Scientists on Antarctic mission to find Ernest Shackleton’s ship

The Endurance, trapped in an Antarctic ice floe in 1915.

Researchers hope to find the lost ship of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton when they set off on a major international scientific expedition next year.

Led by scientists at Cambridge University’s Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI), the team hopes to finally locate the Endurance, which has lain at the bottom of the Weddell Sea since 1915.

Slated for 2019, the scientific mission to investigate the Larsen C Ice Shelf will also search for the wreck 3,000m beneath the waves.

The group, which includes researchers from universities in South Africa and New Zealand, will be the first to use autonomous underwater vehicles to scan the seabed for the ship’s remains.

Thick pack ice and extreme weather are among challenges faced by those who venture to the isolated and wild region, much as Shackleton faced more than a century ago.

SPRI’s director Julian Dowdeswell, chief scientist of the Weddell Sea Expedition 2019, told The Times that the Agulhas II expedition ship would be put to the test by the conditions.

“Whatever ship you have, it’s possible it won’t get there,” said Prof Dowdeswell. “It could be a better or worse sea ice year, so everybody is going into this with their eyes open.”

David Mearns, an American shipwreck hunter, is also preparing to launch an expedition of his own next year to find the Endurance.

Shackleton’s attempt to cross Antarctica began in 1914. He was warned by the Norwegian whalers that that season’s ice was particularly bad in the Weddell Sea, and it extended further north than they had ever seen. Despite this advice, Shackleton departed South Georgia on December 5, 1914, for Antarctic shores, and within two days they were manoeuvring through pack ice.

They finally saw land in the distance on January 17, 1915. However, on the following day, the ship was halted in its course by the ice and was trapped for 10 months before it finally sank.

The explorer and his crew survived for six months, even shooting their pack dogs for meat, before sailing for the uninhabited Elephant Island in three lifeboats, one of which was manned by Tom Crean, the Antarctic explorer from Anascaul, Co Kerry.

Tom Crean heroically kept the Wills afloat, sailing through a labyrinth of ice and battling the rough sea, all while the boat was taking on water and constantly needed to be bailed out.

Conditions on the boat were appalling as the soaked and hungry men suffered from seasickness and diarrhoea and, of course, the freezing temperatures. At night the men would huddle together to generate heat, and would awake covered in permafrost.

Shackleton, himself from Kilkea, Athy, Co Kildare, and five other men, including Crean, then set sail again to seek help at a whaling station on the island of South Georgia, with their perilous two-week journey regarded as one of the most heroic feats of navigation.

After three unsuccessful attempts, the men were finally rescued in August 1916.

Alexandra Shackleton, the explorer’s granddaughter, supports Prof Dowdeswell’s expedition, but as her family owns the wreck, their permission will be needed if any items are to be recovered.

“I would love to see her image. But I’m not sure how I would feel about having her touched,” said Ms Shackleton.

As for the team’s chances of actually finding the Endurance, she said it is a “very big if”.

“People plan to do things in the Antarctic and the Antarctic decides otherwise, as my grandfather found,” she said.


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