interesting that we were in such a bubble. And in this bubble, we had our daily life. We had our thing and celebration, like after we found—but the rest of the world seemed to be so far away. So when the news went out, I had no idea how many people saw this, or I had no idea how many channels picked up the story, because I was just doing my thing. I was doing my photography. I was there with 109 people. And for me, the reality and the world was this 109 people, my photography, the ship, and that’s it. Only the bubble in the Antarctic.
PINTER: I saw that after the trip you visited Shackleton's grave on, I think, South Georgia Island—one of the islands in the Southern Ocean. Why was that important to do, and what was it like?
HORVATH: It was such a gift, such a beautiful ending to the trip. It’s like closing the circle, like coming—finding his boat and then before returning to Cape Town, making this little U-turn to South Georgia Island. And as a tribute to him, as a thank you to him, as a appreciation to him, we printed out the pictures of Endurance and we took it to the grave.
HORVATH: And that moment—and the expedition leaders gave a speech. And those speeches all were also so emotional, being there and delivering the pictures of Shackleton to his grave. It was something very special. Ending the expedition that way just made the whole thing very round.
PINTER: That sounds really moving.
HORVATH: It was very moving.
PINTER: I was looking at your Instagram, and I saw this post after the trip where you wrote, “I feel that we all learned something and were enriched during the expedition that we’ll carry with us for a long time. We learned something about life, about ourselves, and others.” And I was just wondering if you can explain that. Like what did you learn about life on this expedition?
HORVATH: I feel when you are on a trip like this for six, seven weeks—far away from civilization in a confined place, far away from everything—it's also a moment when you can turn inside to look at your own life, to reflect on yourself or see a mirror maybe front of you. And also learning about yourself, how you react in certain situations, learning from other people. Because in civilization, in our life, we have so many impulses during the day—so many people that you don't even have the space and time to reflect on things. But on an expedition like that, I always think that an expedition like this for me is a spiritual healing journey. Like, if I would go to India to an ashram for three weeks or for a month, I would have the same result being on an expedition, because of that fact that it is so far—you are in a bubble for a long period of time and only this bubble exists. And then you suddenly see things about yourself, about your life, maybe about your life at home, because you are far away. And everyone learns things in a different way on a journey like this. And it was the same for me very strongly.
PINTER: Throughout the journey, Esther kept writing her log, “Shackleton’s Very Last Journal”. In a great cosmic coincidence, the search team discovered Shackleton’s ship a hundred years to the day after his burial. I asked Esther to read one more entry from the journal.
HORVATH: So this is after the discovery.
(Reading from her journal)
Two thousand twenty-two, March 5, Saturday. The signs have led you to the great discovery of finding her, not just her pieces. What an assignment for all of you. For all of us. For the whole world. What a story that will be told for generation to come. I was not made to achieve great success and reach the finish line. I was created to tell the story of a brave and to show that anything is possible if you put your mind to it, if you trust in it, and if you believe in it, without any hesitation, without any doubt. I'm grateful for everyone whose desperation led to this achievement, an accomplishment that I can now feel is mine as well. An accomplishment that I struggle to acquire and that I was never—and that it was never a part of me. Now I take this with me and free myself from all the energies, thoughts, and connections that have kept me here for a long time. Maybe we will meet again but in another form, in another world, in another galaxy. It was me, Shackleton.
PINTER: What did it feel like to write that one you just read after the discovery?
HORVATH: It felt really the feeling that—that he's now free. That his story ended, that he can return where he wanted to go. And you need answers for questions. If a question is still open, there is a certain energy, and that bothers you and you want to get an answer if it stays in you. And that was a feeling of, the question is answered now. The ship is at a known grave and at a known place. And now there is a peace with it. There is a calm with it.
PINTER: And the story's over.
HORVATH: And the story’s over, officially.
PINTER: Esther Horvath is a contributor to National Geographic. She’s a fellow at the International League of Conservation Photographers. And you can find her work on Instagram @estherhorvath.
If you like what you hear and you want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and consider a National Geographic subscription. That is the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe.
There’s a link to subscribe in our show notes. And you can also read the inside story of the discovery of Endurance. Hear from the archaeologists who found it, and see Esther’s photos from the farthest reaches of the Southern Ocean.
Plus we’ve got other stories that you will love. You can see rare photos from the expedition of Robert Falcon Scott. He was one of the first explorers to reach the South Pole in 1912. And if you’re interested in shipwrecks, you may have this romantic idea of sunken treasure. Yeah, it turns out “finders keepers” does not apply. Find out how technology is revealing lost ships and why preservationists are begging treasure hunters to leave shipwrecks alone. That’s all in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.
This week’s Overheard episode was produced by me, Jacob Pinter. Our producers are Khari Douglas and Ilana Strauss. Our senior producers include Brian Gutierrez. Our senior editor is Eli Chen. Our manager of audio is Carla Wills. Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan, who edited this episode. Hansdale Hsu sound-designed this episode and composed our theme music. This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. Michael Tribble is the vice president of integrated storytelling. Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief. And I’m senior producer Jacob Pinter. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.
Read the inside story of the discovery of Endurance, including reactions from the lead researchers and Horvath’s photos from the farthest reaches of the Southern Ocean.
See rare photos from another fabled Antarctic voyage: Robert Falcon Scott’s race to the South Pole in 1912.
Technology has made it easier to find sunken ships and their treasures. See how preservationists protect them—and why “finders keepers” doesn’t apply.
If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please consider a National Geographic subscription. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe today.