Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries

Aimee Heidelberg - September 11, 2023

Ernest Shackleton knew the South Pole holds the world’s greatest mysteries. It is a desolate, forbiddingly cold place without natural features that would make it habitable. The modern science stations in Antarctica find amenities difficult to ship in and challenging to keep operational; there are few natural resources to make life easy in Antarctica without being a penguin or a seal. For the brave Antarctic explorers of the 1800s and early 1900s, like Amundson, Scott, and Shackleton, ventures to the continent were risky and often deadly. But in 1914, Ernest Shackleton organized the Imperial Trans-Atlantic Expedition to traverse the continent. It ended in disaster for him, but recent discoveries from the debris of his wreck is gaining traction in the scientific community.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
Ernest Shackleton (1908). Public domain.

Ernest Shackleton

After many a brave adventurer tried (and failed) to claim the South Pole, a Norwegian expedition led by Roald Amundsen reached the pole in 1911. But that didn’t stop Antarctic voyagers from seeking adventure and fame through Antarctic exploration. There were many “firsts” yet to claim. Among these intrepid trailblazers was British explorer, Ernest Shackleton. Born in County Kildare, Ireland in 1874 and raised in London, he defied his father’s hopes of a medical career and joined the Merchant Navy. He moved up the ranks quickly, becoming a First Mate within two years, and a certified master mariner by age twenty-four. By that time, he became interested in Antarctic adventures. In 1901 he joined the ranks of Antarctic explorers ready to go where no person had gone before.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
Crew members of the Nimrod, Shackleton 2nd from left. National Library of Australia (c. 1907-09). Public domain.

Ernest Shackleton: Antarctic Veteran

The infamous trip on the Endurance wasn’t Shackleton’s first journey to the Antarctic. He served on an expedition on the ship Discovery in 1901 to claim the South Pole for Great Britain, falling short by 853 kilometers (530 miles). He served on the two-year Nimrod expedition in 1907, stopping just 161 kilometers (100 miles) short of the pole. In 1914, Shackleton set out on an expedition to cross Antarctica from one coast to the other. Called the “Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition,” it was meant to be a pinnacle of Antarctic exploration. Shackleton wasn’t the first to explore Antarctica, and there were whaling stations along its coast, but he planned to make a name for himself, and Great Britain by exploring more than anyone had before. The British government funded the journey as a way to help morale against rising international tensions in the leadup to World War I.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
Frank Hurley’s image of the Endurance. He colorized some images in the ship’s darkroom. Public domain.

The Endurance

The Endurance began its life with the intent of bringing tourists to the Antarctic. Norwegian ship owner Lars Christensen and Belgian expeditionary Adrien de Gerlache built the ship to bring passengers to the Antarctic region. They commissioned a ship, called Polaris, in 1912. Polaris was one of the strongest wood hull ships for traversing the ice. It was a combination sail and steam ship, with three masts, a steam engine, one screw, and one funnel. When de Gerlache couldn’t pay his share, they sold the ship to Shackleton. Shackleton renamed the ship to honor his family motto, “By endurance we conquer.” The newly-named Endurance reached speeds of 10.2 knots. Among its amenities keeping its 23-man crew occupied, there were games and musical instruments on board. It had a darkroom to develop photographs. The photographs from this darkroom are some of the most haunting photographs from the era of Antarctic exploration.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
Hipodromo Nacional de Belgrano, Buenos Aries (1910). Public domain.

Buenos Aries Stopover – Everything Comes Together

Shackleton wasn’t on board when it left Plymouth in August of 1914 under the command of Captain Frank Worsley. He was attending to last-minute personal matters at home. He met the Endurance in Buenos Aries. Shackleton and Worsley discharged sailors that weren’t performing well or were drunk on duty – there was no time for that during a long, dangerous voyage. The dog teams joined the Shackleton expedition in October in Buenos Aries. Shackleton bought 100 dogs, a mix of wolf-dog cross breeds, mastiffs, hounds, and collies who would provide transportation and service during the expedition. The dogs arrived with Frank Wild, the Endurance‘s Second in Command. After final preparations were complete in Buenos Aries, the crew set out for South Georgia Island before heading to the coast of Antarctica

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
Perce Blackborow, with ship’s cat Mrs. Chippy. Frank Hurley, Public Domain.

There Was a Stowaway on Shackleton’s ship

Three days out of Buenos Aries (and too late to turn back) 19-year-old Welsh sailor Percy “Perce” Blackborow was found hiding in a locker. He was already an experienced crewman, having served in the Merchant Navy since he was 14. Blackborow had been in South America since his last crew shipwrecked in Montevideo, Uruguay. Blackborow tried to join the crew in Buenos Aries with his friend, Canadian sailor William, Bakewell. Shackleton accepted Bakewell into the crew, but Blackborow was turned away because of his age. The young men didn’t want to split up, so Blackborow hid in Bakewell’s locker. Shackleton, having no alternative, gave him a stern talking-to, reminding him that if the voyage ran into trouble, it was the custom to eat stowaways first. The Endurance, being short-handed, was able to put Blackborow to work, where he was able to prove his worth among the experienced sailors.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
Frank Hurley photographing the South Georgia island port from a mountain (1914). Public domain.

Shackleton’s Delay in South Georgia Island

On November 5th, the Endurance made a mid-ocean stop at the Island of South Georgia, called the “Alps in mid-ocean.” They were greeted by a Norwegian whaling community at the Grytviken whaling station. The Endurance crew planned to spend a few days at the station before moving on. The dogs were in paradise; the crew fed them all the whale meat that otherwise would have gone to waste or fed to the station’s pigs. Instead, they were there for two weeks. The Norwegians informed them that the ice was bad that year, some of the “worst in memory,” a warning the crew was about to experience for themselves.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
The Endurance encounte

Entering the Weddell Sea

The Endurance encountered its first pack ice on December 8th, in the Weddell Sea, off the Arctic Peninsula. They were still 600 miles from any land and 1,000 miles from their goal of Vahsel Bay. The Norwegian whalers had been right. Winter arrived earlier than expected, with harsh cold and winds. They were able to push through the ice as it tightened and loosened around the ship. They knew Vahsel Bay was a few days away, and the weather predicted to be calm. The ice had let up a bit, too. The crew was in good spirits; after all, their landing point was within grasp.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
Two crab-eater seals spotted by the crew. Frank Hurley, c. February 1915, No known copyright restrictions.

An Ominous Sign

As optimistic as Shackleton and the crew were, there was a sign that things may not be good for the explorers. AS the pack ice started to show up again, they saw a mass of crabeater seals migrating north. Instead of the “Oh, look, seals!” reaction of a tourist, Shackleton knew this was bad. It was possible that the seals were migrating away from a hard winter with scarce food. But the Endurance continued its trek, making it through ice floes through December and January. By mid-January, they were only eighty miles from Vahsel Bay. The ice continued to tighten and loosen until the packed ice tightened once again. But this time, it didn’t loosen. They were stuck in that position for a week, but the ice floes were freezing ever tighter together. Endurance became lodged within the ice floes. They were stuck 60 miles from Vahsel Bay.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
The Endurance stuck in ice. Frank Hurley, public domain.


Shackleton prepared his crew to stay put for the Antarctic winter. Ship surgeon Alexander Macklin said Shackleton “did not rage at all, or show outwardly the slightest sign of disappointment.” They had come 12,000 miles, with 1,000 of it spent battling pack ice, but now they were stranded. But the Endurance was stuck in a northerly-migrating ice floe. Adding insult to injury, they could see the land above Vahsel Bay as they drifted past their intended destination. But they stayed with the ship. It had cost too much to launch the expedition, and they had spent too much time and effort on the voyage to just abandon the Endurance and escape to land. Shackleton planned to wait out the winter. Once spring arrived, the ice would loosen and the Endurance, one of the sturdiest ships in the Antarctic exploratory fleet, could complete its journey to Vahsel Bay.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
The crew aboard the Endurance, 1915. Frank Hurley, public domain._adobe_express

Keeping a Crew Motivated

The crew had no choice but to accept the decision. They trusted Shackleton. But they were also men without purpose. They had tasks meant to keep themselves alive, preparing food, hunting penguin for meat and as a Vitamin C source to prevent scurvy. The crew kept busy with ship maintenance. But the bored crew was disappointed they hadn’t made it to their Vahsel Bay destination. And they worried about the dangers of being trapped in an Antarctic ice floe for an unknown amount of time. To keep themselves occupied, they had games like checkers and dominos. They had pipes and tobacco. They played cards, devised contests among the men, played with the dogs, and listened to music. The darkroom on board meant photographs could be developed. But these small entertainments were diversions from their situation; they were stuck and didn’t know how long the situation would last.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
A dog with its dogloo. Frank Hurley, public domain.

The Men Took Care of the Dogs

If the crew was going to be stuck, at least they had friends to play with. There were sixty dogs on board the Endurance. The ships carpenter created kennels and small igloos, “dogloos,” made from blocks of ice and covered in snow, seal skins or materials from the ship to keep wind out. Some dogloos had wood floors and door frames. The crew even gave one dog, Sailor, a church with its own spire. Despite their luxury housing, the dogs chose to sleep outside unless the weather was too harsh. The dogs were well by the standards of the day. The dogs were fed well; their diet consisted of seal meat, blubber, biscuits, a mix of fat and protein called pemmican, and Spratt’s dog cakes, a dog biscuit similar to today’s dog food. Modern analysis of Spratt’s dog cakes indicates nutrition similar to today’s dog foods.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
Dog team from Shackleton’s expedition, Frank Hurley color plate, 1915. State Library of New South Wales, public domain.

The Dogs Took Care of the Men

Under Shackleton’s premise that the dogs needed to train to maneuver the Antarctic terrain once spring arrived, dog teams were set up for “practice.” Teams of dogs were paired with a driver, and run across the ice floes in one of the sparse moments of fun for the crew and dogs. It gave the crew a chance to get used to dog travel, and time for the dogs to get used to their driver. It was one of the few pleasures for the men in a day spent on an empty plain of snow. But on July 14, things were about to get exciting. Too exciting.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
The Endurance in rough shape. Frank Hurley, public domain.

Things Get Worse

July 14th started off normal, with dogs to feed and daily chores to do. At some point during the day, a strange noise came from the depths of the Endurance. To ease the crew’s mind, he suggested it was a whale. But carpenter Harry McNeish, knew it was a bad sign. The once- smooth ice was buckling and pushing against the ship and cracking the hill. The Endurance didn’t have a rounded bottom that would allow it to rise above tightening ice. The former owners warned Shackleton about this when he bought the ship, but his well-planned expedition surely meant he wouldn’t need that failsafe. Except it needed exactly that failsafe. The ship developed a port-side list. Its beams were cracking and buckling. Its rudder was damaged. But the crew were hopeful that the damage was fixable, and the Endurance set free and be underway.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
The Endurance bound in ice. Library of Congress, public domain.

Hope Still Floats

Through September, the Endurance encountered more ice pressure. The frame warped, timbers buckled and broke. A break came on October 15, when the ice broke enough to free the ship. This gave the crew the optimism to prepare for departure. But hope sank on October 17th, when the ice tightened again. The ice dangerously squeezed the foundering ship. The Endurance started to list at a 30-degree angle yet managed to shift back upright. Still intent on reaching their destination, the crew prepared for departure. They filled the boiler. Carpenter Harry “Chippy” McNish built a coffer dam to shore up the engine room and keep water out. Despite McNish’s efforts, steam pumps ran constantly against leaks coming through the cracks. The ship was flooding, sinking ever lower into the Antarctic waters. What was a problem, a temporary delay, was now a deadly race against time.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
Dogs look on as the Endurance founders in the ice. Frank Hurley, 1915, public domain.

Shackleton Loses the Fight: “She’s going, boys.”

They made do until October 25, 1915. Shackleton, McNish, and the crew assessed the situation. A crewmember declared, “She’s going, boys. It’s time to get off.” It was clear they were losing the battle. The crew stopped the pumps. The ice continued its iron squeeze on the ship. The cook, Charles Green, made one last dinner in the galley. The men gathered in the wardroom and had a final dinner on the Endurance, their home for so many months. That evening, Shackleton ordered the men onto the ice floe. The ship was no longer structurally safe, and definitely not habitable. The crew knew their ship was lost, and they were in danger. The ice floe that served as their home was starting to melt at the edges. The Endurance held itself up for nearly a month after its abandonment, but on November 21, 1915, it slid beneath the waters.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
The crew abandons ship and joins the dogs on the ice. Frank Hurley, c. 1914, public domain.

Stuck on Ice

When Shackleton directed the crew to abandon ship, it was a desperate time. The crew was really stuck. Again. But this time they didn’t have a ship for housing and comfort. They lacked a galley, and Shackleton put a limit on personal items they could save off the ship, a limit of two pounds each. The meteorologist, Leonard Hussey, had a zither-banjo to entertain the crew. Shackleton understood the dangers and low morale of being cut off from the rest of the world. He learned from the case of the Belgica in 1897, the first purely scientific exploration to Antarctica. Stuck in ice like the Endurance, rife with scurvy and reeling from the death of the 5th Lieutenant and the ship’s beloved cat, the crew went almost mad from isolation. To avoid a similar dilemma, Shackleton insisted that Hussey play the instrument to remind the men of their humanity.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
Shakespeare, “leader of my team and most sagacious animal of the pack.” Frank Hurley, 1914.

Shakleton’s “Worst Job”

After the Endurance foundered in the Antarctic waters, supplies were running low. Conditions were getting worse, and the crew worried about their food supplies. They were starting to starve. So were the dogs. As beloved as they were to the men, Shackleton decided to shoot the dogs, the puppies born on the expedition, and carpenter McNish’s tomcat, curiously named Mrs. Chippy, rather than let them starve to death. Shackleton would write in his memoir, “…it was the worst job that we had through the Expedition, and we felt their loss keenly.” This is a significant admission -in an age of stoicism and formal writing, this was an emotional missive from a tough Antarctic explorer. McNish never forgave Shackleton for shooting his cat. When McNish died in 1930 in New Zealand, The New Zealand Antarctic Society installed a statue of Mrs. Chippy at the foot of his grave.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
Frank Hurley’s image of the crew crossing the ice towing the lifeboat James Caird. Public domain.

Getting Out

The crew deeply mourned the loss of the dogs and Mrs. Chippy. Even so, Shackleton was determined to keep them focused on the goal of getting off the ice. He hatched a plan to march the crew over the ice until they reached land. They abandoned this plan after a week had passed and the team only progressed seven miles. The ice was drifting north. But instead of adding to the danger, there was finally hope; the floe led them into the area of Clarence and Elephant islands. The men could see the land as they drifted along. It was just in time, too. On April 9, the ice floe started to crack. They packed the three salvaged lifeboats and headed toward the island. They were on the open ocean, but the cold, seasickness, and terror were not as strong as the desire to set foot on land.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
Launching the James Caird from Elephant Island, 24 April 1916. Frank Hurley, public domain.

Elephant Island

It took the men six exhausting days to reach Elephant Island. While they crew was relieved to be on actual land again, they hadn’t slept since setting off in the lifeboats. But worse, nobody knew they were there. The crew took nine days to rest and recuperate. With a dash of strength and a heap of determination, Shackleton assembled a team of five to make the almost 800 mile journey to South Georgia Island. Their small lifeboat, the James Caird, tossed around for sixteen days as the team, comprised of Shackleton, Captain Frank Worsley, carpenter Henry McNish (still mourning Mrs. Chippy), Second Officer Thomas Crean, Able Seaman Timothy McCarthy, and Able Seaman John Vincent, fought the rolling swells of the sea. Through the 60-70 miles a day of their journey, they were constantly breaking ice off the sail and hoping the next one wouldn’t capsize the small boat.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
The hut for crew left behind on Elephant Island. Frank Hurley, 1916, public domain.


When the rescue party set out, there was nothing for the men left behind to do but wait. The crew had abandoned most of the personal possessions that had kept them entertained when the Endurance still stood afloat. They again found themselves listless and bored, but this time their situation was much graver. They didn’t know if the Shackleton rescue team would make it to South Georgia Island. The men were suffering frostbite. Their health began to worsen. The island was constantly foggy, windy, and there was little shelter for refuge. They used overturned lifeboats left behind to construct a makeshift hut by turning it over and using tent remnants to keep the wind out. They were able to do some light hunting, dining on the penguins and seals they were able to catch. And they waited for any sign of the rescue team’s success.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
Depiction of James Caird lifeboat and rescue team. Attributed to expedition artist George Marston, public domain, c. 1917.

Back on South Georgia Island

When the James Caird reached South Georgia Island, the rescue team had a new problem. Storms had blown them off course; they were on the other side of the island from the whaling station. But the fight wasn’t out of the team yet. Determined to make it to the whaling station, Shackleton, Worsley and Crean traversed the land on foot. They climbed twenty-two miles of unmapped mountains and crossed glaciers without protective gear and equipment. All they had was an adze, 90 feet of rope, a compass, and screws. They carried enough food for three days. Overtaken with exhaustion and worry that falling asleep might be the end of them, they ate to keep up their strength and carried on with the hazardous climb. After a day and a half, and with no sleep, they reached the whaling station in Stromness.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
Evacuation of Elephant Island, with the Yelcho in the background. Frank Hurley, public domain.

At Long Last: Rescue!

Shackleton had one more challenge. Captain Worsley and Second Officer Crean went back to the landing site to retrieve the rest of the rescue team. They had stayed behind during the mountain and glacier trek and didn’t know whether the expedition had been successful. Shackleton had another problem. He needed to rescue the crew on Elephant Island. The first three rescue ships he organized were unsuccessful; one ran low on fuel going through ice. Another came so close, 100 miles, but ice thwarted them, too. Finally, the Chilean vessel Yelcho reached the stranded men as they sat down for their boiled seal backbone lunch. When they saw the Yelcho, the men quickly abandoned their lunch to tear down the camp. Departure couldn’t come fast enough for the weary crew. Collectively, there were ten frostbitten toes, including those on the left foot of stowaway Percy Blackborow, but every man was rescued.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
Frank Hurley’s images documented the Endurance misadventure. Public domain.

Documenting the Endurance

The Endurance was miraculously documented by Frank Hurley, the official photographer for the journey. His haunting images and film bring humanity to the near-mythical tale. Hurley made use of Endurance‘s dark room, developing his photographs and film in the cramped space (at least while it still sat safely above water). He even captured motion pictures of the mast collapse and life on the ice using a heavy “cinematograph machine.” Hurley had to dump most of his equipment when the Shackleton gave the order to limit personal items to two pounds. But with Shackleton’s permission, he managed to save one camera, some glass plate negatives, and some film in a soldered tin can. Using the salvaged camera, he documented the rest of the expedition in 38 stills. These images have captivated audiences since Hurley compiled them for a documentary, South (1919), available through the British Film Institute.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
The Endurance voyage. It broke and sank somewhere in the middle of the green and yellow lines. Bourrichon.

Shackleton’s Ship Hides its Secrets

And there she sat, cold, alone, sunken under the freezing Arctic waters. For 107 years, the Endurance became legend, but yielded no secrets from the depths of the Weddell Sea, not even her exact location. Her story might have ended there, but the tale was just too good. It was the challenge of man vs. nature. “Survival against the odds.” Shackleton’s amazing escape and daring rescue against all odds is inspiring and superhuman. The pathos of how the well-loved dogs (and one cat) were lost, but not one man lost their life, propels the tale into new levels of modern mythology. The wreck itself was lost for over a century because the ice on the Weddell Sea refused to give up its hold on the ship. Nobody could find it. Dr. John Shears, an expeditionary looking for the Endurance called it “the world’s most challenging shipwreck.”

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
Ghostly photo of the Endurance stuck in the ice (1915). Library of Congress, public domain.

The Endurance Rediscovered

In 2022, the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust announced the Endurance22 Expedition, under Dr. Shear’s leadership, finally found the Endurance in the Weddell Sea. Using Endurance Captain Frank Worsley’s notes and submersible scans to identify the search area, the team found the ship, reasonably intact, 3,000 meters (9,842 feet) under the sea surface. It was only four miles south of where Worsley predicted it would be. The cold Antarctic waters have done a remarkable job of preserving the Endurance. Aside from some erosion and a few sea creatures making a home on the ship, it has kept its structure and features, unlike the quickly rusting Titanic wreck site. The name of the ship still gleams from the stern. The ships’ stern wheel is perfectly intact. Research teams will continue to explore the wreck, adhering to the terms of the Treaty.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
The stern of the ship, with ‘Endurance’ and its gleaming star. Flaklands Maritime Heritage Trust press photo.

A Shock from the Bottom of the Sea

Esther Horvath, a photographer with National Geographic was with the Endurance22 team when they found the wreck of the Endurance in 2022. According to Horvath, the Endurance22 team was shocked at the condition of the wreck. They expected the ship to have broken, given the ice compression and list. While the upper deck has broken, the ship itself lies beneath the sea remarkably preserved. It didn’t break when it hit the sea floor. In addition to the shock of finding it in one piece, the team was surprised to see how well preserved it is. The freezing Antarctic waters, the marine life, and nutrients in the water helped keep the Endurance from suffering major deterioration seen on other major shipwrecks like the Titanic. Expedition22 director Mensun Bound said, “This is by far the finest wooden shipwreck I have ever seen…You can even see ‘Endurance‘ arced across the stern.”

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
Emblem of the Antarctic Treaty (CC3.0).

Endurance is a Cultural Monument

The Endurance wreck is an officially declared monument and historic site under the Antarctic Treaty. Its designation is, in no small part, due to the “particular association with a notable feat of endurance or achievement.” Under the Treaty, the wreck, including “all artefacts contained within or formerly contained within the ship” (including the debris field), all fixtures and fittings like the bell, wheel, and masts, and any personal possessions of the crew are historic and must remain undisturbed. Because the Endurance wreck is so newly found, a Conservation Management Plan is still under development. These plans typically assess the monument and determine a preservation and maintenance plan. In the case of historic interest, a plan may include guidance and procedure for exploration and scientific research on the ship, should there be a need to explore.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
Agulhas II, the Endurance22 vessel used to find the Endurance. Ossewa (2015,CC4.0)

Endurance Expedition Contributes to Modern Climatology Science

Finding the Endurance opened new opportunities for the scientific community and Antarctic researchers. Nobody knows yet how much information the ship will yield, nor what innovative ideas will snowball from its depths. Even so, after only a year (and adherence to the Antarctic Treaty), there have been significant scientific discoveries. Shackleton opened up the Antarctic, but certainly not in the way he expected to. During the search expedition, the Endurance22 team, aboard the SA Agulhas II, was able to conduct research on climate change, ice drifts, Weddell Sea weather conditions, sea ice thickness, and map of sea ice from space. The Endurance22 team was able to create content to stream to classrooms around the world through their educational outreach program, in partnership with Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust partnered with US-based Reach the World program and the Royal Geographic Society.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
Sea creatures on Endurance wreck. Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust press photo.

The Current Residents of the Endurance

While people abandoned Endurance well over a century ago, its decks are still alive with life and activity. External examination of the wreck shows sea life thriving on its decks, but not eating them. While shipwrecks in other parts of the world suffer from wood-boring bacteria and sea life that penetrate any organic material like wood, the ‘residents’ of the Endurance have left it alone. Even though the ship isn’t serving as a food source, a host of species have taken up residence on the Endurance. Brittlestars and crinoids dance along its decks. Stalked sea squirts, anemones, and sponges cling to its rails and planks. And those are just the creatures researchers know about; so many creatures remain undiscovered in the depths of the Antarctic seas. Perhaps they will make a home on the Endurance.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
Shackleton organized a camp after the Endurance sank. Frank Hurley, c. Nov-Dec 1915.

Shackleton’s Legacy of Leadership

Reeling from the loss of the Endurance, Shackleton knew it was time to move. He declared, “The ship’s gone, the stores are gone…so I guess we’ll go home.” His leadership is, to this day, widely praised to this day by business, government, and industry leaders. He wasn’t infallible. Shackleton stretched his finances for the journey. Nor did he act on the ice warnings Grytviken whalers gave him during the South Georgia Island layover. But during the worst of times, Shackleton planted the idea that there was something else, something to strive for, something within reach if they were ready for it. And if his confidence wavered, he never let the crew know. And all his human crew survived the ordeal.

Unearthing Antarctic Secrets: Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Expedition Revealed Shocking Discoveries
The dogs of Endurance being fed in the shadow of the ice-locked ship. Library of Congress, public domain.

Shackleton’s Misadventure is a Scientific Starting Line

Shackleton once said, “What the ice gets, the ice keeps.” But this time, the ice gave up its secrets, and promises to unlock more. Endurance is finding a new life as a monument and scientific research ground. It is a window into the great era of Antarctic exploration and the race to be the “first” to open the southernmost continent. The Endurance wreck will open new techniques and policies in historic preservation and monument maintenance. It will reveal secrets of marine life that inhabit unfathomably freezing conditions. With each wreck like the Endurance discovered, new research opportunities open, furthering understanding of Antarctica, the natural world, and how humans interact with such forbidding terrain. While each wreck is fascinating and tells its own story, the infamy of the Endurance has propelled the wreck beyond “just another wreck.”

Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

Endurance: Shackleton’s lost ship is found in Antarctic. Jonathan Amos, BBC.com, 9 March 2022.

Endurance expedition: Shackleton’s Antarctic survival story. Tom Garner, LiveScience, 9 March 2022.

How polar explorers survived months of isolation without cracking. Roff Smith, National Geographic. 26 May 2020.

Legendary Shipwreck of Shackleton’s Endurance Discovered in Antarctic Waters. Tom Metcalfe, Scientific American, 9 March 2022.

Shackleton’s Endurance: The impossible search for the greatest shipwreck. Jonathan Amos, BBC.com, 4 February 2022.

Sir Ernest Shackleton Endurance Expedition – Trans-Antarctica 1914 – 1917. (n.a.) Cool Antarctica (n.d.).

The incredible story behind Shackleton’s Endurance shipwreck. Barry Neild, CNN.com, 12 March 2022.

What the ice gets, the ice keeps. Jacob Pinter, interview transcript. National Geographic, 4 October 2022.

Wreck of Shackleton’s ‘Endurance’ discovered in icy Antarctic depths. Nora McGreevy, Smithsonian Magazine, 11 March 2022.