Finding the shipwreck of Endurance

One of the most interesting stories to catch my eye in the last week or two whilst war has been raging in Ukraine is that of the discovery of the lost ship of explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton down in the Antarctic. You might remember 2 years or so ago I wrote on Visiting the home of Edward Adrian Wilson – a forgotten hero who died with Captain Scott of the Antarctic.

The wreck of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance has been found 107 years after it became trapped in sea ice and sank off the coast of Antarctica.

The Endurance

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton  was an Anglo-Irish Antarctic explorer who led three expeditions to the frozen continent. 

He was at the heart of a period in history that later came to be known as the ‘Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration’.

Born in Ireland, Shackleton moved to London with his family when he was 10 and first experienced polar climates as an officer on Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery expedition of 1901–1904.

He was sent home early from that expedition after work experiencing poor health that had been ascribed to scurvy. New studies suggest he had beriberi. 

During the Nimrod expedition of 1907–1909, Shackleton and his companions created a new recorded of farthest south latitude at 88 degrees south. 

Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust said the wooden ship, which had not been seen since it went down in the Weddell Sea in 1915, was found at a depth of 9,868 feet (3,008 metres). 

Remarkable footage of the wreck shows it has been astonishingly preserved, with the ship’s wheel still intact and the name ‘Endurance’ still perfectly visible on the ship’s stern.

The Endurance22 Expedition had set off from Cape Town, South Africa in February this year, a month after the 100th anniversary of Sir Ernest’s death on a mission to locate it. 

Endurance was found approximately four miles south of the position originally recorded by the ship’s captain Frank Worsley, but within the search area defined by the expedition team before its departure from Cape Town.

Back in 1915, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew set out to achieve the first land crossing of Antarctica, but Endurance did not reach land and became trapped in dense pack ice, forcing the 28 men on board to eventually abandon ship.  

For the mission, the expedition team worked from the South African polar research and logistics vessel, S.A. Agulhas II, assisted by non-intrusive underwater search robots. 

The wreck is protected as a Historic Site and Monument under the Antarctic Treaty, ensuring that whilst the wreck is being surveyed and filmed it will not be touched or disturbed in any way, according to the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust. 

The expedition’s director of exploration said footage of Endurance showed it to be intact and ‘by far the finest wooden shipwreck’ he has seen. 

‘We are overwhelmed by our good fortune in having located and captured images of Endurance,’ said Mensun Bound, maritime archaeologist and director of the exploration. 

‘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, directly below the taffrail.

‘This is a milestone in polar history.’

Bound also paid tribute to the navigational skills of Captain Frank Worsley, the Captain of the Endurance, whose detailed records were ‘invaluable’ in the quest to locate the wreck. 

Dr John Shears, the expedition leader, said his team had made ‘polar history’ by completing what he called ‘the world’s most challenging shipwreck search’.

‘In addition, we have undertaken important scientific research in a part of the world that directly affects the global climate and environment,’ Dr Shears said.

The preservation of Endurance is quite remarkable, but not totally unexpected. 

The Antarctic circumpolar current — an ocean current that flows clockwise from west to east around Antarctica — has essentially acted as barrier to the larvae of deep-water species that could have eaten away at the ship’s wood.

‘Tiny “shipworms” — small bivalve molluscs — that normally eat wood in well oxygenated oceans are absent from Antarctica, just as they are absent from the Baltic and Black Seas, other remarkable wooden shipwreck “vaults”. 

‘So the findings from the new discovery are important not just from a historical perspective but also in terms of understanding the ecology and evolution of life in Antarctica. It’s a great day for Antarctic archaeology and science.’  

The expedition team has also been filming for a long-form observational documentary chronicling the expedition which has been commissioned by National Geographic to air later this year on Disney+. 

Endurance was one of two ships used by the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition of 1914-1917, which hoped to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic.

Just as the First World War was breaking out in August 1914, the Endurance’s crew set out from London with the lofty ambition of becoming the first to cross the Antarctic continent. 

Carrying an expedition crew of 28 men, 69 dogs and one cat, the 144-foot-long Endurance was a three-masted schooner barque sturdily built for operations in polar waters.

Aiming to land at Antarctica’s Vahsel Bay, the vessel instead became stuck in pack ice on the Weddell Sea on the 18th January, 1915 — where she and her crew would remain for many months. 

The last moments of Endurance

In late October, however, a drop in temperature from 42°F to -14°F (5.5C to -25.5C) saw the ice pack begin to steadily crush the Endurance. 

Sadly, Shackleton decided that the mission sled dogs and the tomcat,  called Mrs Chippy, that were also on board would not survive the rest of their journey, and had them shot on the 29th October. 

Endurance never reached land and became trapped in the dense pack ice and the 28 men on board eventually had no choice but to abandon ship. 

Endurance finally sank on the 21st November, 1915. 

After months spent in makeshift camps on the ice floes drifting northwards, the party took to the lifeboats to reach the inhospitable, uninhabited, Elephant Island. The men had allegedly had to resort to eating bodies of some of the youngest dogs that had been on board.  

Most of the men remained at Elephant Island while Shackleton and five others then made an extraordinary 800-mile (1,300 km) open-boat journey in the lifeboat, James Caird, to reach South Georgia, an island in the southern Atlantic Ocean. 

Shackleton and two others then crossed the mountainous island to the whaling station at Stromness. 

On board the steam tug Yelcho — on loan to him from the Chilean Navy — Shackleton was able to return to rescue the rest of his crew on the 30th August, 1916.  


Type: Three-masted schooner barque

Former name: Polaris*

Builder: Framnæs shipyards, Norway

Launched: 17th December, 1912 

Crew complement: 28 

Length: 144 feet (44 metres)

Beam: 25 feet (7.6 metres)

Tonnage: 348 register tons

Propulsion: Steam and sail 

Max. speed: 10.2 knots (11.7 mph)

Sank: Weddell Sea, 21st November, 1915

Notable features: Strengthened hull and denser framework custom-designed for operation in polar waters

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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4 Responses to Finding the shipwreck of Endurance

  1. Pingback: Finding the shipwreck of Endurance – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  2. ThingsHelenLoves says:

    Fascinating! Funnily enough, the movie ( Or I should say film, being British) Endurance popped up on Amazon and I’ve stuck it on the watch list. I’m not sure any fiction will do the real life tale justice, though?

    Good to see you back and blogging, Stephen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, I didn’t even know there was a film on it. Sometimes my stats go through the roof as a film comes out or a TV documentary is shown somewhere about the theme in one of my posts! I might watch this tonight given I have caught up with Peaky Blinders! PS Thankyou!


  3. Pingback: The Quest for a relic from a journey of Discovery by Ernest Shackleton. | Stephen Liddell

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