By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
British explorer Ernest Shackleton tried to sail the Antarctic end-to-end in 1914. His ship ultimately sank and went missing for more than 100 years. Earth’s most challenging shipwreck search just ended.
In 1915, Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, became trapped in ice off the coast of Antarctica. It eventually succumbed to being crushed by the pressure of the ice and sank 10,000 feet below the surface. Explorers announced the discovery of its wreckage March 9, 2022, after searching a 150-square-mile area east of the Antarctic Peninsula. Shackleton initially set out in 1914 with the goal of crossing the Antarctic continent from one end to the other.
Sadly, Endurance‘s journey ended in a watery grave. In his video series History’s Greatest Voyages of Exploration, Dr. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Lindsay Young Professor of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, provides ample history for the voyage.
Seafaring during the Great War
In 1911, Norwegian explorers reached the South Pole for the first time under the command of Roald Amundsen. However, with this landmark feat accomplished, the Anglo-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton knew he could still be the first to cross the Antarctic from end to end. He set out in the Endurance in 1914 to do so.
“Just as Shackleton and his men prepared to head south, the First World War broke out in Europe,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, told them to go anyhow, but in Shackleton’s writings one can still see the twinges of conscience and doubt about whether this was the right thing to do. In modern times, the ending of a war can correspond to a burst of exploration as kind of an outlet for energies, but in this case, the question arose that was the opposite.”
This question, he said, was whether scientific exploration was fundamentally frivolous in a time of national crisis or still worthwhile. Whichever answer he believed, Shackleton developed a plan for the Endurance to reach the Weddell Sea—the very site at which it was discovered. However, it was caught in the ice and drifted for 10 months before being smashed under the weight of the pack ice it carried.
Then things turned from bad to worse.
“For months, [Shackleton and his 29 men] dragged their lifeboats across the ice, and after they reached open water, they rowed to desolate Elephant Island,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “Then, leaving the others to shelter there, in order to get help from a whaling station on South Georgia Island some 800 miles away, Shackleton and five other men traveled onwards in a small lifeboat.”
According to Dr. Liulevicius, the lifeboat journey took Shackleton two weeks over giant waves, ice forming on the ships, and storms at sea. In what seemed to be a final insult, the party arrived on the opposite end of the island as the whaling station. They spent the next 36 hours crossing the mountainous South Georgia Island. At last, they arrived.
“Ultimately, they were saved—and not only those who had made their way to South Georgia Island,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “A rescue ship was then sent to pick up everyone else on Elephant Island. And amazingly, all of Shackleton’s men, in the end, from the Endurance, were saved. They all survived.”