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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Explorers have discovered one of history’s most famous shipwrecks, Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance, at the bottom of the icy sea off Antarctica more than a century after it sank , they announced on Wednesday.
Endurance was discovered at a depth of 3,008 meters (9,869 feet) in the Weddell Sea, about six kilometers (four miles) from where it was slowly crushed by pack ice in 1915.
Shackleton entered expeditionary legend thanks to the epic escape he and his 27 companions then made, on foot and by boat.
“We are overwhelmed by our luck to have located and captured Endurance footage,” said Mensun Bound, exploration director for the expedition.
“It is by far the most beautiful wooden wreck I have ever seen. It is straight, well proud of the seabed, intact and in a brilliant state of preservation. You can even see ‘Endurance’ in an arc on the stern,” he said in a statement.
The expedition, organized by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust, left Cape Town on February 5 with a South African icebreaker, hoping to find the Endurance before the end of summer in the southern hemisphere.
As part of Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition between 1914 and 1917, the crew of Endurance was to make the first land crossing of Antarctica.
But their three-masted sailboat fell victim to the stormy Weddell Sea.
Just east of the Larsen Ice Shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula, the wooden ship became trapped in pack ice in January 1915.
It was gradually crushed and then sank 10 months later.
The crew first camped on the sea ice, drifting north until the ice cracked, then took on lifeboats.
They sailed first to Elephant Island, a dark, treeless place where most of the men were dropped off and set up camp.
Using just a sextant for navigation, Shackleton then took five other people in the strongest and most seaworthy boat for a 1,300 kilometer (800 mile) trip to South Georgia, a British colony where there was a station. whaler.
Defying mountainous seas and freezing temperatures, the 17-day trek aboard the 6.9-meter (22.4-foot) open boat is often considered one of the most remarkable achievements in maritime history.
All 28 members of the expedition survived.
Today’s explorers used underwater drones to find and film the wreckage in the unforgiving Weddell Sea. Its swirling current supports a mass of thick sea ice that can challenge even modern icebreakers.
Shackleton himself described the sinking site as “the worst part of the worst sea in the world”.
The region remains one of the most difficult parts of the ocean to navigate.
“This is the most complex underwater project ever undertaken,” said Nico Vincent, the mission’s underwater project manager.
Underwater drones produced incredibly clear images of the 44-meter (144-foot) long vessel.
Surprisingly, the helm remained intact after more than a century underwater, with gear stacked against the taffrail as if Shackleton’s crew had just left it.
The beams of the ship, although damaged by the crushing of the ice that sank into them, still hold together. A mast had snapped in two on deck, and portholes showed what secrets might still be hiding within.
Sea anemones, sponges and other small forms of marine life have taken up residence on the wreck, but do not appear to have damaged it.
“It’s quite remarkable to see the images of this ship at the bottom of the sea, which is equivalent to the discovery of the Titanic,” said Adrian Glover, deep sea biologist at the British Museum of Natural History.
“It’s not a forgiving place, as Shackleton and others have discovered,” he told AFP. “The pack ice out there can get very thick, very quickly, and crush a ship, or at least halt its progress.”
An earlier mission in 2019 failed to find the Endurance, noted South Africa’s environment ministry, which owns the icebreaker.
Under international law, the wreck is protected as a historic site. Explorers were allowed to film and scan the ship, but not touch it at all, meaning no artifacts can be returned to the surface.
The team used underwater research drones known as Sabertooths, built by Saab, which dove under the ice in the farthest depths of the Weddell Sea.
During the mission, scientists also studied climate change, documented ice drift and weather patterns.
Stefanie Arndt, a sea ice researcher at Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute, said on Twitter that she returned with 630 ice and snow samples. “An incredible number,” she said.
The team must now make the 11-day return trip to the port of Cape Town.

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