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. 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.
'' An Unyielding Devotion to Courage''
‘’An age will come after many years when the Ocean will loose the chain of things, and a huge land lie revealed; when Tiphys will disclose new worlds and Thule no longer will be ultimate.’’
----- Seneca, Medea
‘’And if there had been more of the world, they would have reached it.’’
------- Cameons, The Lusiads, VII, 14
Within Europe was a growing rivalry of intelligence between Germany and England. Darwin’s breakout book ‘’The Origin of Species’’ came about due to the British sense of adventure and the desire to understand our own origins. It was an exciting time in history to be an explorer, for the sciences of Anthropology, Archaeology, and Paleontology were beginning to take off and were growing in popularity. Throughout the mid 1800s, the British Museum was the largest building in all of Europe. With every ship that returned to England, more and more antiquities and curiosities were brought back to the museum.
By 1840, the museum began to sponsor Archaeology digs throughout the world. The result of these excavations was that the museum continued to grow and grow. By 1900-1930s, the museum saw even more growth with the famous research of Howard Carter, (Egypt excavation) and Leonard Wooley’s spectacular discovery of Ur and the incredible Sumerian tablets.
In 1915, a young boy was looking for stone tools near his missionary home in Ethiopia. His name was Louis Leaky and so began a life-long obsession with human origins. His discoveries were making news on a home-front that was petrified of the world war. Shackleton was wanting to voyage where no man had gone before, while we were just discovering where man had come from.
That same British spirit would inspire Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) and it would lead to one of the most inspirational stories history has ever recorded.
Ernest Shackleton was a British subject who decided, as some men do, to transverse the South Pole, going from one ocean to another by crossing the entire continent entirely. Almost everyone thought it to be a foolish venture which would accomplish little, something Shackleton actually agreed with. Yet he was determined to exorcize some personal demons of failure in order to make this happen.
The year was 1914 and Europe was on the verge of World War I. Britain was fighting to remain masters of the open seas. Like King George III before him, Britain was fighting for its own empire. As he prepared for this trip, he raised a considerable amount of money for the journey despite the fact that Europe was falling apart. Shackleton had two ships commissioned for this trip. One was the Endurance and the other was the Aurora.
Shackleton had some unusual requirements for his crew.
The news of this trip drew considerable interests, and over 3,000 applicants came forward. When interviewing them, he would ask questions regarding whether the men could sing or otherwise entertain. He selected men as much on temperament in addition to technical and navigational abilities. In total, each ship would have 28 men on them for a total of 56. Finally befit of tonnage and men, Ernest Shackleton set forth for his epic journey just six weeks after the first shots of World War I were fired.
Shackleton needed a captain. He chose the exuberance and attitude in Frank Worsely from New Zealand. He was an expert mariner with twenty-five years experience, particularly good at navigating through islands and small channels. While living in London he wandered in to Shakleton’s office and providence couldn’t have been better. Shakleton hired him entirely on instinct.
Shakleton’s plans were ambitious. He would sail to Argentina and then to a whaling station on South Georgia island. After disembarking, he’d make it into the Weddell Sea and then cross Antarctica.
The image conscious Shakleton hired a Public Relations photographer and film maker. He knew that history was being told and he’d wanted to fund future expeditions. Frank Hurley, an Australian, documented the trip in both film and moving images.
They set sail from Buenos Aires on October 26th, 1914 with twenty-six men, two pigs and sixty-nine Canadian Sled Dogs. In eleven days, the Endurance reached a Norwegian whaling station where they stocked two tons of whale meat that would feed both the men and the dogs. The Norwegians warned Shackleton that the ice was not melting as they thought and it had been a much colder summer than they had anticipated. Shakleton had come too far to turn back.
On December 5th, 1914, they left the last place on the planet and headed for Antarctica. At first, the conditions were pleasant. Just three days into the voyage they ran into pack-ice. Shakleton was undeterred. By any rational explanation, the expedition should have ended right there. Why did he persist?
Shakleton was desperate to get away. He was openly having an affair with an American actress which was making life at home very difficult. To make matters worse, his brother, Frank, was implicated in a fraud. Everything at home was falling apart.
Shackleton could have played it safe and landed at the first place he saw. He gambled, wanting instead to have a shorter journey across land. And this decision cost the Endurance. Borsely never criticizes Shackleton for pushing forward.
Finally, the ice just completely glued to the ship. The ship was trapped and being devoured by the elements. Being entombed in the ice changed everything. The focus was now on survival.
It was a deeply personal issue for the British explorer. Shackleton was stung by the fact that Robert Amundsen had just reached the farthest point south and there was no longer any notoriety in making this voyage. This was strictly speaking, a self-challenge, something a few rare people do these days. And those he chose to voyage with knew of the peril and furthermore, they knew there was really no gain in this. These men were true adventurers who sought to gain little more than the satisfaction of being able to say that they went and conquered the elements regardless of the odds.
He had left school at 16 and became a cadet on a Northwest Shipping Company, one of the few merchant marine companies still in operation. His status grew because he would essentially do everything that no one else wanted to do. He chose the dirty work, the tough jobs, and earned the respect, the loyalty of men much older than himself. Even as he rose in position, he never forgot where he came from, and even as First-Mate he could be seen cleaning out the bowels of the ships.
Hard work was paying off, but Britain was finding itself beginning to sell the merchant marine ships and equipping them for war. Shackleton became somewhat of a victim in a world filled with dread and worry, which he was powerless to change. Some historians believe his desire to go to the South Pole was to also remove himself geographically from the possibility of having to command a ship at war.
As the ships made their way to the south, everything seemed to go as planned. But on December 5th, the ships encountered pack ice. He was stuck in the ice through the month of February and the temperatures were rapidly dropping. Realizing that his ship was going to be crushed, he ordered his men to abandon ship and they did just that, setting foot on dry land for the first time in 497 days. For two months, the captain and his men camped out on an ice flow. The entire crew was essentially floating on raft made of ice.
I researched newspapers and it was definitely a story, but WWI dominated the front pages and Shackleton was but a sidebar. Nonetheless, Britain was looking for a source of National Pride at a time when its very existence was at risk. The captain took four men with him and told the remaining men that if he didn’t return within four weeks that he was to be assumed dead. His mission was to get to a nautical weather and whaling station where he knew he could get help. He gave himself four weeks, which beyond that, he knew everyone would perish. But, he would not give in.
27 men had put their lives in Shackleton’s hands and he wanted to save the men. He had to get Frank Hurley’s pictures back home as well. The life on the ship for a couple of months wasn’t all that bad. The dogs were great companions to these men. Shakleton kept the ship in good shape, and he kept the men in good shape. They were filmed playing soccer and the chef had a knack for cooking penguin, which had just enough vitamin-C to prevent the sailors from getting scurvy.
But after two months, the situation turned serious. Worsley noticed that the ship, while stuck, was still moving in the ice. The Weddell Sea has a current, called a gyre, that was slowly moving the ice. But more and more, the ice built up on the side. Six months went by and it the ship began to tile to the side, causing the wooden ship to bend, buckle and crack. Shakleton was well aware that if they lost the ship they would likely perish.
On October 25, 1915, nearly a year after they left Buenos Aires, the men and the dogs abandoned the ship. The film and the pictures are amazing. The damaged ship had at least provided shelter. Now they were forced to camp on ice flows that cracked beneath them. Worsely wanted to wait for the ice flow to drift toward open water then set off in life boats. Shakleton however wanted to march over three hundred miles to Paulette Island, where he knew there was a weather station.
The journey across land was next to impossible. They went for three days and found themselves within view of the Endurance. Now the idea of floating on an ice-island was the only choice. Then inexplicably, the penguins and seals they had been living off of vanished.
Shackleton then made his most unpopular demand. It was time to shoot the dogs. ‘’I’d have rather shot the best of men than the worst of the dogs.’’ Said one embittered sailor. They watched the ice-packs crack and destroy the Endurance.
On April 9th, the ice began to break up. They were able to get on the three life boats in search of dry land through the waters. They had all the risks of the ice and currents. But Worsley’s experience was the key.
He was forced to navigate from glimpses of the sun through his sextant. The small boat was leaping from wave top to wave top. Imagine – you have to get two good views to see where you are. Worsley realized – after two days that the current had pushed them BACK two hundred miles. Fresh water was now in short supply and they were slowly freezing to death. They now had decided to set sail for a small group of rocks called Elephant Island.
Captain Worsley had been on the helm for forty hours had to be straightened out so he could sleep. The crew had spent fifteen months at sea. Several of the men had given in, and they lost their spirit. But this expedition wouldn’t make landfall the easy way. A brutal storm blew in and they lost sight of the island. Through a stroke of miraculous luck, all twenty-eight men landed safely on Elephant Island.
Most of the island has one-hundred foot ice cliffs, violent winds, and almost no sign of life. The explorers never wanted for someone to look for them. Anything that they were doing was still a better option than going to war. Shackleton and Worsley determined that the winds of any voyage would take them away form the Falklands, which was much closer. A rescue mission was now planned.
Shakleton told the men of the risks. He would go with four other men to make it to St. George’s Island. Everyone wanted to take the trip. Four men were chosen; McNish the Carpenter, John Vincent, Tim McCarthy and Tom Creen.
Worlsey gave it a 10% chance and on April 24th, 1916,the crew set out for a tiny spec of land on the Atlantic ocean. First officer Frank Wylde stayed behind with the men. He was under orders to leave on his own volition whenever he felt there was no return for them. After eight hundred miles of sailing, an island was spotted.
It was during this time at sea that Shakleton tells Worlsey that he had no idea how a small boat works, and it gave the two men something worth noting in the ship journal. They had a chance to laugh.
The captain had an uncanny ability at ‘’dead reckoning’’ which is the ability to essentially know where you are. The conditions were so rough that the men could only serve on top of the deck for five minutes at a time. McNish and Vincent were frostbitten and had lost the will to move forward. After thirteen days at sea, they saw birds.
Then, as if by design, the crew battled another brutal storm. The same storm took a 200-ton steamer bringing coal and sunk it. But that wasn’t the fate of this little boat. Worlsey zigged-zagged until the storm finally let up. After traversing the roughest seas on earth in a 22-foot craft in the center of two storms.
Once they landed, they had fresh water and seals. The storm had forced the men to land on the wrong side of the island. Shackleton and Worsley would walk across the island, through uncharted lands. They needed clear weather and a full moon.
Nine days after making landfall, three of the five men made their way in the middle of the night. All hopes rested on Shackleton and Worlsey to navigate across ice, mountains and glaciers. They had hammered brass screws into the bottom of their souls which gave them a little grip on the ice. With no tents, there was no option to rest. They kept going. The three men stayed focused and together. Repeatedly they doubled back and retraced their steps. Eventually they climbed atop a huge precipice, a dangerous trip through an unknown valley.
Facing no obvious alternative, the men decided to use their coiled rope as a sled. The three of them bouncing and gaining speed until they finally hit the bottom.
Shackleton wrote, '..the men started cheering and laughing, joyous we were at this very moment, all of our hardships seemed to be forgotten."
They laughed the sled-ride off but now they were utterly driven. The next day, they had run out of kerosene.
At six o’clock, Shackleton thought he heard the whistle of the whaling station. The three men heard the first sound in seventeen months that wasn’t generated by them. The sight of the buildings, and the burden of carrying their lives with them is what kept Shakleton going.
He could have taken a day or two to catch his breath. Certainly no one would have blamed him. But Shakleton wasn’t about to rest now. That very night a ship was outfitted to come and get the men he had left behind. Even though in a steel steamship, the pack ice was too thick. Debate about proceeding to Elephant Island continued. Shackleton would hear nothing of it. More determined than ever to get them after four months, there was no turning back. Worsley looked through his binoculars and saw the men on the island, ALL twenty-two of them.
Shakleton would make several world navigations before dying on St. George’s Island. Frank Worsley ended up becoming a war hero and then traveled the globe giving lectures before dying in 1943.
The men made it and were able to summons a ship from Argentina to rescue the men. All but three men made it back to England alive. For his courage, Shackleton was made into a Knight of the British Empire. Later, he would petition Argentina and Chile to join the war on behalf of the allies. But the personal lessons in this great piece of history are many.
When you are faced with the most incredible of challenges, when you are looking at obstacles in your way to success, when you find yourself a little short on determination and a little short on passion (which happens to us all) then let this be your inspiration: Take your closest and most trusted of friends by their hands, and slide down that mountain and laugh and find your joy along the way..........Because in the end, when it all matters the most, these moments will be the ones that carry us through and help see the life we lead with the perspective we perhaps should have had all along.
The quest to uncover new worlds and meet new people and take on new challenges is something very close to me. The age of discovery, whether it is on this planet or in space, is an exciting prospect for a historian. I find inspiration in the courage and the effort made in order to be the ‘first’ at anything.
Perhaps that is one of the reasons that in my life, I have chosen to visit some of the most remote places on the earth. There is something incredible about feeling as if you are walking in a place where few humans have ever stepped foot. But friendships are everything along the way in our journey through life, and I have to ask, what is it that you not only share your trials and tribulations with your friend, but you share your moments of joy as well? ###