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A lost cause

Ernest Shackleton’s ship the Endurance trapped in the Weddell Sea pack ice, 1915

Ernest Shackleton’s ship the Endurance trapped in the Weddell Sea pack ice, 1915. Photo: Bettmann / Getty Images

“Endurance is one of the great survival stories of history,” says historian Dan Snow, reflecting on why he and many others have spent years searching for Ernest Shackleton’s lost ship. “It’s a story of leadership, teamwork and heroism, of nautical skill and of survival against some of the most extreme conditions that humans have faced. But what I also like is that it is a story of complete failure. Shackleton wanted to be the first person to traverse Antarctica, but he didn’t even reach the land mass. It’s a reminder that the greatest triumph is often born out of abject failure.”

The Endurance’s journey began with a small advertisement that Shackleton – who, in 1908, had come within 100 miles of being the first man to reach the South Pole – had placed in the Times. “Men wanted for hazardous journey,” it read. “Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.” More than 5,000 applied to join Shackleton in his epic, 1,800-mile quest to trudge across the frozen continent of Antarctica – the equivalent of walking from Chicago to Los Angeles.

In the end 28 men – including captain Frank Worsley, second officer Thomas Crean and Perce Blackborow, a stowaway – were aboard on 5th December 1914 when the Endurance left Britain’s southernmost overseas territory, South Georgia, bound for Antarctica 1,600 miles away. They were joined by 69 dogs and the ship’s “lucky” cat Mrs Chippy. Feline fortune was in seemingly short supply, however, and within two days they encountered pack ice, which slowed their progress.

 Perce Blackborow and Mrs Chippy on Endurance

Perce Blackborow and Mrs Chippy on Endurance. Photo: Frank Hurley / Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge / Getty Images

On 18th January 1915, a day’s sail away from its destination, Vahsel Bay in Antarctica, the ship became locked in ice, “frozen”, as one crewmember put it, “like an almond in the middle of a chocolate bar”. The crew waited for the ice to release the ship – but it never did. Shackleton resigned himself to the Endurance spending the winter encased in the pack, hoping the spring thaw would free her. For more than ten months the ice-crusted Endurance drifted uncontrollably over 600 miles towards uncharted waters. The pressure eventually proved too much and on 21st November 1915 – with the men having decamped to the ice – the Endurance sank.

The ship wasn’t to be seen again for more than 100 years, until British maritime archaeologist Mensun Bound decided he would go and find it. “Mensun is a force of nature,” says Snow, who joined Bound’s quest to find the Endurance as an onboard historian. “He was relentless when putting together the expedition. He’s just a bundle of energy.” Working from Worsley’s hastily calculated coordinates taken as Endurance sank, Bound identified a search area within what Shackleton called “the worst portion of the worst sea in the world” where he thought the Endurance lay. Many believed that seeing the ship again was a near impossible task. “It’s a well-hidden wreck,” concedes Snow. “It’s 3,000 metres down in the Weddell Sea, which is typically covered with multi-year ice which is very difficult to penetrate. You’re working from 100-year-old calculations made using rudimentary equipment in an area with significant movement of ice and current. On top of that it can plunge to minus 40 degrees Celsius, which can freeze the kit and scramble the electronics.”

 Playing football in the shadow of Endurance, 1915

Playing football in the shadow of Endurance, 1915. Photo: Frank Hurley / Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge / Getty Images

Undeterred, in 2019 Bound set out on a 45-day expedition to find Shackleton’s ship. Like his hero’s quest, it would end in failure. Bound had planned to use an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to survey the ocean floor. But some 20 hours into its mission the robotic submersible broke communication with the ship. It was never seen again. Encroaching sea ice forced the team to abandon its position, and its AUV. “We all learn things in failure,” reasons Snow. “The drones used on the 2019 expedition weren’t tethered which meant that, if you lost them, they were difficult to recover. When they [have to] abort [a mission], which they often do, or run out of battery, they will go to the surface but in the frozen Weddell Sea they can end up stuck under the ice.” Despite the considerable sums of money involved – the 2022 expedition is reported to have cost more than $10 million, paid for by an anonymous donor – Bound spent three years planning his return. On 5th February he and Snow were among the 64-member expedition team and 46 crew aboard South African icebreaker SA Agulhas II as it left for Antarctica in search of Endurance.

In 1915 things did not look good for Shackleton and his team. Shipwrecked in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth, the 28 men had five small tents and 18 sleeping bags between them. The initial plan was for the party to make its way to Wilhelmina Bay, over 400 miles away, and seek help from whalers. But after two days dragging the Endurance’s heavy lifeboats, they had travelled less than two miles and the mission was abandoned. Instead, the men made camp on the ice, where they would live for the next five months, drifting north with the pack, and surviving on rations, seal meat and, when the time came, the sled dogs, whom many of the men now considered pets. As the flow approached the edge of the Weddell Sea, Shackleton knew it would break up. On 9th April 1916, 14 months after being first imprisoned by the ice, the crew took to the water again, only this time in lifeboats far smaller and more fragile than the icebreaker they had lost.

Shackleton watches as crew members take the dogs for exercise on the ice

Shackleton watches as crew members take the dogs for exercise on the ice. Photo: Frank Hurley / Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge / Getty Images

After six days at sea – during which rowers’ hands became so encased in ice they had to be chiselled from the oars – the party made it to Elephant Island. The men again fed on seals, but the deserted island was still a long way from civilisation.

Life aboard the SA Agulhas II in 2022 was nowhere near as isolated. “It was incredible how connected we were,” says Snow, who used his time on board to create podcasts, social media clips and video documentaries for History Hit, the independent channel the former BBC presenter launched in 2017. “I started History Hit knowing this day would come,” he says. “I knew that there was a public appetite for history, archaeology and exploration that went far deeper than just watching a one-hour documentary on BBC Two on a Monday night. I wanted  to use all these social media platforms to livestream these incredible stories of exploration as they unfold.”

Life on board wasn’t completely dominated by the joys of the digital world, however. “We definitely didn’t want to just retreat into our devices, watching Netflix in our bunks,” says Snow. “It was a ship crammed with personalities; Knowledge Bengu, was the first black African to captain an Antarctic expedition; John [Shears, expedition leader] and the subsea guys were great; there were sea ice scientists [Stefanie Arndt and Christian Katlein] who were fascinating. We had quiz nights, and sang songs – we rewrote the lines to ‘Let It Be’ as a sort of crew song. We played a lot of cards, a lot of dominoes.”

When the SA Agulhas II reached the Weddell Sea its drones crisscrossed beneath the ice, scanning for signs of a wreck. Then, in the early hours one morning, Snow was awoken by shouts from the crew. “They have seen the acoustic signature of a shipwreck,” he said on voice note he sent to his producer and later played on the History Hit podcast. “It has to be Endurance. It’s inconceivable it could be anything else.” But further examination revealed that it was indeed something else. “We were really disappointed,” Snow tells me. “But it made us very much more determined to get out there and keep looking for the ship.”

The crew on the frozen Weddell Sea

The crew on the frozen Weddell Sea. Photo: Frank Hurley / Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge / Getty Images

After this rush of new enthusiasm, however, by the start of March things had started to look bleak. “We were getting a bit downhearted and some of us were quite pessimistic,” says Snow. “We were very close to the end [of the expedition]. Time was running out, the weather could change at any point and we would have been chased out of the Weddell Sea.”

On Elephant Island in 1916 Shackleton was also acutely aware that the clock was ticking. Within days of arriving on the island, which is not on any shipping routes, he realised there was little chance of the men being found and rescued. Rather than wait in vain, the explorer hatched an audacious new plan – the ship’s carpenter, Chippy McNeish, would adapt the 20ft lifeboat, the James Caird, and a six-man crew would sail 800 miles northeast to South Georgia, where the voyage of the Endurance began. McNeish raised the sides of the boat, added a canvas deck and filled the seams with seal’s blood and the oil paints of the crew’s official artist in an attempt to keep out the icy waters. The trip would take weeks and even the relentlessly optimistic Shackleton doubted the chances of success. “In the event of my not surviving the boat journey,” he wrote in a farewell letter to the island party, “you can convey my love to my people and say I tried my best.” With Worsley navigating by the stars, trigonometry and nautical tables, the James Caird set sail. A tiny speck on the most inhospitable ocean on the planet.

More than 100 years later, on 5th March 2022, the Agulhas was pursuing its own unlikely mission. On 5th March, five days before the expedition was scheduled to finish, a new acoustic signal had been detected that showed promise. Armed with cameras, the submersible drones went in for a closer look. The footage that came back stunned those on board. They had found the elusive Endurance, 3,000 metres below them, and she was incredibly well preserved. “There’s no wood in Antarctica,” explains Snow, “so no wood-eating microorganisms have developed to feed on it. The ship ended up in the perfect place to preserve it.” The mood on board was calmer than the jubilation which had greeted the first, false sighting. “I think it was just overwhelming relief,” says Snow. “That we wouldn’t be going back empty-handed, and the team would have something to show for the extraordinary hard work they had put in. But as the days went on you allowed yourself to celebrate a bit more.”

The relief must surely have been nothing compared to that felt by the six men who, on 10th May 1916, steered the James Caird into King Haakon Bay, South Georgia. After more than two weeks of unimaginable conditions – surviving winter gales, riding colossal waves, chiselling ice from their ship to keep it afloat – they had made it to South Georgia, albeit on the uninhabited side of the island. One final feat lay ahead of them. Three of the men – Shackleton, Worsley and Tom Crean – would have to become the first people to cross the island and reach Stromness whaling station. Once again they achieved the unthinkable, covering the 32 miles in 36 hours – at one point racing an incoming storm by sliding down one of the island’s tallest snow-covered peaks on their backs. They trudged into Stromness on 20th May 1916, one and a half years after leaving it. Ever the gentleman, Shackleton’s first act was to apologise for his appearance. The next day the other three men were retrieved from the far side of the island and on 30th August 1916, after a number of failed attempts, the remainder of the crew was rescued from Elephant Island. Shackleton would return home with his entire crew.

The team onboard the Agulhas took only images from the Endurance. The terms of the Antarctic Treaty means that the wreck will remain undisturbed – a frozen monument to a tale of incredible endeavour. Both the Endurance and the Agulhas’ missions could be seen as acts of reckless folly, costing huge amounts of money and putting people at unnecessary risk. Snow, however, has a different view. “The thing about humans is that we’ve gone beyond merely seeking shelter and food,” he says. “We’ve been able to go beyond essentials and do things like spend tonnes of money landing on the moon or putting on a Jubilee concert. Because that’s the stuff that makes life worth living. I’ve never been on a project where we’ve touched as many people’s lives as this one has. Seeing those images beamed to the surface of this wreck has had a profound effect on people. That’s what life is all about. It is about the extraordinary.”

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #46 of Delayed Gratification

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