Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance, lost since 1915, is found off Antarctica

The 'HMS Endurance' caught in the ice in the Weddell Sea
In 1915, the ship Endurance became trapped in ice during Ernest Shackleton’s failed expedition to cross Antarctica. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

An expedition that set out in search of the lost ship of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton has found it — 106 years after the vessel sank off Antarctica.

The wooden ship Endurance has been located remarkably intact about 10,000 feet underwater in the Weddell Sea.

The find is “a milestone in polar history,” said Mensun Bound, a maritime archaeologist and the director of exploration on the expedition, called Endurance22.

“This is 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,” Bound said.

Underwater photo of the deck of a shipwreck, showing the ship's wheel
The Endurance was located by an expedition this week, 106 years after it sank into the Weddell Sea. (Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust & National Geographic)
underwater photo of the stern of the Endurance, showing the ship's name still plainly legible
The name Endurance is still visible on the ship’s stern. (Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust & National Geographic)

Shackleton’s trans-Antarctic expedition went dangerously awry

As World War I was beginning in 1914, the British explorer Shackleton set out to traverse Antarctica. The plan was for Shackleton to take 27 men on two ships, the Endurance and the Aurora, that would arrive at different locations on the continent to explore two routes by which to sledge across the ice. But in January 1915, the Endurance became trapped in ice off the coast of Antarctica.

A black and white photo of men standing on sea ice in front of the ship, breaking it up.
Strenuous endeavors were made to free the Endurance from the ice on Feb. 14 and 15, 1915, but those efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. (Frank Hurley/Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge/Getty Images)

The men lived on the ship for months, but pressure from the ice began to slowly crush it. On Oct. 27, 1915, Shackleton gave the order to abandon the Endurance. The men were told to gather no more than 2 pounds each of personal gear from the ship; much of the ship’s supplies had already become inaccessible because of broken timbers in the hull. The Endurance finally broke up and sank into the Weddell Sea on Nov. 21, 1915.

The crew made a new camp on an ice floe, and any ambition to cross Antarctica dissipated. The mission was now one of survival, a saga that would stretch into August 1916 before all the men were rescued.

The Aurora also became trapped in ice. Three men from that voyage died before the final members of the crew were rescued in early 1917.

The Endurance's crew posing for a photo on the deck of the ship.
The crew of the Endurance poses on the ship’s deck on Feb. 7, 1915. (Frank Hurley/Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge/Getty Images)

An expedition to find the long-missing ship is successful

This year’s expedition to find the Endurance set sail from Cape Town, South Africa, on Feb. 5.

John Shears, the expedition leader, said the hunt for the Endurance was “probably the most challenging shipwreck search ever undertaken.”

A modern research ship sailing through icy seas
An expedition called Endurance22 set sail from Cape Town, South Africa, on Feb. 5 to find the lost ship Endurance. (Nick Birtwistle/Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust)

The expedition used sonar to find the sunken ship. It was located about 4 miles south of where Capt. Frank Worsley had noted the ship’s location back in 1915.

Then the team used an autonomous underwater vehicle with a camera on it to swim over the hull and the deck and confirm what the team had found.

underwater photo of the bow of a wooden ship
The Endurance’s starboard (right) bow. (Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust & National Geographic)

“It can only be one ship,” Shears said. “In this area, few ships have ever even been here. We’re only, I think, the fourth ship to ever get into this place in the Wendell Sea. It’s Endurance. It can be nothing else.”

Shears says he was stunned by the good condition of the vessel: There’s hardly anything living on it, and even some of the original paint is intact.

“You can see inside the hatchways, the stairs. You can see the ropes and the rigging. It’s as if it sank only yesterday,” he said.

Four men in a ship staring at laptops
Marc De Vos (from left), senior meteorologist/oceanographer, shows weather data to Jean-Christophe Caillens, off-shore manager; Nico Vincent, expedition subsea manager; and Lasse Rabenstein, chief scientist, on the bridge of the S.A. Agulhas II, seen here last month during the Endurance22 expedition. The expedition team worked from the South African polar research and logistics vessel. (Esther Horvath)

The wreck will stay where it was found, protected as a historical site and monument under the Antarctic Treaty. That means that though the Endurance is being filmed and surveyed, it won’t be disturbed.

The expedition crew now returns to Cape Town.

Two men standing on ice
Mensun Bound (left), director of exploration for the Endurance22 expedition, and John Shears, expedition leader, stand on the ice of the Weddell Sea. (Esther Horvath)

Bound, the expedition’s exploration director, said the discovery is not only about the past but also about bringing the story of Shackleton and the Endurance to the next generation.

“We hope our discovery will engage young people and inspire them with the pioneering spirit, courage and fortitude of those who sailed Endurance to Antarctica,” Bound said. “We pay tribute to the navigational skills of Capt. Frank Worsley, the captain of the Endurance, whose detailed records were invaluable in our quest to locate the wreck.”

aerial view of a red research ship sailing through ice-covered water
The Expedition22 team worked from the South African polar research and logistics vessel S.A. Agulhas II. (James Blake/Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust)
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