Science

The Most Surprising Thing About Shackleton’s Shipwreck

Archaeologists announced this week that they found the explorer’s doomed vessel.

The remains of the Endurance.
The Endurance sank in 1915. Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust/National Geographic

On Wednesday, a team of technicians and maritime archaeologists called Endurance22 announced that they had located the remains of the Endurance, a 144-foot wooden ship that sank in 1915 during an Antarctic expedition helmed by British explorer Ernest Henry Shackleton.

Shackleton had set out with a crew of 27 people to attempt the first crossing of Antarctica. However, the Endurance became trapped in the ice a few weeks into the expedition. In one of the most celebrated survival stories from the 20th century, the crew was able to survive on the ship and then on ice for over a year before Shackleton was able to venture out in a lifeboat to a whaling station to find rescue.*

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Endurance22, which operated out of a vessel owned by South Africa’s government, reported that the ship is in “a brilliant state of preservation” and has published pictures of its findings. I spoke to Kevin Crisman, a nautical archeology professor at Texas A&M University, to get a sense of just how significant and surprising this discovery is. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Aaron Mak: This is being called “the world’s most challenging shipwreck search” and “among the most celebrated shipwrecks that had not been found.” Do you think that’s accurate?

Kevin Crisman: It’s a biggie. This is one of those events in maritime history and world history that’s been a touchstone. It really represents the height of the polar explorations taking place over the previous couple of centuries. I read the book Endurance as a kid; I never would’ve dreamed they would be finding the ship, and in such a good condition too. It’s a big deal.

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So you were surprised that it was found. Did it previously seem like the Endurance might just be lost forever?

It was under an ice sheet in previous decades, 10,000 feet under. But we have the technology if you want to spend enough money and time looking. This was an expensive endeavor, with a $10 million price tag on it. They certainly have achieved results with those amazing pictures.

A quarter-century ago, this would’ve been really difficult to carry out. With AUV [autonomous underwater vehicle] technology taking off, you can launch a little robotic submarine that can do its work at 10,000 feet. You’re not trying to tow it from a cable on the surface, or trying to get a submarine under the ice. This highlights some pretty cool tools that we’ve developed for exploring the oceans.

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The Endurance was found in good condition. Is that unusual for shipwrecks?

Yes and no. I’m being equivocal here. The sequence of it being crushed by the ice is pretty dramatic, especially the final shots of it where it’s just a few odds and ends, a steam engine chimney sticking up, a few broken pieces of timber, and it’s being subsumed by the ice. If you look at the pictures you think, “Wow, things got smashed flat like a pancake.”

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The sinking wasn’t as violent a crushing event as I would’ve guessed now looking at the picture from the expedition. The stern and the wheels survived; those are fragile objects. The railing around the back is in pretty good shape.

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The depth helps, and the really cool water helps. That same ship sinking at 10,000 feet further to the north, up in the central north or south Atlantic would, would be a different wreck. Even in those depths, there are wood-boring organisms that would basically reduce it. The metal components would still be there, and maybe some of the larger chunks of hull, but most of it would be consumed. The beauty of finding things very far north, or very far south, is the cold water really inhibits the activity of the wood-boring organism. You get that fantastic preservation, which you wouldn’t get in most of the world’s oceans.

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You said that we already know quite a bit about the Endurance and Shackleton’s expedition. Do you think that there’s new information that will be revealed with the discovery of the ship?

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I’m sure we’ll learn things which Shackleton’s people wouldn’t have thought to describe or write down, or put much thought to. As archeologists, we’re interested in every kind of aspect of this thing, the way the ship was designed and built, and the way they reinforced it. It’s also interesting to see what they thought in 1914 they would need for going into such a difficult environment and staying alive for several years. By looking at these things, it’ll bring it alive.

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One of the things that archeology does pretty well is put us in touch with the people of the past through little things, like the dishes they ate off of, the spaces they lived in, the personal objects with which they surrounded themselves. There’s something poignant about it. You can find photographs of people living in these spaces, but actually seeing the spaces and thinking about the trauma around that or the life lived there, and the small objects that were part of their lives but not something they would think to talk about—archeologists groove on that stuff. That sense of picking something and realizing that the owner last touched it 100 or 500 years ago.

What would you now say is the most coveted shipwreck that hasn’t been discovered yet?

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It depends on what your interests are. I teach about seafaring in the last 500 years, and so if you ask me, I’d pick something from the period of exploration. Columbus lost ships here and there. He lost two ships near Jamaica and people have been looking for them and they haven’t turned up yet. Archeologically that would be interesting because we still don’t know much about the ships Columbus sailed in. Besides the name recognition—for better or for worse, everyone knows Columbus—it would be a kind of twofer deal for archeologists to find two precisely dated and named wrecks.

If you want to jump forward a few centuries, one of the most famous U.S. Navy ships of the War of 1812, the Wasp, disappeared. It was having a fantastically successful war, and then in the last year of the war, it just disappeared. They probably got overwhelmed by a storm. You can pick from every century, and odds are there are ships that have disappeared and we’d like to know what happened.

Correction, March 14, 2022: This piece originally misstated the chronology of the Endurance crew’s survival and rescue.

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