Waiting for the Endurance

A hundred and six years ago, in the Weddell Sea, east of the Antarctic Peninsula, the explorer Ernest Shackleton ordered his men to abandon ship. It was eight and a half degrees below zero; the wind was calm. Shackleton’s crew—twenty-eight men, forty-nine dogs, and a cat—had spent a winter stranded in the ice—“frozen,” as one sailor put it, “like an almond in the middle of a chocolate bar.” Shackleton shouted, “She’s going, boys!” as ten million tons of ice pushed against the ship’s wooden sides, which were two feet thick in some places. The deck buckled. On November 21, 1915, the stern went up, the bow went down, and the Endurance slipped under. Frank Worsley, the ship’s captain, wrote down the coördinates in his diary: 68°39′ South, 52°26′ West.

In 2019, a red double-hulled icebreaker known as the S.A. Agulhas II charted a course from Cape Town, South Africa, toward Worsley’s coördinates. An expedition led by John Shears, a veteran polar geographer, and directed by Mensun Bound, an Oxford man who has been called “the last of the gentlemen archeologists,” was looking for Shackleton’s ship, believed to be intact, ten thousand feet down in what Shackleton called “the worst portion of the worst sea in the world.” The expedition did not go well. One day, the team’s autonomous underwater vehicle, or A.U.V., which conducted the search, went missing. Another time, the Agulhas II got stuck in ice for three days. “It was an absolute disaster,” Shears recalled, the other day, on a video call from the Agulhas II, which had embarked on a second expedition in search of the Endurance. He wore a gray fleece, and carried a radio on his hip. “To go from that complete and utter failure to this absolute, total success is quite mind-blowing.” Bound, who grew up in the Falkland Islands, and worked in the engine room of a steamship after high school, chimed in: “This is life’s pinnacle for me.” He laughed, then yawned. “We’re running on empty.”

The crew had spent eighteen days hunting for the Endurance. A team of engineers worked in minus-eighteen-degree temperatures on the ship’s back deck to deploy Saab Sabertooth A.U.V.s, which use sonar sensors to create an image of the seafloor. Sea-ice scientists studied the floes; the helicopter team organized a table-tennis competition to pass the time. Sometimes colonies of crabeater seals and emperor penguins approached the ship’s stern. Each night, Bound and Shears met for a cup of Earl Grey tea and a single square of Lindt dark chocolate. Time was running out: “We only had three days before we would’ve had to abandon the search because of the approach of Antarctic winter,” Shears said. “I knew that at any moment the weather could turn.”

Shears, who is sixty, went on, “The night before we found the wreck, we had a music evening. I thought, Shackleton had music evenings. They’d listen to the gramophone, and Hussey”—the ship’s meteorologist—“would play on his banjo. Our people were getting a bit low, and worrying about ‘Are we gonna find her?’ I wanted to try and raise morale.” That night, a cadet sang Alicia Keys’s “Good Job,” and a historian recited Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses.” Someone led the group in “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” which Hussey liked to play for the penguins on the sea ice in 1914. The next day, Bound and Shears asked the ship’s crane operator to lower them onto the ice in a rope basket. Shears looked out at the expanse: gray sky, a white iceberg, frozen seawater forever. “Today is a good day,” he said. “I think she’s beneath my feet!” Bound smiled as a penguin danced on the ice. The two returned to the deck. “Literally, as soon as we set foot on the ship, there was the bridge, on the intercom, demanding our presence, immediately,” Bound recalled.

“The pit of despair. That’s new, isn’t it?”
Cartoon by Mick Stevens

“My first reaction was I was extremely worried,” Shears added. “I was thinking about safety, and I thought we’d lost an A.U.V.”

On the bridge, Nico Vincent, who oversees the underwater-vehicle team, held up his iPhone. “Gents, let me introduce the Endurance,” he said, displaying a high-resolution sonar image of the wreck. The Endurance rested upright on the seafloor; the ship’s wheel was almost perfectly intact, and a pink-and-white sea anemone had fastened itself to the deck railing. Ropes and timber were scattered across the deck. The men erupted into laughter and applause. “I’m not normally lost for words, but I was speechless,” Shears said. “It’s as if she sunk just yesterday.” The water is so cold that there had been no gribble worms to eat the wood. Bound said, “Look at the varnishing! You can see the corking between the seams.” That night, Bound and Shears celebrated: two cups of tea, and two squares of chocolate. In the morning, they set a course for South Georgia Island, where Shackleton was buried.

“It just feels like the proper way to end this project,” Bound said.

“We discovered the ship on the fifth of March, 2022. And Shackleton was buried on the fifth of March, 1922,” Shears said. “One hundred years later, we found the wreck.” ♦

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