Mystery of Shackleton's ship set to be solved at last
SA Agulhas II to carry British scientists in race to find lost shipwreck of Ernest Shackleton's Endurance
When on November 21 1915 the polar explorer ship Endurance finally yielded to the Antarctic pack ice, Ernest Shackleton and his crew began one of the most gruelling survival attempts in history.
Their five-month ordeal on the ice floes followed by the all-or-nothing 720-nautical-mile dash to South Georgia has since become the stuff of legend, pored over by scholars and adventurers for more than a century.
But of the ship itself, no trace has been detected since the day it went down.
On Monday, a British-led team announced it was setting out to find the wreck of Endurance, thought to be at rest three kilometres beneath the Larsen C Ice Shelf in the Weddell Sea.
Operating from the research vessel SA Agulhas II, the expedition will use the most advanced unmanned submarines in the world to scour the seabed.
But they will also arrive armed with an equally important tool: information from the diary of Captain Frank Worsley, the renowned navigator who was recording precise sextant readings even as the ship went down.
At least three previous plans to find the stricken Endurance have failed. If the new Weddell Sea Expedition 2019 succeeds, the ship will be listed as a historic monument, protected under international law.
In 2013, scientists at London’s Natural History Museum said they believed the ship may have been preserved from wood-boring worms by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current.
“If the expedition finds the wreck, we will survey, photograph and film it and document its condition,” said Professor Julian Dowdeswell, director of the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, who is leading the team.
“If there are deep-water marine species colonising the wreck, the marine biologists may try to obtain scientific samples using the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), if that can be deployed above the site from the ship.
“However, we will not remove any items from the wreck.”
Built in Norway in 1912, the Endurance was arguably the strongest wooden ship ever built, with an 216-cm keel made from four pieces of soil oak. But unlike some “bowl-bottomed” ships of the period, it was not designed to rise out of the ice when it closed in.
It meant that when the ship became beset amid the polar pack ice, the pressure was taken by the hull, which gave up after 10 months.
Shackleton and his 27 crew members subsequently spent weeks surviving on the ice, hoping it would drift them towards safety. Eventually they used three lifeboats to reach Elephant Island. Shackleton and five others then set sail for South Georgia in search of help, arriving two weeks later.
It was not until August 1916 that the last of his crew were rescued.
Funded by the Flotilla Foundation, the new expedition will send drones ahead of the SA Agulhas II to chart the best route through the ice.
The effort to locate the Endurance will be undertaken alongside a detailed scientific study of the Larsen C Ice Shelf, which is acutely susceptible to atmospheric warming from above and ocean warming from below. The fourth-largest ice shelf in Antarctica, the body was 44,030 square kilometres in area in July 2017.
“Our expedition will be the first to use autonomous underwater vehicles,” said Dowdeswell. “Because AUVs can free-swim, it is not necessary for the vessel to be directly above the wreck location. So long as we can get close enough to the location with the ship, we can deploy the AUVs under the ice and conduct the search.”
When the Endurance became trapped it was sailing to drop Shackleton off for the beginning of his bid to cross Antarctica. In 2016, Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Worsley, a distant relation of the ship’s master, Captain Frank Worsley, died just 48km short of achieving the feat himself.
– © The Daily Telegraph