Endurance

We recently studied the Heroic Age of Antarctica, which featured major exploratory achievements and set the stage for Ernest Shackleton’s extraordinary tale of survival after the sinking of his ship, the Endurance. That account included a supernatural visitor during a treacherous trek across uncharted mountains. Researchers have since coined this phenomenon the Third Man Factor. Though this introductory paragraph reduces the specifics of this topic to a few sentences, the scope of the saga is immense. Historians, scientists, and adventurers have researched and studied the writings and footage related to Shackleton and Endurance for over a century.

Despite all that attention, the Endurance had one more surprise left for the world in the 21st century.

The Endurance locked in Antarctic ice - photo by Frank Hurley

Though Shackleton led the overall expedition, the official captain of Endurance was Frank Worsley. A native of New Zealand, Worsley gained worldwide notoriety for his ability to navigate the seas. He could connect far-flung, minuscule islands in ways that few others could. This talent obviously created high demand for maritime expeditions, but it seems especially fortuitous that he ended up on Shackleton’s crew. Without him, they likely never make it to Elephant Island or South Georgia and everyone perishes.

Worsley’s skills provided a bonus benefit, as well.

Few shipwrecks in recorded history have attracted as much attention as that of Endurance. Perhaps only the Titanic featured greater worldwide popularity. Dozens of excursions over the decades sought to discover the final resting spot of Endurance. As one might imagine, the extreme conditions of the remote location in which the ship sank made those excursions rather difficult. Finding a boat on the bottom of the ocean is hard enough when Antarctica isn’t involved. Yet, researchers continued to try because they believed in the talent of Frank Worsley.

He kept meticulous notes. In his logbook, he jotted:  68°39’30” South; 52°26’30” West. The coordinates where Endurance finally succumbed to the ice.

Frank Worsley on Endurance

Worsley, with some help from the resident physicist of the expedition, Reginald James, used a sextant and chronometers to document their locations. Using the stars, the men could determine their longitudes. Worsley’s navigational reputation lent a lot of credence to their output.

Modern scientists managed to determine that the chronometers on Endurance were a bit fast. which would alter the location of the sinking a bit. They also specified, however, that Worsley and James weren’t really at fault for this slight error. They used sky charts of the era, which were far less accurate than today’s information. Had they known what we do today, they would have made the necessary changes. Based on the technology and knowledge of the time, their calculations were incredible.

Armed with Worsley’s coordinates, excursion after excursion aimed to find Endurance. Excursion after excursion failed. Submersible vehicles were lost to the ice. 

Reginald James and Frank Worsley taking measurements on the ice - University of Cambridge

Still, researchers pushed forward. In addition to Worsley’s information, scientists had learned a lot about the Antarctic seas in the last several decades. They predicted, based on what they knew about the currents, the floor, and the temperature of the water, odds were high that Endurance would have suffered very little deterioration in the past century. One scientist, Adrian Glover, believed the Antarctic Circumpolar Current would completely eliminate the issue of “ship worms” that plague other wooden shipwrecks. Further, at the depth of the area, they anticipated little sediment to cover the ship.

Remarkably, on 5 March 2022, 106 years after it sank, a crew rediscovered Endurance.

And the predictions were correct. The footage of the ship almost appears to be fabricated, the ship looks so good.

One of the first images of the rediscovered Endurance - FMHT/National Geographic
The bow of the ship - FMHT/National Geographic

Endurance’s resting spot is 9,868 feet below the surface. Her condition is outstanding. Marine archaeologist Mensun Bound noted, “Without any exaggeration this is the finest wooden shipwreck I have ever seen – by far. It is upright, well proud of the seabed, intact, and in a brilliant state of preservation.”

The Endurance22 team found Shackleton’s ship just four nautical miles from the point logged in Frank Worsley’s notes. For 1915, that’s amazing.

Endurance was photographed, filmed, and mapped with three-dimensional software, but she will never be salvaged. The ship sits in a maritime preserve. Though she still rests beneath the waves, the long tale of Ernest Shackleton and Endurance finally found a closing chapter!

Check out the video below for mesmerizing footage of the discovery.

Before - from Hulton Archive
After - FMHT/National Geographic
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