Shackleton’s lost shipwreck discovered off Antarctica

Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship has not been seen since it was crushed by the ice and sank in the Weddell Sea in 1915.

REPORTER Nickolas Jensen

Explorer Ernest Shackleton’s famous vessel of discovery Endurance has been found east of the Antarctic Peninsula, with maritime experts describing it as one of the most “brilliantly preserved” shipwrecks in naval history.

More than a century after it was crushed by sea ice, Shackleton’s Endurance, one of the most significant vessels in polar history, has been found at the bottom of the Weddell Sea by a team of marine archaeologists, who deployed underwater drones to identify the ship.

The vessel was crushed by ice in January 1915, forcing Shackleton and his crew to launch a remarkable escape, first on foot and then by lifeboat.

The crew camped on the sea ice until the ship ruptured. They then launched lifeboats to Elephant Island and then South Georgia Island, a British overseas territory that lies around 1400km east of the Falkland Islands.

Despite the hardships, all of the crew survived.

Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, considered one the last expeditions of the so-called Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration, began in 1914 and ended in 1917.

Before Endurance was trapped, the expedition intended to make the first land crossing of Antarctica.

With three masts and 44m length, Endurance was considered one of the strongest wooden vessels ever built at the time of its launch in 1912.

The Endurance was discovered at a depth of 3008m in the Weddell Sea, about 6km from where it was slowly crushed by pack ice.

For decades maritime historians considered it to be one of the most celebrated shipwrecks that had not been found, lost in an area that many considered unreachable. Marine archaeologists located the ship’s remains 3000m down.

For two weeks, the team scoured a range of search areas, investigating specific targets of interest, before uncovering the Shipwreck on Saturday – on the 100th anniversary of Shackleton’s funeral.

Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance trapped in Antarctic ice. Picture: Getty Images

The explorers used underwater drones to find and film the shipwreck in the merciless Weddell Sea, which has a swirling current that sustains a mass of thick sea ice that can challenge even modern ice breakers.

Shackleton himself described the site of the sink as “the worst portion of the worst sea in the world”.

The region remains one of the most difficult parts of the ocean to navigate. “This has been the most complex subsea project ever undertaken,” said Nico Vincent, the mission’s subsea project manager.

When marine archaeologists discovered the ship, after navigating shifting ice floes and battling blizzards, they hit upon a vessel they described as “remarkably pristine”.

While the pressure of the ice badly damaged the ship before it sank, researchers said the cold water and absence of wood-eating marine organisms had kept much of the structure intact and large sections of the vessel in a “brilliant state of preservation”.

Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton.

Polar geographer John Shears, who led the expedition that launched in early February, described the discovery as an “incredible achievement”, saying the moment cameras landed on the ship’s name plate was “jaw-dropping”.

The underwater drones produced stunningly clear images of the 144-foot-long ship. Amazingly, the helm has remained intact after more than a century underwater, with gear piled against the taffrail as if Shackleton’s crew had only recently left it.The ship’s wooden timbers, while damaged from the crush of ice that sank in, still hold together. Sea anemones, sponges and other small ocean life made homes on the wreckage, but did not appear to have damaged it.

“We have successfully completed the world’s most difficult shipwreck search, battling constantly shifting sea ice, blizzards, and temperatures dropping down to -18C. We have achieved what many people said was impossible,” Dr Shears said.

Director of exploration Mensun Bound said: “Without any exaggeration, this is the finest wooden shipwreck I have ever seen.

“It is upright, well proud of the seabed, intact, and in a brilliant state of preservation.”

He added: “We are overwhelmed by our good fortune in having located and captured images of Endurance.”

The search for Shackleton’s ship was launched by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust in mid-February and was conducted from a South African icebreaker, Agulhas II, which departed the search zone on Tuesday on its return voyage to Cape Town.

Since its discovery researchers have recorded a detailed photographic survey of the ship’s timbers and surrounding debris field.

Under the international Antarctic Treaty, the shipwreck is a designated monument and must not be disturbed. No artefacts were removed from the seabed.

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