The Day Explorers Finally Found One of the World’s Great Lost Shipwrecks

A Century After Ernest Shackleton’s Death, The Endurance Reveals Itself

March 5, 2022 

Sometimes as life unfolds there are occasions, rare and extremely special, when everything seems to come into alignment to create a moment of absolute perfection. Spheres chime, time stands still and every strand bonds to form a single, beautifully neat cosmic bow. And it happened today. For today, you see, we found the Endurance.

As usual, I woke to the alarm at twenty to seven. Immediately it was upon me, the gripping sense that things were slipping away from us, and in only three days we would have to be out of this frozen barrel and on our way back to Cape Town. When you sit astride a project that costs millions, the thought of failure knots your intestines and depresses the very hell out of you.

As always, the first thing I did was go into my day room, which has views out over the bow as well as to starboard. We were still within the large five-by-five-nautical-mile floe from yesterday, but overnight we had come out of it and then hacked our way back in at a point that was well positioned for the next launch.

It was quite a heavy floe whose surface was mixed; there were a few flat paddocks of young ice, while other places were characterized by numerous long pressure ridges whose ruptured and upthrust edges had been softened by snow. Then there were areas of hummocked eruptions sticking up like broken fingers, but which also had been worn down by time and the relative warmth of the austral summer. One of the Endurance diarists had said that ice like this reminded him of a half-buried city.

There was, however, one standout feature to the hard-frozen acreage about us, and that was a large iceberg about a kilometre and a half to starboard. I cannot pretend that it was a particularly spectacular berg; I had seen bigger and better. Shackleton’s diarists described many of the more distinctive bergs they saw and Worsley even sketched some of them. There was the “Broken down” berg that had open archways through it, and there was the “Steeplehat berg” that rose up in a pinnacle, and then there was “Castle berg,” which had, so to speak, high battlement towers at both ends and a crenellated curtain wall between. Our berg, by contrast, was long with raised hills near both ends and a low-slung saddle between. It reminded me of the Two Sisters that dominate the skyline to the west of Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands.

I skipped breakfast and went straight to the captain’s meeting. As usual it was just John, Nico, myself and Captain Knowledge. These meetings had become a matter of routine and the only issue on the agenda today was that we were still consuming fresh water at a rate which the desalinators could not replace. Knowledge outlined the further restrictions he would have to impose. We liked none of them, but at sea the captain is God and his word reigns supreme.

After the captain’s meeting there was the daily ice briefing, at which Marc gave us the latest weather forecast and Lasse talked us through the satellite imagery. There was no bad weather in prospect and the satellite intelligence told us little we did not already know.

Nonetheless, it was a bit more interesting than usual, as Lasse afterwards gave a disquisition on the drift patterns for when the Endurance sank and presented a hindsight model on which he, Marc and another ice scientist, Christian Katlein, had been working, raising some interesting thoughts about the rough position and circumstances surrounding the ship’s loss. Later in the morning we all met in the vessel’s business centre to study and evaluate their findings. Their considered view is that the Endurance is south of Worsley’s coordinates; in other words, about where we are now.

Shortly after lunch John and I were on the bridge. Both of us had been looking at the berg through binoculars. There seemed to be a small group of moulting Adélies beside it. For some time we had been talking about getting off the ship for a walk and that berg was the perfect excuse. Our charter was coming to a close and this might be my last opportunity to go out on the pack—my last chance before a humiliating return journey, with little to show for the immense expense the expedition had cost.

Our charter was coming to a close and this might be my last opportunity to go out on the pack – my last chance before a humiliating return journey, with little to show for the immense expense the expedition had cost.

I am always worried about “weather bombs,” that is to say, winds and whiteouts that descend without warning. I have been caught in both, but according to the meteorologist, there was nothing ominous in the offing. John was more concerned about cracks opening up in the ice and cutting us off—which had, after all, happened to Shackleton often enough. Indeed, during their first night on the ice the men had to move camp three times because of such cracks. We agreed, however, that this was a stable-looking floe, so we decided to go for it. We figured we could be back in about an hour and a half.

Before we went off to kit up, John put out a team message:

Good afternoon All. Saturday Movie Night. By popular request of the Helicopter crews, the Saturday night movie will be the cult horror thriller The Thing. This film is set at the US Antarctic research station, Outpost 31, in 1982. Twelve men are working at the station gathering physical science data. It is the dead of winter. With six months of darkness ahead of them, they uncover the find of the century (and it is not the Endurance). If only they could put it back. Showing at 8 p.m. in the Auditorium. All Welcome.

It must have been about 1530 when we were winched over the side. We walked around to the front of the ship where Grant Brokensha, a White Desert field guide, took some photos of us beneath the bow; and then, under scowling skies, we set off for the berg. Generally the ice was firm, but in those areas where the floe was rotten its surface was like a pie crust through which, without warning, we would sink to our knees.

As we trudged along with the frozen snow scrunching beneath our boots, we talked about how little time was left and the frustration we all felt. We had covered 80 per cent of the search area and we would not be able to cover it all in the time we had left. John is a very grounded guy, and what he said next surprised me a little. He said he could feel the presence of the Endurance beneath our feet. I had no doubt that somewhere in the icy-cold tenebrous canyons below lay the Endurance; but John said it in a way that suggested he meant directly beneath our feet. As we contemplated this possibility, we had no idea that events were about to take a very dramatic turn back on board the ship.

The shelter—the small, free-standing metal cabin that had been welded onto the back deck—faced the stern about eight metres away. It contained an L-shaped connecting desk that sat three people in front of three separate banks of screens. At the back of the shelter, furthest from the door, was the pilot station, from where the Sabertooth’s progress was monitored and controlled. This consisted of a console, joysticks, and four large screens. The pilot at the time was Robbie McGunnigle, a big, smiling Scot from the Isle of Arran.

Next to Robbie, but at right angles and facing to starboard, was the online station, where all the incoming sonar data appeared on two screens. This is where Clément Schapman, a hydrographic surveyor from France, was seated. To the right of Clément was the offline station, where the data was processed. Normally, this is where sonar analyst François Macé would have been situated, but by chance his seat was empty as he was conferring with Pierre Le Gall in the operations room.

There was a third person in the shelter at that time: Lars Lundberg, an engineer from Saab, the Swedish manufacturers of the Sabertooths. On the back deck outside, Chad Bonin was monitoring the winch. He was also a Sabertooth pilot, and every now and again he would swap roles with Robbie. There were five other pilots, analysts and surveyors, but they would not be coming on shift until midnight.

From where Robbie was seated at “the sticks” he would not normally be able to see the incoming sonar yields. At that moment, however, he was deep in conversation with Clément and facing the online screen. Because Clément’s head was turned slightly, it was actually Robbie who first spotted the anomaly as it edged into view.

Everyone saw Robbie suddenly stiffen. His eyes were focused on Clément’s screen, and the others followed his gaze. The vehicle was proceeding at two knots, so it was quite slow. This meant the POI was also slow to appear. All three men in the shelter watched, transfixed, as it grew in size. The first thing they saw was its outer margins, which we now know was the impact crater that the falling ship made when it struck the seabed. As they watched it take shape, it dawned on them that this was something serious. And then they began to see the acoustic shadow it was casting. That was quite big, so they knew the object had height above the seabed. This sure didn’t look like drop-stones.

Robbie gave a whoop of excitement, but then professionalism kicked in and they all held their nerve and settled their attention again upon what was emerging. It dawned on them all that maybe, just maybe, this was the Endurance. But they kept a grip on their expectations. They all remembered how we had let our excitement get the better of us on 20 February.

It dawned on them all that maybe, just maybe, this was the Endurance. But they kept a grip on their expectations.

In the event of any anomaly that might plausibly be a shipwreck, there was a defined set of protocols or procedures to follow. Things had to move up the chain in a proper way, the link below deciding on whether or not to inform the link above. The first person they had to call was their supervisor, JC. Depending on what he thought, he would then call Nico, and then, depending on what he thought, he would call John and myself and then we would decide whether or not to call the chair of the Trust, Donald Lamont, who would make the final decision on whether this was the moment to call the authorities at the Polar Regions Department in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office back in the UK.

So, following the protocols, Clément radioed JC, who was on duty. Robbie also called in Chad, who was at the winch just outside the shelter. When Chad heard the urgency in Robbie’s voice, he almost immediately knew what was going on—that there was a target on the sonar scan. He opened the door and looked at the screen on the right. “Holy cow,” he thought, and it obviously showed on his face, because when he looked up everyone else was watching him, smirking slightly. He kept his cool and told them that this was definitely very interesting, but that they needed to verify it. What he was really thinking was “Bullseye!”

When JC received the radio call from Clément, he was in his cabin. The screen with the incoming sonar data moves with the submersible, which emits the pulse. From when a point first appears it takes about five minutes for it to disappear, and JC came into the shelter just before it had crossed the field and left the screen.

“Let’s take a look,” he said as he pushed through the pack of bodies to get to the scanner. JC doesn’t say a lot, but he gave them all the biggest smile ever.

He stayed maybe 30 seconds, then ordered them to stop the survey and go to starboard for a high-resolution pass on the target. He then went out and, following procedure, radioed Nico and then headed for the ops room, as the guys there would now be needed in the shelter.

Clément stopped the vehicle. It was then his job to calculate a path into the target at reduced altitude.

Nico was in his room on Level 7 when he got the call from JC requesting his presence in the shelter. There was something in JC’s voice, so he grabbed his protective back-deck gear and headed straight down.

After calling Nico, JC swung the lever on the watertight door that let him leave the deck and step into the ship. Then he walked down the corridor towards the moon pool to find Pierre, François and Jim, who he knew were in the ops room a few metres away.

Pierre had just been post-processing some earlier data. A few minutes before, he had spotted an anomaly, and although it was not a major point of interest he still wanted a second opinion, so he had radioed François and asked him to join him. They had reviewed it and agreed it was not worth investigation, so together they were heading back to the shelter. As they walked along the corridor to the back deck, they passed JC coming in the opposite direction.

Again, they knew from experience that JC does not give much away, but he had a broad, happy look on his face. All he said was “Elle a pété.” This is not polite French; it is slang and it means “She’s there. We got her.” They said “No way” and “Not possible.” JC just smiled and nodded in a way that told them he wasn’t joking. François and Pierre looked at each other and then, together, broke into a run down the corridor towards the back deck.

In the ops room, JC found Jim and quickly told him in French, “We have something really interesting and it’s four metres above the seabed. Come as soon as you can.” And then he hurried off, returning to the back deck to wait for Nico. By then, Pierre and François were already in the shelter. When they arrived, Clément was still computing the vector we would have to follow to take us into the target, so the vehicle was still paused. François took the empty chair in front of the offline screens. At this point all eyes were on him.

Because of his years in the French navy as a mine hunter, François is the master of sonar interpretation. As far as everyone was concerned, his was the final word. He adjusted his glasses. There was complete silence. And then, without taking his eyes off the screen, he simply said, “C’est elle.”

Hearing that from François confirmed everything for everyone in the shelter.

The Sabertooth was still stationary, and now they had to switch it from wide-area survey into small-area target-investigation mode. Captain Freddie Ligthelm was on watch on the bridge, studying the weather data. Every now and again he would glance at the AUV screen that shows both the navigational line-plan for the mission and the position of the vehicle along it. He was a little concerned that the submersible was 1,500 to 1,600 metres from the ship, and at the current rate of drift it would not be possible for it to complete the dive.

He just happened to be looking at the screen when he saw the vehicle divert from its search line, and then it went into hover mode. This by itself was not so unusual, but nonetheless Freddie kept half an eye on the screen as he returned to what he was doing. At the same time, the UHF or ultra-high-frequency radio was going off in French. It wasn’t the usual tired old radio blah-blah; the tone was different. Freddie realized something was up. Somebody with a French accent was trying to radio me, out on the ice with John. Freddie turned to the chief mate and said, “Looks like something important.”

Pierre took over from François at the offline station and began to process the SSS (side-scan sonar) file that contained the target; Clément needed this for the line-planning for the high-resolution survey. Pierre was very excited, but it was also stressful work: they had to change all the settings, and they had to do it quickly. There could be no mistakes. Everything needed to be perfect the first time because they were losing battery, there was not a lot of dive time left, and there were concerns over the drift. Besides, he knew that if he got it wrong, Nico would chew his head off.

Robbie dropped altitude from 80 to 10 metres. The sonar moved from a low frequency of 75 kilohertz to a very high frequency of 419 kilohertz and began to close on the target.

When Nico got down to the back deck, he found JC waiting for him in the freezing cold. They had a brief chat, during which JC told him they had a target, and that it should be the wreck, and they should be on it in about a minute.

The high-frequency sonar survey was already in progress when Nico entered the shelter. They had chosen a sonar range of 100 and were not flying over the target but 50 metres away from it, the target being on the starboard side of the vehicle.

At first, Nico was very calm. This time, he wanted to be 100 per cent certain.

Everyone was now crammed into the shelter like sardines in a can, pressed up tight against each other. Nobody volunteered to leave. In the entire world at that moment there was only one place to be, and they were there. As they got closer, the whole mood got more and more intense.

Robbie was at the sticks muttering “C’mon, baby, c’mon.” They had transited about 400 metres when they saw the unmistakeable sonar impression of the wave of mud that had been thrown up by the impact. And then the bow appeared. It was wedge-shaped and perfectly clear in outline.

Behind the bow, they could see the shape of the hull . . . and then came the masts . . . everything. What an entrance she made; it was as if she was rising up from the deep grave of history. They were awestruck.

Then somebody said, “That’s it. It’s the Endurance!”

Those words seemed to crystallize everything. They could no longer hold back their excitement and joy. It was concrete. This time we had her. We really had her. Those who had phones whipped them out and took photos of the screen. They knew they were bending the rules, but as Chad said to me later, “We had just found the Endurance; we were now the Lords of the Deep!”


the ship beneath the ice

Excerpted from THE SHIP BENEATH THE ICE: The Discovery of Shackleton’s Endurance by Mensun Bound, published by Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2022 by Mensun Bound. Reprinted by permission.

Mensun Bound
Mensun Bound
Mensun Bound was Director of Exploration on the 2019 and 2022 expeditions to locate Shackleton’s Endurance. Previously Triton Fellow in Maritime Archaeology at St. Peter’s College, Oxford University, he is a leading marine archeologist who has discovered many of the world’s most famous shipwrecks.

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