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Search begins for legendary Antarctic shipwreck: “Lethal environment”
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Search begins for legendary Antarctic shipwreck: “Lethal environment”

Shackleton's Ship, Endurance

A South African icebreaker departed Saturday morning in search of Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance, which sank off the coast of Antarctica in 1915 after being slowly crushed by pack ice. The expedition is headed to a location that the famed explorer called “the worst portion of the worst sea in the world.”

“The Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust is pleased to confirm that the Endurance22 Expedition, which is aiming to locate, survey and film the wreck of Endurance,… has departed on schedule from Cape Town, headed for the Weddell Sea in Antarctica,” the expedition’s organizers announced.

As part of the renowned polar explorer’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition between 1914 and 1917, Endurance was meant to make the first land crossing of Antarctica, but it fell victim to the merciless Weddell Sea.

It was located just east of the Larsen Ice shelves on Antarctic peninsula. It became ensnared with sea-ice for more than 10 months before being crushed and sinking approximately 3,000m below the surface.

Because of the incredible escape Shackleton and his crew made by foot and in boats, the voyage is now a legend.

Shackleton's Ship, Endurance
Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, as it lay locked in the Weddell Sea, where it finally sank, Antarctica, August 27, 1915. The extraordinary lighting was provided by an oil fire at its bow and a lot of flash (gun powder).

Getty Images

The men spent the next five months drifting on the surface of an ice cube for 1,000 miles, 1000 miles from civilization, after the ship had sunk. They were desperate and hungry, so they decided to shoot their animals and eat them. Then they took to their lifeboats. They finally made it to Elephant Island, a grim outpost.

Shackleton selected five volunteers from the group and prepared the James Caird, the strongest of the lifeboats, for an even more remarkable voyage. They set sail in a 22 1/2 foot boat for South Georgia Island, more than 800 miles away – to get help.

The 22 men left on Elephant Island didn’t know whether Shackleton or the others were still alive or deceased. They were weak, malnourished and demoralized but they still packed every day in case Shackleton came to rescue them.

Shackleton finally made it after four months of trying, on August 30, 1916.

Frank Worsley, the ship’s captain, recalled, “Shackleton peered with almost painful intensity through his binoculars. He finally saw the men and counted them. He shouted to me, ‘they’re all there Skipper!’ Shackleton’s face showed more emotion than I’ve ever seen before.”

Historian Caroline Alexander, author of the book, The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, CBS News that the story of Shackleton and his men is regarded “as the greatest survival story” of the 20th century.

Weddell Sea Base
Officers and crew of the ‘Endurance’ – the shore party group pose under the bow of the ‘Endurance’ at Weddell Sea Base during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914-17, led by Ernest Shackleton.

SPRI University of Cambridge/ Getty Images

“The worst portion of the worst sea in the world”

S.A. Agulhas II was a South African icebreaker that set off from Cape Town on Saturday morning. It had 46 crew members and 64 expedition team members, including scientists from top universities.

“The preparation has been comprehensive, although not without its challenge, including COVID,” said Donald Lamont, chairman of the organizers. But “the team has remained nimble and determined and this has brought us to where we are today.”

Members of the search team are those who came.Nearly found the wreck in 2019The BBC reported. After reaching the sinking area, they deployed an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to survey the seafloor. However, after 20 hours below the surface, the AUV lost communication and the Agulhas II was forced to retreat.

The expedition will last between 35 and 45 days. The vessel will navigate its way through heavy ice, harsh temperatures, and other hazards.

Sir Ernest Shackleton
Sir Ernest Shackleton, Antarctica, 1914. Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-1916 (Weddell Sea Party).

Royal Geographical Society via Getty Images

It plans to find the iconic shipwreck using state-of-the art technology, explore it underwater with two drones and conduct scientific studies which could further knowledge about ice conditions and climate changes.

The journey will be difficult.

The Anglo-Irish explorer himself even described the site of the sink as “the worst portion of the worst sea in the world.”

The ship, measuring 144 feet in length, was swept away by the current of the Weddell Sea. This swirling current can sustain thick sea ice and can cause problems for modern icebreakers.

It is the most difficult part of the ocean to navigate.

Endurance22’s director of exploration, Mensun Bound, said that his team “very much hope we can do justice to this magnificent chapter in polar exploration.”

“Believe me, it’s quite daunting,” Bound spoke to the BBC. “The pack ice in the Weddell Sea is constantly on the move in a clockwise direction. It’s opening, it’s clenching and unclenching. It’s a really vicious, lethal environment that we’re going into.”

They will not remove it if they find it but will scan it 3D and broadcast it live.

Despite the optimism, it is unlikely that the ship of 110 years will be found.

“In terms of shipwreck challenges, it is the most difficult,” David Mearns, one of the world’s leading shipwreck hunters, told AFP. “You won’t get any more difficult than this because of the ice conditions.”

The S.A Agulhas II, icebreaker

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