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Shackleton’s Lost Endurance Shipwreck Discovered Off Antarctica

Explorers have found one of the most famous shipwrecks in history, Endurance of Ernest Shackletondeep in the frigid sea off Antarctica, more than a century after it sank, they announced Wednesday.

Endurance was discovered at a depth of 3,008 meters (9,869 feet) in the Weddell Sea, about six kilometers (four miles) from where it was slowly crushed by pack ice in 1915.

Shackleton was plunged into an expedition legend by the epic escape he and his 27 companions then made, on foot and in boats.

“We are overwhelmed with our happiness to find and capture images of Endurance,” said Mensun Bound, the expedition’s research director.

“This is by far the most beautiful wooden shipwreck I’ve ever seen. It is upright, proud of the seabed, intact and in a superb state of preservation. You can even see ‘Endurance’ arching over the stern,” he said in a statement.

Organized by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust, the expedition left Cape Town on February 5 on a South African icebreaker, hoping to find the Endurance before the end of summer in the Southern Hemisphere.

As part of Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition between 1914 and 1917, the Endurance crew was intended to make Antarctica’s first land crossing.

But their three-masted ship fell victim to the tumultuous Weddell Sea.

Just east of the Larsen Ice Shelves in the Antarctic Peninsula, the timbership became entangled in pack ice in January 1915.

It was gradually crushed and sank 10 months later.

– ‘Worst sea in the world’ –

The crew first camped on the sea ice, drifted north until the ice burst, then went to rescue boats.

They sailed first to Elephant Island, a bleak and treeless place where most of the men were dropped off and set up camp.

With only a sextant for navigation, Shackleton then took five others in the strongest and most seaworthy boat on a 1,300 kilometer (800 mi) journey to South Georgia, a British colony that was home to a whaling station.

Braving mountainous seas and freezing temperatures, the 17-day trek aboard the 6.9-meter open boat is often regarded as one of the most remarkable feats in maritime history.

All 28 expedition members survived.

Today’s explorers used underwater drones to find and film the shipwreck in the merciless Weddell Sea. The swirling currents maintain a mass of thick sea ice that can challenge even modern icebreakers.

Shackleton himself described the sinking site as “the worst part of the worst sea in the world”.

The region remains one of the most difficult parts of the ocean to navigate.

“This is the most complex submarine project ever undertaken,” said Nico Vincent, the mission’s submarine project manager.

– ‘Like the Titanic’ –

The underwater drones produced stunningly clear images of the 44-meter-long ship.

Amazingly, after more than a century underwater, the rudder has remained intact, with gear stacked against the taffrail as if Shackleton’s crew had just left it.

The ship’s wood, though damaged by crushing ice that sank in, still holds together. A mast had broken in two across the deck, and portholes hinted at what secrets still lurk.

Sea anemones, sponges and other small ocean life forms have made their home on the wreckage, but did not appear to have damaged it.

“It’s already remarkable to see the photos of that ship on the seafloor, similar to the discovery of the Titanic,” said Adrian Glover, a deep-sea biologist at the British Natural History Museum.

“It’s not a forgiving place, as Shackleton and others found out,” he told AFP. “The sea ice there can get very thick, very quickly, and crush a ship, or at least stop its progress.”

An earlier mission in 2019 had failed to find the Endurance, noted the South African Ministry of the Environment, which owns the icebreaker.

According to international law, the wreck is protected as a historic site. Explorers were allowed to film and scan the ship, but not touch it at all – meaning no artifacts are allowed to be returned to the surface.

The team used underwater search drones, called Sabertooths, built by Saab, which dove under the ice in the farthest depths of the Weddell Sea.

During the mission, scientists also researched climate change, documenting ice anomalies and weather patterns.

Stefanie Arndt, a sea ice researcher at Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institut, said on Twitter that she returned with 630 ice and snow samples. “An incredible number,” she said.

The team now has to make the 11-day journey back to the port in Cape Town.

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