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The Ship Beneath the Ice: The Discovery of Shackleton’s Endurance

14 Mar 23

Mensun Bound is a fifth-generation Falkland Islander and, probably, the most illustrious underwater archaeologist of our times.  He was brought up on the stories of Shackleton’s expeditions – Shackleton stayed in his great-great uncle’s bar/boarding house in Port Stanley & his account remains open.[1] His book details the two searches in 2019 (abandoned when they lost a multi-million-pound Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) under the ice) & 2022. As well as the published diaries & Shackleton’s (ghost written) book, South,[2]Bound has had access to the unpublished memoirs and diaries of several other members of the 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. He has successfully blended the daily accounts from this expedition with the search activity onboard the South African icebreaker Agulhas II[3]on the same day. There is a fascinating account of the technology[4] required to search down to 3000m[5] under the Weddell icesheet, which are clear enough for those not versed in modern AUVs and, I think, interesting enough for those that are. Reassuringly for the more mature NR member, the day was saved by one man’s experience – he brought onboard a 20-year-old AUV winch ‘just-in-case’, which proved to work in -40°C when the latest model just froze up. But there is far more to underwater archaeology in the Antarctic than just technology & Bound also excels in his descriptions of the people, weather & wildlife onboard and around the ship.

Bound’s search for Endeavour started in a South Kensington coffee shop on 16th August 2012 – over a discussion about searching for Scott’s ship the Terra Nova.[6] He found the answer in that day’s Times – she had been found four days before, so his friend suggested looking for the Endurance instead. At the time, Bound considered this to be technically impossible, but after several years of research & discussions with the AUV technology experts, he decided to give it a go. As noted earlier, the 2019 expedition failed when they lost the AUV under the ice. In 2022, on 5th March, exactly one hundred years to the day after Shackleton was buried on S Georgia, they found Endurance – in a remarkably complete state, as the photos in this book show.

Shackleton was very keen to establish himself with the public as the premier polar explorer & hoped to oust Scott from this position. Bound shows that Shackleton’s book, South, is less than fair to the efforts of other members of the expedition & Bound’s view is that Shackleton may have displayed consummate leadership, but “the lion’s share of the credit for their survival really belongs…” to Frank Worsley, the Master of Endurance, because of his truly remarkable use of a sextant from an 23’ open whaler.[7]

This is the best book I’ve read in years – in fact since This Thing of Darkness (reviewed Vol. XCVII (2009) Issue 2). It is a real page-turner & would appeal to far more than just a maritime readership. One of those books that, irritating as it is to those around, you cannot resist quoting from as you read it. Very highly recommended.


[1] Shackleton was often in a precarious financial position &, it is said, he left Port Stanley in 1910 owing money both to the FI Government for telegrams & to the ‘First & Last’ bar.

[2] It is now widely recognised that Shackleton did not actually write South, although even modern editions of the book give him sole authorship. The New Zealand journalist Edward Saunders was his ghost writer.

[3] 13,600 GRT. 134m LOA. Crew 45. Up to 100 pax.  The expedition team in 2019 & 2022 were approximately 50 strong.

[4] Inevitably and genuinely ‘cutting edge’!

[5] HMS Hood was discovered at about the same depth as Endeavour and Bismarck 1700m deeper, but neither was under the Antarctic ice.

[6] Lost off Greenland in 1943. There was a centenary exhibition on Scott’s expedition at the Natural History Museum at the time & the NHM had asked Bound if Terra Nova could be found.

[7] The James Caird – now displayed in Shackleton’s old school, Dulwich College, South London.