The Doomed Journey Of The Endurance Ship And Her Miraculous Discovery Over A Century Later

Published July 3, 2023
Updated July 4, 2023

In 1915, Ernest Shackleton and his crew set out on an expedition in the Endurance to become the first team to make a land crossing of Antarctica. Their ship would become stuck in the ice and sink, leading to a century-long search.

In November 1915, an expedition to the Antarctic took a turn for the worse when the team’s ship, the Endurance, was crushed underneath the pressure of the heavy ice sheets and sunk to the bottom of the Weddell Sea.

The ship’s story became a legend, and explorers and historians have attempted to locate the its final resting place for over a century. With several failures on the books, many wondered if the Endurance would ever be found or if she would lay undisturbed and lost to man in her icy grave forever.

Dogs Next To The Endurance
Endurance Expedition
Endurance In The Distance
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The Doomed Journey Of The Endurance Ship And Her Miraculous Discovery Over A Century Later
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The answer to that question came in February 2022, when a multi-national research crew took on the challenge and prowled the frozen waters of the Weddell Sea with new underwater technology in search of the doomed vessel.

Ernest Shackleton And The Voyage Of The Endurance

The story of the Endurance begins with one man: Ernest Shackleton. The Irish-born explorer had a passion for leading expeditions into the inhospitable frozen landscapes of the South Pole.

Before leading the expedition on the Endurance, Shackleton participated in at least two other expeditions to the South Pole. He became a popular figure in his home country, frequently attending lectures and writing books about his experiences.

Shackleton's biggest adventure began in 1914 with the launch of the Imperial Trans-Atlantic Expedition. The goal was to sail a crew of roughly 56 men divided among two ships to Weddell Bay in Antarctica. From there, the crew would make the first land crossing of the continent and finish their journey at the Ross Sea.

Shackleton sailed aboard the Endurance, a barquentine ship built to withstand extremely low temperatures. Aboard were also the ship's captain, scientists, and photographer.

On August 8, 1914, the Endurance left Plymouth, England, and sailed for Buenos Aires, Argentina. After the ship arrived, it sailed for the British-controlled South Georgia Island on October 26. The crew arrived only a few days later.

Finally, on December 5, the Endurance set sail for Antarctica, and the crew immediately began experiencing problems.

Endurance Ship

Frank Hurley/Scott Polar Research Institute, University of CambridgeThe Endurance stuck in the Antarctic ice.

The rough waters and ice packs of the Weddell Sea forced the ship to halt or change her course several times. Shackleton even wrote in his retelling of the expedition:

"I had been prepared for evil conditions in the Weddell Sea but had hoped that the pack would be loose. What we were encountering was a fairly dense pack of a very obstinate character."

In January of 1915, the Endurance became stuck in the ice, kicking off a nightmare that would threaten the crew and fascinate future observers for years.

A Desperate Crew And The Ship Stuck In The Ice

At the mercy of the floating sheets of ice that cluster around the Antarctic continent, the Endurance crew tried to free the ship from her icy confines.

Shackleton ordered the men to hop off the boat and onto the thick ice sheets surrounding the ship. With picks and saws in hand, the crew tried hacking at the ice imprisoning their ship, but they were unsuccessful.

The icy sheets had captured the ship, and they did not intend to let go.

Workers Free Endurance

Frank Hurley/Scott Polar Research Institute, University of CambridgeCrew members unsuccessfully attempt to free the Endurance from the ice.

With her inability to break free from the ice sheets, the Endurance floated with them. Shackleton lamented being at the mercy of the moving ice but hoped that it would eventually take the crew to where they needed to be.

However, this was not the case. The ice sheets began to move North, and Shackleton feared that he and his men would have to spend the next few months in the ship, trapped among the ice. And that is exactly what happened.

As the dark winter months of May, June, and July began in the Southern Hemisphere, Shackleton noticed that the ice sheets were thickening and threatening to crush the Endurance.

The pressure built up so heavily as time passed, eventually ripping through the hull and allowing the icy water to enter. The Endurance was doomed, and on October 27, 1915, Shackleton called for his crew to abandon ship.

The expedition took on a new face. Shackleton and his men faced brutal conditions marching through the ice and sailing in lifeboats to various Antarctic islands before their rescue in early 1916.

Upon his rescue, Shackleton recounted his story, and many were curious about the ship's final resting place.

In November 1915, the ice had finally defeated Shackleton's Endurance, pulling her into her icy, underwater grave where she would be lost to the world for over a century.

The Myths Of The Endurance

Decades after her doomed voyage, the Endurance ship became a thing of myth. Several historians and wreck hunters wanted to find where the craft had ultimately met her fate.

Dozens of books, four movies, and one impressive exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History covered the tale of the Endurance, igniting a spark that would drive a handful of daring adventurers to look for the wreck themselves.

In 2001, wreck hunter David Mearns said he would take on the challenge.

"This will be one of the most ambitious searches ever," Mearns told Outside Magazine. "I expect there will be quite a bit of the ship left. We would like to rediscover the lost science. There was a tremendous amount of samples and instruments left behind."

Other rival groups also announced they would be searching for the Endurance shipwreck, prompting somewhat of an "Endurance Rush."

David Mearns managed to organize his expedition in 2010 but later had to halt it due to enormous funding costs.

Between 2018 and 2019, a Weddell Sea Expedition came close to finding the Endurance shipwreck after employing the an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to help search. However, the expedition failed when the AUV sunk under the ice.

Despite the flashy statements and exciting rivalries, none were able to put together a successful mission to identify the lost ship.

That is until July 2021, when the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust announced Endurance22, an expedition that aimed to find the Shackleton's Endurance using new underwater technology.

The Astounding Discovery Of The Sunken Ship A Century Later

Expedition 22 Vessel

James Blake/Falklands Maritime Heritage TrustThe S.A. Agulhas II vessel carried the team of Endurance22 tasked with finding the lost ship.

On February 5, 2022, the S.A. Agulhas II departed Cape Town, South Africa, en route to the Weddell Sea.

The Endurance22 team, consisting of professionals from around the world, used the diaries of Endurance navigator, Frank Worsley, and data from the movement of the ice at the time of the Endurance ship's journey to pinpoint her likely resting place.

"Using today's far more accurate sky maps, researchers calculated that Endurance's clocks were running faster than the crew accounted for, an error that would shift the location of the vessel west of Worsley's last recorded position. Using these calculations, the expedition narrowed their search but still faced long odds of finding the vessel," National Geographic wrote.

With a location in mind, the expedition employed AUVs, this time more hardy and capable of navigating the icy depths.

Finally, on March 9, 2022, the crew found the shipwreck of Shackleton's Endurance only four miles from where Worsley noted in his diary. Using their AUVs, the team took remarkable images of the lost ship nearly 10,000 feet below the ice.

Endurance Wheel

National Geographic/Falklands Maritime TrustA photo of the sunken Endurance taken by an AUV.

The Endurance ship was in excellent condition due to the freezing temperatures and lack of sea creatures to eat away at the ship.

"She is upright, well proud of the seabed and in an excellent state of preservation. You can even see her paintwork and count the fastenings. There is some damage to the fo'c'sle deck and part of her starboard side, but otherwise she is largely intact," Mensum Bound, Marine Archaeologist and Director of Exploration, announced on his expedition blog.

The Endurance22 team celebrated the discovery by taking images of the wreck and using 3D scanning technology for future analysis.

The team has no plans to remove any part of the Endurance from the Weddell Sea, citing stipulations of the Antarctic Treaty System that preserve the wreck as a historic site and prevent her from being tampered with.

"The search for the Endurance was ten years in the making. It was one of the most ambitious archaeological undertakings ever. It was also a huge international team effort that demonstrates what can be achieved when people work together," Bound relayed in his blog.

"Shackleton, we like to think, would have been proud of us."

After reading about the Endurance and her incredible discovery, uncover the story of nine of history's most famous shipwrecks. Then, enjoy 33 images of Antarctica's almost otherworldly frozen landscapes.

Amber Breese
Amber Breese is an Editorial Fellow for All That's Interesting. She graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in political science, history, and Russian. Previously, she worked as a content creator for America House Kyiv, a Ukrainian organization focused on inspiring and engaging youth through cultural exchanges.
Matt Crabtree
Matt Crabtree is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. A writer and editor based in Salt Lake City, Utah, Matt has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Utah State University and a passion for idiosyncratic news and stories that offer unique perspectives on the world, film, politics, and more.
Cite This Article
Breese, Amber. "The Doomed Journey Of The Endurance Ship And Her Miraculous Discovery Over A Century Later.", July 3, 2023, Accessed April 20, 2024.