What happened to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship the Endurance?

Polar explorer left stranded with 27 crew in wastes of Antarctica in 1915 after vessel trapped in pack ice

Wreck of Shackleton's ship Endurance found off coast of Antarctica

The ship of legendary polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton has been found in the icy wastes of the Weddell Sea off Antarctica 107 years after it sank, pitching the great adventurer and his 27-strong crew into a desperate battle for survival against the elements from which they barely escaped to tell the tale.

The Endurance, a wooden three-masted barquentine in its prime, was first launched in Sandefjord, Norway, in 1912 before bringing Sir Ernest to South Georgia Island to commence his doomed Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914, an ambitious bid to cross the world’s southernmost continent on foot just as the First World War was breaking out in Europe.

But the ship immediately hit difficulties as it set out from South Georgia, becoming trapped in the pack ice and eventually pulled under by the pressure after several months frozen in place, leaving its inhabitants marooned at the end of the earth.

The announcement of its rediscovery on Wednesday by Endurance22, a team of explorers that set out from Cape Town, South Africa, aboard the Agulhas II, comes exactly a century on from Sir Ernest’s death and brings the stunning news that the Endurance remains very much intact.

“The wreck is coherent, in an astonishing state of preservation,” tweeted TV historian Dan Snow, part of the Endurance22 team. “The Antarctic seabed does not have any wood eating micro organisms, the water has the clarity of distilled water.”

Equally euphoric was expedition director Mensun Bound, who located the vessel at a depth of 3,008 metres below the waves and just four miles south of the spot where it was last sighted by original captain Frank Worsley.

“It couldn’t be better. She’s bold, she’s beautiful. It’s everything I’ve ever dreamed of,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Born in 1876 in Kilkea in County Kildare, Ireland, Ernest Shackleton was a voracious reader who grew up craving new horizons and quickly pronounced himself “bored” of schooling after the family relocated to London and sent him to the prestigious Dulwich College.

Determined to go to sea, he secured his first job with the North Western Shipping Company aged 16 aboard the Hoghton Tower, before going on to become a Royal Navy officer and taking part in two British expeditionary voyages to Antarctica prior to the horrific events of 1915.

The first, the Discovery expedition of 1901-03 under Captain Robert Falcon Scott, saw a record Furthest Southern latitude reached but was hampered by sickness rife among the men and dogs.

The second, the Nimrod expedition of 1907-09, this time led by Shackleton himself, ventured even further but failed to reach the South Pole as intended (Norwegian Roald Amundsen would eventually become the first man to achieve that goal in 1911). However, it did see the first ascent of Mount Erebus, a giant volcano, and the discovery of the approximate location of the South Magnetic Pole, which Shackleton and his team reached on 16 January 1909.

Sir Ernest Shackleto and two members of his expedition team beside a Union Jack within 111 miles of the South Pole

Subsequently made a knight of the realm in honour of his exploits, the adventurer soon planned a third expedition, which was intended to see him become the first person to traverse the 1,800-mile length of Antarctica alongside his team from the Endurance and with the aid of a second ship, the Aurora, setting out from Australia for the south of the continent to provide support and supplies.

The Endurance arrived on South Georgia in December 1914 with a view to crossing the Weddell Sea as summer dawned in the Southern Hemisphere, giving it the best possible chance of beating a path through the ice when it was at its weakest.

However, all did not go according to plan.

“I had been prepared for evil conditions in the Weddell Sea, but had hoped that the pack would be loose,” Sir Ernest wrote in his journal. “What we were encountering was fairly dense pack of a very obstinate character.”

By 19 January 1915, the Endurance had already become hopelessly lodged in the ice and unable to move.

The crew’s efforts to chisel, leaver and pick their vessel free proved futile and worse, the ice was beginning to drift north, effectively towing them away from their destination.

Shackleton led three expeditions to the Antarctic in the early 20th century

With only primitive radio communication at their disposal and no one to answer a distress call for hundreds of miles, Sir Ernest’s men found themselves imprisoned aboard the ship for half a year, their supplies slowly but surely dwindling before winter descended in May.

By the August and September of 1915, bitter storms began to batter the Endurance, until finally, on 24 October, its hull was pierced, forcing the men to abandon their quarters and set up camp on the ice.

A month later, on 21 November, the Endurance finally sank below the surface, the pressure exerted by the ice bringing down the masts before finally submerging the whole ship.

Amazingly, its decline was captured on film by the expedition’s official documentarian Frank Hurley, a committed Australian, who saved his footage as well as 150 photographs (out of 400 glass plates, the majority of which were reluctantly jettisoned due to their weight) and managed to bring them back to civilisation for posterity.

His feature length film, South (1919), would later be presented by Sir Ernest at London’s Philharmonic Hall on Great Portland Street to accompany a series of lectures about the expedition and remains an astonishing document we are lucky to hold onto.

“The floes closed upon her as a giant would crush a match-box,” an intertitle reads in South as the Endurance is finally destroyed before the cameraman’s very eyes.

In his own memoir, also called South, Shackleton describes a feeling “almost of relief” as he realised the ship was lost.

Quoting from his journal entry of that fateful day, he says: “This evening, as we were lying in our tents we heard the Boss call out, ‘She’s going, boys!’ We were out in a second and up on the lookout station and other points of vantage, and, sure enough, there was our poor ship a mile and a half away struggling in her death agony.

“She went down bows first, her stern raised in the air. She then gave one quick dive and the ice closed over her forever. It gave one a sickening sensation to see it, for, mastless and useless as she was, she seemed to be a link with the outside world. Without her our destitution seems more emphasised, our desolation more complete.”

With their only mode of transport apparently consigned to oblivion, the men and their dog teams resolved to drag the Endurance’s three remaining lifeboats to open water at Paulet Island, a mere 250 miles away.

However, by then it was December again and the returning summer meant that the ice was softening and melting once more, impeding their progress anew.

The stern of the wreck of the Endurance, its name still clearly legible

As supplies continued to run short, Shackleton’s team were forced to hunt seals and penguins for meat and eventually kill and eat their own sledge dogs for survival.

This torrid march continued until, finally, on 8 April 1916, the ice split, allowing the men to board their lifeboats and set out for Elephant Island, the nearest available land mass, a barren and desolate rock it took a five-day sea crossing to reach in temperatures of -30C. Miraculously, all souls survived the journey.

But Elephant Island represented only a temporary respite, not salvation.

Sir Ernest and five of his men decided to set out again for South Georgia in the least damaged of the boats, which they dubbed the James Caird after their expedition’s original patron, leaving the remaining 22 members of their party behind huddled beneath the upturned hulls of the boats for shelter, their lives entirely in the hands of the scout party.

The James Caird was at sea for another 16 days, a gruelling 800-mile journey, before Shackleton and his men reached the southern tip of South Georgia.

From here, the explorer and two of the five sailors trekked cross-country to a whaling station to the north in boots spiked with screws as makeshift crampons, whereupon they finally made contact with fellow human beings, who came to their aid before setting out to pick up the three left behind on the southern coast.

That still left the 22 on Elephant Island, whom Sir Ernest was finally able to rescue aboard a ship loaned from the Chilean government on 30 August 1916, his third such attempt to break through the ice floes in a borrowed vessel.

The ship’s wheel and aft well deck

Those men turned out to be alive but in dire shape, almost reduced to cannibalism. “We shall have to eat the one who dies first,” one had written ominously in his journal of their ordeal.

The 28 men of the supporting Aurora, meanwhile, had also suffered hardships on the southern tip of Antarctica and seen 10 of their number stranded when that ship was cut adrift from its mooring by a strong storm. They would remain there until January 1917 and suffered three casualties: one man died of scurvy, two more simply disappeared into the whiteness, never to be seen again.

A national hero upon his return to Britain, Shackleton had little time for celebrity and swiftly volunteered to fight in France (his memoir is dedicated: “To my comrades who fell in the white warfare of the south and on the red fields of France and Flanders”).

Instead, he was given a diplomatic role in South America, attempting unsuccessfully to persuade Argentina and Chile to join the fight in Europe, and later advised British troops stationed in Russia on cold weather survival tactics.

Restless nonetheless, he planned a new Antarctica expedition and returned to South Georgia in late 1921, only to pass away from a heart attack on 22 January 1922, aged just 47.

He was buried there in the graveyard at Grytviken at the request of his widow, Emily Dorman, at peace at last among the howling winds and bitter cold that had defined his wild existence.

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