Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, 144 feet long, 25 feet at the beam, and weighing 348 tons, was famously lost to the ice and black waters of the southern Weddell Sea, in November, 1915. Long after Shackleton and his crew abandoned the vessel after it stuck fast in the sea ice, they watched as growing ice cracked the Endurance’s hull, sending it to its final icy resting place. It has sat undiscovered, nearly 10,000 feet below the surface of Antarctica’s frigid waters, ever since. Crews from the Weddell Sea Expedition, just now arriving in Antarctica to study the Larsen C ice shelf, hope to change that.

A team of marine archaeologists aboard the recently arrived polar research vessel, SA Agulhas II, will be using Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) to pore over the ocean bottom near the Endurance’s last known location. Frank Worsley, Shackleton’s captain, recorded the position of the Endurance as it was crushed by shifting ice and began to sink before he and Shackleton set off on history’s most improbable rescue and survival mission.


The Endurance, succumbing to the ice.


The coordinates Worsley jotted down in his diary, after recording them with sextant, will be used to try to find the lost ship. It’s assumed to lie some 100 to 150 nautical miles from the Larsen C shelf.


It’s thought that if the Endurance is found, the old ship could be in terrific condition—for a boat trapped nearly two miles underwater, that is. The Antarctic Circumpolar Current may have kept destructive sea worms from eating holes in the boat by sweeping them along. The Endurance would be named a historic monument and protected as best as possible from destruction at the hands of curiosity seekers. The wreck will, however, remain where it lies now. There are no plans to remove any part of the ship for collection.

“If there are deep-water marine species colonizing 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,” said Julian Dowdeswell of the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge. However, we will not remove any items from the wreck.”


Shackleton’s crew spent days trying to free the ship from sea ice before they deemed it hopeless.


The autonomous vehicles can operate more than 100 miles from the SA Agulhas II, including deep under thick sea ice. The little craft are equipped with powerful, downward-looking, or listening, rather, echosounders, that use sonar to build maps of the seafloor. If they spot anything that looks like a ship, the plucky subs will motor down to investigate.


There was some doubt the researchers would even get to Larsen C. Even the most modern, powerful icebreaking ships can struggle in that region of wildly unpredictable and shifting sea ice. Many research vessels built to cut through ice have been turned back by thicker than expected ice. But the Agulhas II has been on station since January 11, and the archaeologists on board have begun their search.


The SA Agulhas II, steaming through an ice field.


Shackleton’s granddaughter, Alexandra Shackleton, told a reporter she’s not terribly confident the research team will find the explorer’s ship. “People plan to do things in the Antarctic and the Antarctic decides otherwise, as my grandfather found.”