It is, quite simply, one of the most astonishing true stories of courage and survival in the annals of history. What we now know as The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration saw numerous doughty adventurers try to beat each other to the punch when it came to charting the barren continent. Having been beaten to the South Pole by Roald Amundsen in 1911, Anglo-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton set his sights on being the first to cross Antarctica from sea to sea, hitting the Pole on the way.
The expedition was a disaster. Shackleton’s ship Endurance was caught in the ice of the Weddell Sea in the winter of 1915, eventually being crushed and sunk. Shackleton and his 28 men undertook a perilous lifeboat journey to the uninhabited Elephant Island, with Shackleton and a smaller crew then making an open-boat journey of 800 miles to reach a whaling station in South Georgia, mounting a rescue mission back to Elephant Island from there.
And everyone survived. Well, everyone human – the expedition dogs did not. Shackleton’s journey remains an amazing story of courage in the face of extreme adversity, prompting expedition member Apsley Cherry-Garrard to remark in his memoir, “For scientific discovery, give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen, but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
Into the cold blue yonder
Unfortunately, Shackleton died in 1922 at the age of 47, but maritime archaeologist and shipwreck expert Mensun Bound is more than up to the task of following in his footsteps. With two years of planning and a $250m budget devoted to assembling some of the most high-tech exploration tools currently available, Bound headed south in 2019 onboard the Agulhas II, determined to find the final resting place of Endurance.
That resting place is, of course, underwater – 3000m or so underwater, in fact – with the Weddell Sea difficult to navigate due to ice even in the summer months. With that in mind, one of the key elements of Bound’s quest is the use of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles. Not just remote-piloted submersible drones, these are independent robot craft that don’t need constant operator input – a tool Shackleton couldn’t even have dreamed of over a century ago.
Everything old is new again
Directed by veteran scientific documentarian Oliver Twinch, Endurance: The Hunt For Shackleton’s Ice Ship cuts between Shackleton’s original travails and Bound’s modern-day expedition, neatly paralleling both but highlighting how modern technology is more capable of dealing with the challenges of the harsh Antarctic environment.
Some things never change, though; just like Endurance before her, Agulhas II became trapped in sea ice. Whereas Shackleton had his men race from one gunwale to the other to try and shake the ship loose, the captain of the Agulhas II achieves the same effect by swinging a 40-ton fuel pod on a crane from one side to the other, gradually shifting the ship out of the ice’s grasp. While the tools are more sophisticated, the essential issues remain the same.
And on a broader level, that’s why the story of Ernest Shackleton and Endurance, has, er, endured. The tale is one of hardship, but it never becomes an “…and so we ate the cabin boy” horror story of survival on the high seas. In the face of unbelievable odds, in a place completely inimical to human survival, Shackleton managed to bring everyone home – not a single expedition member was laid to rest in the pack ice. Lessons applicable to our current times are left as an exercise for the reader. And as for whether Bound’s expedition was successful? Well, that’s what the documentary is for.
Endurance: The Hunt For Shackleton’s Ice Ship is available at SBS On Demand: