About 20 years ago a friend invited a group of us to the New York Yacht Club for a preview of the film “Shackleton.” It included the outtakes and was narrated by the producer. The film was mesmerizing. We could imagine being on the ice as we watched our ship being crushed and all hope of rescue disappearing.
One of the things I remember was the photographer who dove repeatedly into the frigid water to recover the photographic plates and film from the flooded compartment as the ship sunk.
Another was that after Shackleton and five of his crew sailed the lifeboat almost a thousand miles to South Georgia Island, they landed on the wrong side of the island and had to climb over the mountains and glaciers to get to the whaling station on the other side where help was available. They did this in about 24 hours wearing the clothes that they had with them on the sail. More recently professional mountain climbers duplicated the trip wearing modern clothes and using mountaineering equipment and it took them almost twice as long.
For me, the biggest achievement was that Shackleton kept all his men alive and healthy for two years in unimaginable conditions and when they finally returned to England, they didn’t require counseling or government assistance or any other special treatment. Most of them simply joined the Army or the Navy and went off to fight World War I!
Fast forward 100 years. Several unsuccessful attempts have been made to locate the wreck of his ship, the “Endurance.” One of the problems was that she was underneath the ice cap which expanded and shrank each year with the seasons. Another was that she went down in 10,000 feet of water. In addition, the location might not be accurate because the navigational instruments of the time relied on the magnetic compass and the height of the sun above the horizon measured by a sextant at noontime and an accurate chronometer (clock).
The ship sank in the middle of the pack ice, so there was no true horizon. Their chronometer had not been calibrated in over a year and that close to the South Pole, a compass is not very accurate. Add to that, while sinking two miles to the ocean floor, she could have drifted quite a distance.
The latest expedition departed from South Africa a couple of months ago with all the latest technological equipment as well as a group of scientists who were to study the effect of global warming on the ice cap.
The expedition faced the usual mishaps, with equipment malfunctions, almost losing one of their million-dollar unmanned submersibles under the ice cap, and at one point they were even frozen into the ice, much like Shackleton.
The ship itself, even though not a true “ice breaker” was designed for polar exploration, having extra heavy plating on the hull. Where actual ice breakers are equipped with large ballast tanks and gigantic pumps to be able to pump water from one side of the ship to the other thus rocking it free if it became frozen in.
While Shackleton and his crew ran from one side of the ship to the other unsuccessfully trying to rock their ship free of the ice, the resourceful captain of the exploration vessel used one of the ship’s cranes to lift a 40-ton fuel tank and swing it from one side, thus setting her free.
Overcoming all of these setbacks, they still managed to scan hundreds of square miles of sea bed under the ice and, with only four days to go before they had to depart for home, they finally found her. She was only four miles from where Shackleton had said she would be! The hull was completely intact, and due to the depth and temperature of the water there are no wood-consuming marine organisms present, so she looked much the same as on the day she sank. The name painted on the stern was even legible!
The submersibles photographed her thoroughly and otherwise did not disturb anything, leaving her exactly as they had found her.
To see an assortment of photos of the shipwreck search Endurance shipwreck photos on the internet or visit History.com.