A Long Lost Ship in the Antarctic May Finally Be Found on the Bottom of the Ocean, Thanks to Science

“By endurance, we conquer” was Sir Ernest Shackleton’s family motto. Shackleton was a famous explorer who braved polar ice and treacherous waters in three near-fatal Antarctic expeditions, and incredibly he endured through all of them.

But what does it take to find endurance? That depends on if you’re talking about the intangible trait or the ship that Shackleton and his crew took from South Georgia Island to Antarctica. The latter—the ship—ultimately broke up and sank.

1915 was the last time anyone saw Endurance. However, next January and February, scientists on a research trip to study the ice in the area where the ship sank are hoping to find it. Finding it will require new technology, century-old notes and a lot of luck.

Endurance “The Endurance” as it was trapped in sea ice in 1915. Frank Hurley / Public Domain

“People make plans in the Antarctic, and the Antarctic decides otherwise,” Alexandra Shackleton, Ernest Shackleton’s granddaughter and president of the James Caird Society, told Newsweek. The James Caird Society is dedicated to honoring the legacy of Ernest Shackleton, so Alexandra Shackleton, deeply familiar with her grandfather's travels, knows all too well that polar plans, like the upcoming voyage, can quickly go south.

Three other expeditions to find Endurance over the years have failed. But this attempt has some better odds, Julian Dowdeswell, director of the Scott Polar Research Institute, told Newsweek. Dowdeswell will be among the researchers on the upcoming voyage. Compared with past attempts to find Endurance, “I think we have the best possible chance,” he said.

This time, the crew will have more sophisticated technology, like GPS, drones to help them see possible routes in the ice and their autonomous underwater vehicle—an advanced and expensive machine called the S.A. Agulhas II, which can search under the ice and go relatively far from the research vessel to scour the ocean depths for Endurance. The crew plans to take a research vessel as close to where the ship sunk as they can, and then to launch the S.A. Agulhas II under the ice and scan the depths for the wreckage.

“We want to photograph it in as much detail as we can,” Dowdeswell explained. “The idea is that would be put to the relevant authorities to make it a historical monument so it will be protected in perpetuity.”

Ms. Shackleton supports the endeavor, but she isn’t sure it will be successful. “I think we probably won’t know where to find her,” she said of her grandfather's ship. “We know exactly where she went down. But the thing is, it was 100 years ago.”

What remains of the ship, resting thousands of feet under the ocean, could have moved or disintegrated over such a long time.

endurancedogs Dogs rescued from “Endurance” watch as the ship breaks. Frank Hurley / Public Domain

Endurance is such an important ship to find because of the incredible story behind it. Ernest Shackleton is an icon of polar exploration, and his gripping tales of survival live on to this day in his books, multiple documentaries and even an off-Broadway play.

It was December 1914 when Ernest Shackleton took a crew aboard Endurance to cross the Antarctic ocean. By January, the ship was caught in ice in the Weddell Sea, and Shackleton and his crew had to abandon the ship, making camp on the frozen landscape. The ice shifted and cracked the hull, and the crew took lifeboats from the doomed vessel. With food supplies and options running low, the crew ate their own dogs. Endurance itself had been conquered by changing weather, and the vessel sank into the ocean the following November.

It was generally considered to be a rough trip.

Surprisingly, Shackleton and his crew survived to leave the Antarctic, but Endurance never sailed again.

PullingLifeboat Members of an expedition team led by Irish explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton pull one of their lifeboats across the snow in the Antarctic, following the loss of the “Endurance”. Hulton Archive/Getty Images


The search for the ship comes second to the scientific research that will take place on the upcoming voyage. In the Antarctic summer of January and February, international explorers will assemble to study an ice shelf and the treacherous Weddell Sea. The explorers come from several institutions, including the Fawcett Lab at the University of Cape Town, South Africa; the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, England; the Nekton Foundation in Oxford, England; the University of Canterbury, in Christchurch, New Zealand; the South African Environmental Observation Network in Pretoria, South Africa; and Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

They primarily plan is to study the sea and Larsen C, a segment of the Larsen Ice Shelf, broke off from the main Antarctic body of ice in July. Larson C will be the subject of physical, chemical and biological analysis. Depending on what researchers find, they may be able to make the case for the Weddell Sea being designated a marine protected area. Even though the area is too hard for many humans to reach and to damage the environment directly, human activity is still causing potentially disruptive changes, Sarah Fawcett of the University of Cape Town’s Department of Oceanography told Newsweek.

“While the Shackleton expedition is exciting and romantic and wonderful, the opportunity to go out there and do science is very important,” Fawcett said.

For both goals—studying the Weddell sea and attempting to find Endurance — the explorers face untold difficulties. But, again, Ernest Shackleton’s words inspire: “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.”

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