Exploration

Shackleton’s lost ship Endurance found in remarkable condition below Antarctic ice

On the 100th anniversary of Shackleton’s funeral, the Endurance22 Expedition has located the iconic ship

  • Mar 10, 2022
  • 633 words
  • 3 minutes
The wreck of Endurance at the bottom of the ocean
The stern of the Endurance with the name and emblematic polestar. (Photo: Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust and National Geographic)
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Sir Ernest Shackleton’s lost ship Endurance — one of the greatest undiscovered shipwrecks — has been found at a depth of 3,008 metres in the Weddell Sea in Antarctica.

Scientists on the Endurance22 Expedition used helicopters, underwater robots and other state-of-the-art technology to find and film the Endurance in one of the most complex and challenging shipwreck searches ever undertaken. Ghostly images and video of the historic ship, which sank during Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition in 1915, show it to be in remarkable condition, despite being crushed by sea ice and submerged three kilometres below the surface of the ocean for over 100 years. Timbers intact, the ship’s stern still bears the name Endurance, visible and defiant.

Acclaimed popular historian, broadcaster and Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society Dan Snow carried the flag of the RCGS on the expedition, an experience he described as “like time travel” in his recounting of the discovery. (The RCGS played a role in the 2014 discovery of another lost ship at the opposite pole: Sir John Franklin’s Erebus.) 

RCGS Fellow Dan Snow holds the RCGS flag aloft during the expedition to discover the Endurance. (Photo: Courtesy of Dan Snow)
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“This has been the most exciting and challenging experience of my career so far,” says Snow, host of the award-winning History Hit podcast. “The team has found not only the world’s most famous shipwreck, but also its most inaccessible. After going through storms, blizzards and thick sea ice we have got some astonishing images of Endurance and a laser scan accurate to within centimetres.”

Describing the crew’s reactions to the find, he says cheers upon seeing the data showing Endurance on the seabed turned to tears of relief as the autonomous underwater vehicle returned safely. 

The Endurance22 Expedition, working from South African polar research ship S.A. Agulhas II, was organized by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust and led by British polar geographer John Shears. 

“It’s been my great privilege and honour to lead [this expedition],” says Shears. “We have made polar history and successfully completed the world’s most challenging shipwreck search.”

Mensun Bound, marine archeologist and director of exploration on the expedition, was “overwhelmed by the good fortune” in finding the vessel and struck by the excellent condition of the 144-foot shipwreck.

“This is by far the finest wooden shipwreck I have ever seen,” says Bound. “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. This is a milestone in polar history.”

The starboard bow of Endurance. (Photo: Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust and National Geographic)
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The wreck’s location was logged by its captain, Frank Worsley, when it went down 107 years ago. Previous attempts to locate the ship, however, failed due to the dangerous conditions of the ice-covered Weddell Sea. Endurance22 found Endurance just six kilometres from the location recorded by Worsley. 

The tale of the 28-man crew’s survival following the wreck has reached legendary status. The men trekked across the Antarctic sea ice, hunting and living off seals and penguins and then setting sail in lifeboats to reach uninhabited Elephant Island. Shackleton and some of his crew were then tasked with rowing 1,300 kilometres to South Georgia before they could seek help from a whaling station. It took four subsequent rescue attempts for Shackleton to eventually pick up the rest of his crew, a whole two years after the Endurance originally set sail from London, England.

The last moments of the Endurance, stuck in an ice floe during Shackleton’s 1915 expedition to the Antarctic. (Photo: Library of Congress)
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“People thought the story of the Endurance was over when it sank in November 1915,” wrote Snow in his newsletter announcing the discovery. “But it wasn’t. Now, we discover how her story ended.

“As Shackleton famously said, ‘By endurance we conquer.’”

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