The Search for Endurance

I think finding the Endurance has been
an attraction for a long time, in a way because it’s known to be such a
difficult site. That is the challenge and I think you know it’s typical of the
great challenges that the more difficult they are, the more people think I would
quite like to do that. Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition was set up
in the aftermath of first Amundsen and then Scott reaching the South Pole a few
years earlier. Shackleton wanted to return to Antarctica but what was the
next big challenge and he thought this up, the next big challenge was a trans
Antarctic expedition and so he named his Endurance Expedition as we call it
colloquially, The Imperial Trans- Antarctic expedition and his aim was to
start on the Weddell Sea side of Antarctica and to get to the South Pole
over the unmapped terrain of East Antarctica. Shackleton was told in South
Georgia as they were departing for the Weddell Sea – the Whalers said it was a
bad ice year but of course Shackleton had raised the money to go
he had the ship, he had everything in place so naturally he wanted to go and
they proceeded down the east side of the Weddell Sea and in fact they had an
opportunity probably to get ashore about a hundred miles short of where
Shackleton had intended to set out, but they pressed on through increasing sea
ice because he thought a hundred miles is a lot more terrain to cover on land.
And then before they were actually able to reach their target site of Vahsell Bay
the ship became embedded in the ice of the Weddell Sea and then it floated on,
drifted with the sea ice for ten months and was finally crushed after the end of
that ten months. So the ship sank and the party of 28 was left on the sea ice surface. To start with, they thought that they
would drag the three little whaling boats, the three little rescue boats that
they have with them across the sea ice to the ice edge but very rapidly that
dragging proved to be damaging to the boats and actually physically almost
impossible to do. So they sat at what they call the Ocean Camp for a further
period of several months before the sea ice broke up. Then they had a very
traumatic trip of about a hundred miles to try and find an island where they
could land and hopefully one which would be known to whalers. They ended up on
Elephant Island, which was a bleak rock basically with no even semi-permanent
shelter around it. And so after they’d been there a couple of weeks and
recovered to some extent, Shackleton realised that probably the whole party
would die there if he didn’t use one of the whaling boats just to raise the alarm
and induce rescue because of course nobody had any idea in those pre -radio
days where they were. So he together with five others and went on one of the small whaling boats, the little James Caird 800 miles, 1,300 kilometers to the island of
South Georgia where they knew there was a whaling station. And this is regarded
as one of the epic small boat voyages ever undertaken across some of the
steepest, harshest seas in the world and indeed a feat of navigation by his
captain Frank Worsley. They arrived at the western side of South Georgia
exhausted. Left three of the men there then three of them- Shackleton, Worsley
and Crean had to undertake the first crossing of the unmapped Mountains of
South Georgia. So they’d done this epic boat journey and survived that and then
they have to do an epic mountain crossing as well because the whaling
station was on the other side, all the time knowing that if they failed no news
would ever come out and the whole party of 28 would probably die. And even of course after they got South Georgia the problem was not
solved, he had to get another ship to go back to Elephant Island to rescue the 22
men who were still there and that he did even only at the third attempt because
the sea ice kept stopping the earlier ships from getting back so again he
persevered there right through to the end. I was asked almost a year ago to put together a science program in the
Weddell Sea area. The scientific aims of the expedition are firstly to try and
understand about the dynamics, about the form and flow of the ice shelves which
are fed by ice from the interior of the Antarctic Ice Sheet
they hold back ice, they buttress ice from faster flow in huge drainage basins
of hundreds of thousands in some cases over a million square
kilometers and if I starts to flow faster this would be an additional
increment to the one meter or so of the global sea-level rise that we think will take place by 2100. Combined with that, is the
aim if we can get to the site or close to the site of the sinking of
Shackleton’s Endurance, the intention is to do a survey with the autonomous
underwater vehicles who are spec’ed down to 6,000 meters of water depth and we know
that the Endurance is in about 3,000 meters of water. So they do a first site
survey and if on those echograms the wreck of the Endurance is found then the
ROV goes down there, the remotely operated vehicle, which is
tethered goes down and that will come within a few meters of the vessel and
take very high-resolution photographs of it which we can which we can use to
produce a really state-of-the-art three-dimensional model. And of course
how do we know the position of the wreck in the first place,
we know it because Frank Worsley who was clearly an expert navigator through his
navigation of the little James Caird between Elephant Island and South
Georgia, he also fixed the drift of the Endurance as it was trapped in the sea
ice of the Weddell Sea. What we want to do with it afterwards? Not touch it. The
idea is to take nothing away but just to image and record in as much detail as we
possibly can so that we just know what it’s like now at the bottom of the sea. Now I’m a scientist and of course and I’m most interested in the science of
the ice shelves of the Western Weddell Sea and what climate change does for
them, but of course I’m also Director at the Scott Polar Research Institute and
as well as being a science and social science research laboratory, we all are
also one of the great keepers of Britain’s polar history. Our archives, our
artifact collections, projected through our museum are almost without parallel.
We hold Shackleton’s diaries and so on and many times I’ve read through
elements of the diaries. These are wonderful things and to see the wreck and to image the wreck would bring them back to life in a certain quite compelling

  1. This is a brilliant project. The best of luck with it. I will be intrigued to see your findings. Are you planning on making a documentary about the expedition?

  2. This is a fantastic expedition I am keeping my fingers crossed that they are able to find the Endurance that will be a fantastic discovery
    God speed.

  3. The incredible thing about the expedition was that, despite losing the ship, marching across the ice to Elephant Island, travelling across the ocean to South Georgia, and crossing that Island over uncharted mountains, then returning to rescue the rest of his crew from Elephant Island, Shackleton didn't lose a single man. A true hero.

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