Expedition to a wreck saved from same icy fate
SA ship rescues weather-battered team searching for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance
Scientists trying to reach a famous ship swallowed by Antarctic ice 104 years ago have themselves had to flee aboard an SA ship for fear of suffering the same fate.
The international team aboard the SA Agulhas II reportedly had a narrow escape from treacherous conditions, but not before losing a high-tech underwater vehicle.
The unmanned vehicle now becomes the second wreck in the remote Weddell Sea following the loss of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s iconic polar ship Endurance in 1915.
“The weather closed in and the sea ice conditions deteriorated, leading to the loss of AUV7, one of the state-of-the-art specialist submersible autonomous underwater vehicles, which was being deployed to locate the (Endurance) wreck,” the expedition leaders said on Thursday.
The scientific team, which includes several SA researchers travelling aboard SA’s ice-breaking research ship, has been studying the ice shelves around the Weddell Sea for the past five weeks – in particular the massive Larsen C Ice Shelf. Locating the Endurance wreck was one of the expedition’s objectives.
“Despite round-the-clock efforts to recover AUV7, and with the risk of the expedition vessel, the South African polar research vessel, SA Agulhas II, becoming trapped in the ice, the expedition leaders decided to abandon the current search for Endurance,” the leaders said.
The SA Agulhas reached the wreck vicinity earlier this week – the first ship to do so since the Endurance sank – amid high hopes of locating the wreck 3,000m below the surface.
The original Endurance expedition, led by famous polar explorer Shackleton, had been attempting to make the first land crossing of Antarctica via the South Pole. The expedition was eventually rescued, but only after Shackleton and five crew survived a daring 1,300km journey to reach South Georgia and find help.
Fortunately, history did not repeat itself this week despite the extreme weather, but the team were disappointed to lose the underwater vessel which lost contact with the SA Agulhas II near the end of its operation under the ice.
“AUV7 had conducted what is believed to be the longest and deepest dedicated under-ice survey ever, lasting over 30 hours,” the researchers said. “It is not known whether AUV7 captured images of Endurance on the seabed before contact was lost.”
Mensun Bound, director of exploration on the expedition, said: “As a team we are clearly disappointed not to have been successful in our mission to find Endurance.
“Like Shackleton before us, who described the graveyard of Endurance as ‘the worst portion of the worst sea in the world’, our well-laid plans were overcome by the rapidly moving ice, and what Shackleton called ‘the evil conditions of the Weddell Sea’."
John Shears, polar geographer and expedition leader, said failure to find Endurance should not detract from the overall success of the mission.
“The Weddell Sea expedition team are truly disappointed that after such a huge effort, and overcoming several major setbacks, we have not been able to find Endurance," he said.
“We are, however, very proud of our other achievements over the past weeks in Antarctica. We have greatly surpassed our primary expedition objective of undertaking pioneering scientific research at the Larsen C ice shelf. We have also conducted an unprecedented educational outreach programme, allowing children from around the world to engage in real time with the expedition and our adventures from the outset.
“We will shortly begin our return leg to Cape Town, after an expedition which has been my great privilege and honour to lead. The expedition team, and the officers and crew of the SA Agulhas II, have been simply outstanding.”
The current expedition team, which set off early last month, includes glaciologists, marine biologists, oceanographers and marine archaeologists. They are due back in Cape Town in March.
“By uncovering vital new scientific data, the expedition is helping to improve our understanding of the Weddell Sea, and to use that knowledge to contribute towards the protection of the region and to inspire young people about science, engineering and technology,” an expedition statement said.