Sunken Antarctic Ship Found Largely Intact After 106 Years

If you need a conversation starter at social gatherings this weekend, be sure to mention the exciting discovery of a long-lost ship that wrecked off the coast of Antarctica in 1915. Talk about an icebreaker! The remains of the wooden ship Endurance, which carried polar explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew on a doomed attempt to traverse Antarctica, have often been sought in the 106 years since the abandoned vessel gave way to the pressure of encroaching ice floes and sank into the Weddell Sea, but only this week were the perennial efforts of polar seamen met with success.

Specifically, it was the crew of a mission dubbed Endurance22, led by polar geographer John Shears, which set out from Capetown, South Africa, on February 5 aboard the South African polar research and logistics vessel SA Agulhas II. The team successfully located the shipwrecked remains about 10,000 feet underwater in the Weddell Sea after what Shears described to NPR as “probably the most challenging shipwreck search ever undertaken.”

Frank Hurley, “British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition” (1914-1917). The image depicts Endurance under sail trying to break through pack ice in Weddell Sea, Antarctica, in 1915. (courtesy State Library New South Wales via Wikimedia Commons)

What started out in the spirit of exploring the unknown became a harrowing tale of survival under extraordinarily bleak conditions. For many months in 1915, the Endurance crew attempted to extract the ship from the ice, but Shackleton ultimately gave the order to abandon the ship in October of that year. Weeks later, the ship succumbed to the pressure of the surrounding ice and sank to the bottom of the ocean. The shipless crew would travel and camp across the ice for months, seeking to make contact with the wider world until the last of them was finally rescued in August of 1916. The Aurora, a companion vessel to Endurance, tried to find a second route through Antarctica but was also trapped in ice and lost three of its crew members before the rest were finally rescued in early 1917.

The Endurance22 team (left to right): John Shears, Mensun Bound, Nico Vincent, and JC Caillens (image courtesy Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust, National Geographic, and Esther Horvath)

And yet, polar exploration maintains its allure, with the remains of this fallen vessel serving as one of the greatest discoveries to be made. The team of Endurance22 used sonar to detect the sunken ship, pinpointed roughly four miles from where Frank Worsley, the captain of Endurance, noted the location as he abandoned the stranded vessel in 1915. The crew then an autonomous underwater vehicle equipped with a camera to examine the ship’s hull and the deck, confirming that the find was indeed Endurance.

“We hope our discovery will engage young people and inspire them with the pioneering spirit, courage and fortitude of those who sailed Endurance to Antarctica,” said maritime archaeologist Mensun Bound, director of exploration on the expedition, in a statement. “We pay tribute to the navigational skills of Capt. Frank Worsley, the captain of the Endurance, whose detailed records were invaluable in our quest to locate the wreck.”

SAAgulhas II docked in the sea ice of Weddell Sea, searching for the shipwreck of Endurance (image courtesy Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust, National Geographic, and Esther Horvath)

The ship was found in remarkable condition, still oriented upright, largely intact, and hardly occupied by any life forms in the frigid water. As if to assuage any doubt, the name Endurance is still clearly visibly emblazoned across the ship’s stern.

“You can see inside the hatchways, the stairs,” Shears told NPR. “You can see the ropes and the rigging. It’s as if it sank only yesterday.”

The Endurance is being studied and documented, but ultimately the vessel will stay where it rests, protected as a historical site and monument under the Antarctic Treaty. Set to premiere in the fall of 2022 as part of National Geographic’s EXPLORER series, a documentary about the work of the rescue team will air globally. It is a conclusion to a maritime mystery, and a satisfyingly meta turn of events: A polar expedition becomes the destination of a century of polar expeditions. When it came to finding this particular shipwreck, endurance was certainly the name of the game.

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