In less than a year from now, a new Antarctic expedition will aim to locate and film the wreck of explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance, the ship that disappeared under the ice in the Weddell Sea in November 1915.
On Monday, the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust (FMHT), a UK-based charity working to preserve the seafaring history of the Falklands, announced that it was organizing and funding the Endurance22 expedition, which is due to depart from Cape Town in February 2022 -- a month after Shackleton’s 100th anniversary death on 5 January, 1922.
According to an official news statement, FMHT plans to submit an application to the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to conduct the mission to the Antarctic to look for the missing wreck. The trust is also aiming to sign a charter agreement with the South African government to use the research and supply ship SA Agulhas II for this expedition.
“In January 1915 Endurance became trapped in the ice, stranding Shackleton and his crew. Ten months later, after drifting around the Weddell Sea, subject to the constant crushing pressure of the ice, on 21 November 1915, she sank,” the statement explains, recalling the disaster as one of the most extraordinary and heroic stories of survival of the 20th Century. Shackleton, who led three British expeditions to the Antarctic, and his men camped on sea ice and eventually made their escape using lifeboats. All of them survived to tell the tale. The last expedition to reach the wreck site, in 2019, was forced to abandon the search by encroaching sea-ice and loss of equipment, the FMHT statement adds.
Endurance22 will be led by British polar explorer and Falklands-born maritime archaeologist John Shears, who also led the 2019 expedition. A team of 50 members will be on board the SA Agulhas II, including the British-born American explorer, Richard Garriott, who travelled to the International Space station as a private astronaut in 2018. Earlier this year, Garriott, also dived in a submersible to a record-breaking depth of 10,973m (36,000ft) into the Mariana Trench in the Western Pacific.
The SA Agulhas II is the same vessel that was part of the 2019 expedition. The main obstacle, the FMHT statement explains, in getting to the site and locating the wreck is the ice.
The search team this time will use advanced underwater technology to locate the wreckage – specially built hybrid autonomous underwater vehicles, also called Sabertooths. Made in Sweden, by the aerospace and defence firm SAAB, and operated by the underwater search specialists Ocean Infinity, these vehicles are fitted with high-definition cameras and side-scan imaging capability.
The Sabertooths can also search and map huge patches of ocean floor to depths of up to 4,000m (13,123ft) sending the data to the surface in real time, the statement explains. “If the ship cannot get close to the wreck site, the expedition plans to create one or possibly two ice camps, where holes will be drilled through the sea ice, and the Sabertooths lowered to try and locate, survey and film the wreck,” the statement adds.
Ever since the 2019 expedition, the Endurance wreck site has been protected as a historic site and monument by the parties to the Antarctic Treaty. That means the search for the wreck in 2022 will be “non-intrusive”. The Sabertooths will not be equipped to take samples from the wreck or the surrounding seabed, the FMHT statement adds. Instead, the team will use state-of-the-art cameras and scanners to conduct a high-resolution digital survey of the wreck.
“After two years of meticulous planning for the new mission, I believe we have a great chance of finally finding the wreck deep under the ice of the Weddell Sea, but only by returning to the same spot will we know just how close we were,” Shears says in the statement. “If we do locate Endurance, it will be a fantastic moment.”