One hundred and six years ago, in the Weddell Sea, east of the Antarctic Peninsula, explorer Ernest Shackleton ordered his men to abandon ship. It was eight and a half degrees below zero; the wind was calm. Shackleton’s crew – twenty-eight men, forty-nine dogs and a cat – had spent a winter stuck in the ice – “frozen”, as one sailor put it, “like an almond in the middle of a bar of chocolate”. Shackleton shouted, “Here she goes, boys!” as ten million tons of ice pushed against the ship’s wooden sides, which were two feet thick in some places. The bridge has warped. On November 21, 1915, the stern rose, the bow descended and the Endurance sank. Frank Worsley, the ship’s captain, noted the coordinates in his journal: 68°39′ South, 52°26′ West.
In 2019, a double-hulled red icebreaker known as SA Agulhas II charted a course from Cape Town, South Africa, to the coordinates of Worsley. An expedition led by John Shears, a veteran polar geographer, and led by Mensun Bound, an Oxford man who has been called “the last of the gentleman archaeologists”, was searching for Shackleton’s ship, believed to be intact, ten thousand feet underground. what Shackleton called “the worst part of the world’s worst sea”. The shipment did not go well. One day, the team’s autonomous underwater vehicle, or AUV, that conducted the search went missing. Another time, the Agulhas II got stuck in the ice for three days. “It was an absolute disaster,” Shears recalled the other day in a video call from the Agulhas II, which had embarked on a second expedition in search of the Endurance. He wore a gray fleece and carried a radio on his hip. “To go from this complete and utter failure to this utter and utter success is quite breathtaking.” Bound, who grew up in the Falkland Islands and worked in the engine room of a steamship after high school, added: “This is the pinnacle of life for me.” He laughed, then yawned. “We are running on empty.”
The crew had spent eighteen days hunting the Endurance. A team of engineers worked in temperatures of minus eighteen degrees on the ship’s aft deck to deploy Saab Sabertooth AUVs, which use sonar sensors to create an image of the seabed. Sea ice scientists have studied floes; the helicopter team organized a table tennis competition to pass the time. Occasionally, colonies of crabeater seals and emperor penguins approached the stern of the ship. Every evening, Bound and Shears met for a cup of Earl Gray tea and a single square of Lindt dark chocolate. Time is running out: “We only had three days before we had to abandon the search because of the approaching Antarctic winter,” Shears said. “I knew that at any moment the weather could change.”
Shears, who is 60, continued: “The day before the wreckage was found, we had a musical evening. I thought Shackleton was throwing music nights. They were listening to the gramophone, and Hussey – the ship’s meteorologist – “played his banjo. Our men were a little depressed and worried about ‘Are we going to find her?’ I wanted to try to cheer up. That night, a cadet sang Alicia Keys’ “Good Job” and a historian recited Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses.” Someone led the band in “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”, which Hussey liked to play for the penguins on the ice floe in 1914. The next day, Bound and Shears asked the ship’s crane operator to lower them onto the ice in a rope. basket. Shears looked at the expanse: gray sky, white iceberg, sea water frozen forever. “Today is a good day,” he said. “I think she’s under my feet!” Bound smiled as a penguin danced across the ice. The two returned to the deck. “Literally, as soon as we set foot on the ship, there was the deck, on the intercom, demanding our presence, immediately,” Bound recalled.
“My first reaction was that I was extremely worried,” Shears added. “I was thinking about safety and I thought we had lost an AUV”
On the bridge, Nico Vincent, who oversees the underwater vehicle team, brandishes his iPhone. “Gentlemen, let me introduce you to the Endurance,” he said, displaying a high-resolution sonar image of the wreckage. The Endurance was lying upright on the seabed; the ship’s wheel was almost perfectly intact and a pink and white sea anemone had attached itself to the deck railing. Ropes and wood were strewn across the deck. The men burst into laughter and applause. “I’m not normally at a loss for words, but I was speechless,” Shears said. “It’s like she sank yesterday.” The water is so cold there were no grumpy worms to eat the wood. Bound said, “Look at the vernissage! You can see the plugging between the seams. That night, Bound and Shears celebrated: of them cups of tea, and of them chocolate squares. In the morning they set sail for South Georgia Island, where Shackleton was buried.
“This seems like the right way to end this project,” Bound said.
“We discovered the ship on March 5, 2022. And Shackleton was buried on March 5, 1922,” Shears said. “A hundred years later, we found the wreckage.” ♦