The Discovery of Shackleton’s Endurance Shipwreck Is a Pivotal Moment

Scientific expeditions rarely focus on only one subject. The Endurance22 voyage’s main goal to uncover the shipwreck of the long-lost Ernest Shackleton vessel Endurance was a success because it is now found. But there was also a lot of important science done along the way. The multinational team broke records and collected samples in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. Information they collected about weather forecasting, ice coverage, and even ship engineering is invaluable to future exploration in the Southern Ocean.

I spent more than 10 years doing research at sea, including on the South African icebreaker Agulhas II that found Endurance. It’s exciting to see footage of the storied ship that’s been sitting 10,000 feet below the ice for over 100 years. But I’m also interested in all the other insights. Access to the areas around Antarctica is as difficult now as it was in Shackleton’s time. A lot of questions remain about the ice coverage, ocean currents, and even what animals live there. The information collected on this extraordinary trip will provide answers but may take years to study.

The History of Endurance
Shackleton (left) surveys the Endurance shortly before the ship sunk
Scott Polar Research Institute

Before we get into the recent findings, let’s take a look back at how this ship ended up at the bottom of the ocean. The Endurance sank as part of the failed attempt to first cross Antarctica. A Norwegian team first reached the South Pole only a few years prior, in 1911. Shackleton planned to reach the continent via the Weddell Sea and walk the 1,700 miles to the Ross Sea, via the South Pole. The journey began at the beginning of summer in the Southern hemisphere in December 1914. By mid-January 1915, the ship was already trapped in the ice. The team lived on the ship as the ice pack floated hundreds of miles north for many months. In October they abandoned ship with the supplies they had left, including the ship’s lifeboats, as it began to break apart.

Endurance sank on November 21, 1915. The crew continued to live on the ice until it was clear enough to sail the lifeboats to Elephant Island. They reached land in April 1916 but assumed their chances of rescue from such a remote location were slim. Shackleton and a few crew members took a lifeboat to South Georgia Island, 800 miles away. They made contact with a whaling station there and in August 1916 the rest of the crew were finally rescued. Though they had to make tough decisions on what to carry with them at every stage, photos and even video footage from the doomed expedition exists.

The remarkable condition of the Shackleton Endurance shipwreck when it was found makes the discovery even more exciting. It sits upright on the ocean floor and didn’t break apart during its descent or when it came to rest. There is beautiful footage of the ship from the bow all the way to the name written on the stern. Elsewhere in Earth’s oceans, wooden ships don’t always fare as well. Animals like shipworms (which are actually clams) bore into wood and break apart shipwrecks. They don’t live near Antarctica because wood doesn’t naturally end up there. Instead, they evolved in areas where trees make it into the ocean as a source of food and shelter. Researchers tested this theory, leaving wood planks in the ocean and retrieving them years later. Those near Antarctica were still in pristine condition whereas the planks sunk off the coast of California were infested.

The All-Powerful Saab Sabertooth Robot
Saab Sabertooth robot being deployed into the ocean from the research ship Agulhas II Shackleton shipwreck Endurance found
Esther Horvath / Endurance22

So, what kind of machinery would you need to explore these harsh conditions? A very good robot, that’s what.  Data-collecting robots are integral to scientific exploration in hard to reach places like Antarctica. This expedition used a hybrid ROV (remotely-operated vehicle) and AUV (autonomous underwater vehicle) called the Saab Sabertooth. It is capable of moving through a pre-programmed search grid but the pilots back on the ship can also take over when needed. The Sabertooth sends real-time video and information to the ship using a miles-long cable.

The search grid was 120 square nautical miles around the position recorded by the Endurance‘s captain as the ship sank in 1915. The Sabertooth dove deeper and farther from the ship than ever recorded. Sonar and echosounders mapped the seafloor looking for the shipwreck. Once found, the Sabertooth expanded its detailed measurements, including taking a 3D scan. 4K video and photos were also recorded. The shipwreck was declared a historical monument in 2019, after a previous expedition on Agulhas II made it through the ice but didn’t locate Endurance. This protection means nothing can be touched or removed. Instead, 3D models will be made for archeologists to study and for display in a museum.

Interdisciplinary Excitement Over Amazing Findings

Though biology wasn’t a focus of the onboard research, footage from the shipwreck excited animal lovers and scientists. Anemones, sea stars, and other animals that filter food out of the water have made Endurance their home. Even at a depth of 10,000 feet, life finds a way.

“The higher you can get off of the seafloor, the better,” says Kirstin Meyer-Kaiser, a marine biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who studies life on shipwrecks. “Currents are slowest near the seafloor, so elevation exposes suspension-feeders to faster flow and higher food supply. One of the things that continually confounds me about shipwrecks is that you have these habitats in the middle of nowhere that are not supposed to exist, and inevitably, they become colonized by species that are expected to stay close to home.”

The South African Weather Service also deployed weather balloons and took daily readings to improve their forecasting abilities. During Sabertooth deployments, a team of researchers went out onto the sea ice to take measurements and collect ice cores. “The Weddell Sea is an area where we have extremely little data, so every datapoint acquired is crucial for a better understanding of the sea ice system,” says Christian Katlein, a physicist on the Endurance22 expedition. “This scientific output is independent from the fact that we found the wreck, however a long search time allowed for a lot of scientific investigation as well.”

The People Behind the Endurance Mission

The team found the Shackleton Endurance shipwreck at nearly the last possible moment. The Sabertooth had already been through 80% of its search grid. Researchers onboard were talking about the possibility of having to try for a third time.  Katlein posted YouTube videos of every step of the expedition process, from packing and travel through the excitement of the discovery. Though there is limited internet bandwidth when you’re posting from the middle of the ocean, other scientists onboard shared insights through Twitter and TikTok. Everything from ASMR videos to photos of the ship’s crew throwing a celebratory braai (South African barbeque) show the enthusiasm of everyone involved in Endurance22. After they found incredible things, the team also visited the Ernest Shackleton gravesite on South Georgia Island during the return trip from Endurance to Cape Town.

National Geographic will release a documentary about the expedition later this year. I can’t wait for the behind the scenes footage when Endurance was seen for the first time since it sank in 1915. The discovery of one of the most legendary historical shipwreck is only the beginning.

Featured Image: Esther Horvath / Endurance22

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