Antarctic search closes in on world-famous explorer’s shipwreck

An ambitious expedition to locate explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance is closing in on the Antarctic wreck site.

Endurance, which was lost in an ice floe off Antarctica more than 100 years ago, is one of the world’s most famous undiscovered shipwrecks. The search team, however, is conducting its work in one of the harshest environments on the planet.

The Weddell Sea Expedition icebreaker, S.A. Agulhas II, broke through heavy pack ice to reach Endurance’s last recorded position Sunday. “We are the first people here since Shackleton and his men!” said Exploration Director and Expedition Archaeologist Mensun Bound, according to a tweet by the team.

Researchers will use Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) to locate the remains of the famous ship, which was crushed by pack ice and sank in November 1915. Shackleton’s ill-fated expedition had planned to make a land crossing of Antarctica.

In a blog post on Sunday Bound wrote that the expedition crew was using a probe to measure water temperature and conductivity, before deploying an undersea drone.  The underwater search by the expedition’s AUV 7 will last about 45 hours, he added.

Water depth at the location is 3,038 meters (9,967 feet), according to Bound, who notes that “multi-year ice” is present.

After Endurance was destroyed in the frozen wastes of the Weddell Sea her 28 crew members survived on ice floes for five months before using the ship’s lifeboats to reach Elephant Island near Antarctica. From there, Shackleton and five companions traveled 800 miles in a lifeboat to the South Atlantic island of South Georgia, where he arranged the rescue of Endurance’s remaining crew from Elephant Island. The survival and rescue of the ship’s crew are regarded as an incredible feat of human endurance.

Endurance’s Captain, Frank Worsley, carefully recorded the ship’s final coordinates before she broke up and descended below the ice.

The Weddell Sea Expedition recently completed scientific research at the Larsen C ice shelf that made headlines in 2017 when a huge iceberg dubbed A68 broke off the ice mass. The iceberg is the size of Delaware.

Experts are intrigued by what they may find at the wreck site. In a blog post last month Bound noted that Endurance poses a unique set of challenges. “Whereas the overwhelming majority of shipwrecks that have been studied by archaeologists are all within a depth of, say, 50 meters [164 feet], and thus reachable by people with aqualungs, the Endurance, by contrast, is 60 times deeper, at 3000 meters [9,843 feet],” he wrote. “The Endurance takes us into the archaeology of hyper-depth of which there is very little experience and thus a dearth of reliable data.”

The Expedition has also noted that the female members of the research team have made history. “These are the first women to ever be over this location of the Weddell Sea. We are proud of the large group of woman (scientists, engineers, doctor, film crew and off-shore management from SA and Europe) on this expedition!,” it tweeted Monday.

The BBC reports that the Weddell Sea Expedition has allocated itself five days to locate the remains of Endurance.

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