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Endurance pays off: SA crew hailed after fabled polar shipwreck ...

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Endurance pays off: SA crew hailed after fabled polar shipwreck found

SA’s ice-breaking polar research ship powers into the history books, discovering the 1915 wreck of the Endurance

Senior reporter
The Endurance was found 3,008m under the Antarctic ice on March 5 2022.
BURIED TREASURE The Endurance was found 3,008m under the Antarctic ice on March 5 2022.
Image: Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust/National Geographic

It was an imperial mission — a scientific expedition to extend the influence of the British Empire. But it was a ship captain from democratic SA who led rescuers to the wreck of the Endurance close to the South Pole.

The expedition team, and the officers and crew of the SA Agulhas II, have been outstanding. We have made polar history with the discovery of Endurance, and successfully completed the world’s most challenging shipwreck search.
Expedition leader Dr John Shears

Captain Knowledge Bengu and the South African crew aboard SA’s ice-breaking SA Agulhas II were the toast of the scientific world on Wednesday after news that the Endurance had finally been found, following years of searching. The wreck was located at a depth of 3,008m thanks to years of planning and plotting, and with the help of hi-tech underwater search vehicles. A previous expedition failed when the team lost one of their submersibles beneath the ice and thickening ice sheets forced the ship to retreat.

AMSOL, the South African company which provided crew and support personnel, on Wednesday congratulated its team for the historic achievement: “Since 2019, we have been proud to be part of the team involved in the quest to locate the wreck; a unique project that drew on expertise from across our company,” said AMSOL CEO Paul Maclons. “I extend my thanks to captain Knowledge Bengu, officers, crew and AMSOL support personnel for their professionalism and commitment to the objectives of this voyage.”

The Endurance trapped in the Antarctic ice before sinking.
FROZEN The Endurance trapped in the Antarctic ice before sinking.
Image: Archive

The team also drew praise from expedition leader Dr John Shears: “The expedition team, officers and crew of the SA Agulhas II, have been simply outstanding,” Shears said. “We have made polar history with the discovery of Endurance, and successfully completed the world’s most challenging shipwreck search. We have also undertaken important scientific research in a part of the world that directly affects the global climate and environment,” Shears said.

To reach the remote wreck site in the Weddell Sea, the SA Agulhas had to break through numerous ice floes, similar to those that ensnared the Endurance in 1915 when an expedition team led by Sir Ernest Shackleton failed to complete the first land crossing of Antarctica. The expedition failed after the Endurance became trapped in the dense pack ice, forcing the crew of 28 to abandon ship and spend months in makeshift camps on the ice floes, drifting northwards. The thickening ice eventually crushed the ship, which sunk, and the crew had to escape in life rafts.

Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1914-1917 expedition.
Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1914-1917 expedition.
Image: Wikipedia

By comparison the Endurance22 expedition members could travel to the Weddell Sea in relative luxury, thanks to the hi-tech Agulhas II, acquired by SA from a Finnish shipyard in 2012 for R1,3bn.

In an interview with the Sunday Times earlier this year, Bengu said he felt “very privileged” to have been afforded the opportunity to command the SA Agulhas II to the Weddell Sea. “I am definitely proud of our country’s contribution as a traditional seafaring nation. This will showcase our skills and expertise to the world,” Bengu said.

The SA Agulhas II in the Antarctic's Weddell Sea.
SHIP SHAPE The SA Agulhas II in the Antarctic's Weddell Sea.
Image: Weddell Sea Expedition

Donald Lamont, chairperson of the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust, in a letter to Bengu, highlighted the essential role played by the South African ship: “As we began planning this expedition, we looked no further than SA for the ship we needed and for the master, ice pilot and crew who could get us to where we are today. You ensured our expedition team had the right platform in the right place and at the right time. This is your success and that of those who serve under you.”

Mensun Bound, director of exploration on the expedition, said images taken by the submersibles revealed the wreck to be “by far the finest wooden shipwreck I have ever seen”.  It is upright, well proud of the seabed, intact, and in a brilliant state of preservation. You can even see Endurance arced across the stern, directly below the taffrail. This is a milestone in polar history.

“We are overwhelmed by our good fortune in having located and captured images of Endurance,” he said. 

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