Shackleton’s Endurance continues to inspire new generations

The intrepid and captivating expedition re-ignites imaginations and the timeless quest for adventure and discovery.

The intrepid and captivating expedition re-ignites imaginations and the timeless quest for adventure and discovery.

Freezing temperatures, long hours of darkness and crushing ice floes. These were the conditions that greeted the crew of the S.A. Agulhas II earlier this year as they retraced the doomed voyage of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance, which sank to the bottom of Weddell Sea over 100 years ago.     

Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition ended in failure, when his specially designed ship became trapped in the ice, forcing the explorer to abandon ship, with 28 men isolated on drifting pack ice with limited supplies hundreds of miles from land. One century on, however, the S.A. Agulhas II and the Endurance22 expedition proved to be a resounding success, described by Mensun Bound, director of exploration, as a “milestone in polar history”.

Capturing imaginations

Combining the detailed century-old records kept by Endurance’s Captain Frank Worlsey, and state-of-the-art radar technology and autonomous underwater search vessels, the Endurance22 team located what Bound called “by far the finest wooden shipwreck I have ever seen” at a depth of 3008 metres in the Weddell Sea.  

“It is upright, well proud of the seabed, intact, and in a brilliant state of preservation,” he said.    

As well as being of historical significance, the expedition included important scientific research into climate change and engaged in an educational outreach programme, with live broadcasts from the research ship to inspire the TikTok generation with amazing stories of endurance, tenacity and discovery. 

For Freddie Ligthelm, the ice pilot on the expedition, the afterglow of Endurance22 has yet to fade. The master mariner, who started his career as a navigation training cadet with De Beers Marine, was inspired by the Antarctic Programme shortly after first going to sea. “My heart was set to go on a voyage down South and in 2002 I resigned from De Beers and joined the S.A. Agulhas for an Antarctic trip, even though it meant taking a step back in position…I was willing to go for free as a deck hand if that was what it took.” 

He is now an experienced captain in these waters, with all the relevant qualifications and training to sail south of 60. “The Weddell Sea is certainly one of the most remote areas in the world and there is not much in the way of help or rescue resources,” said Ligthelm. “Only a handful of ships has ever ventured into the Weddell Sea, an area often covered with very thick multiyear ice.” 

Importantly, Ligthelm was part of the Endurance19 expedition, and he believes that this failure was essential in enabling this year’s success. The crew benefited from those learnings, as well as lighter than normal ice coverage.  

“This year was an all-time record low for sea ice coverage, which made it easier for us to reach the wreck site and to manoeuvre within the 11 x 8NM search block,” he said. 

3 Credit AMSOL FMHT 1646813233783
Captain Knowledge Bengu (left) with ice pilot Freddie Ligthelm (right) (Credit: AMSOL Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust)

Other major challenges included the extreme cold and windchill, which made it difficult for the subsea team and impacted the functioning of some of the equipment, such as the AUV tether winch. Given the fate of the Endurance, the crew under Captain Knowledge Bengu, was also constantly on high alert to the threat of ice damage to both the ship and the AUVs.  

Towards the end of the expedition, it looked like Endurance might escape discovery again. “We had searched more than 85% of the block and already extended our planned stay by five days, so we were sceptical on whether the wreck was in the projected search block,” said Ligthelm, saying some team members began to suspect an easterly error in Worsley’s sextant position.

“But we soon realised whilst working in the area that the movement of the ice could also play a significant role as it is very much driven by the direction of the prevailing wind in the short term and by the Weddell Sea Gyre in the long term,” he explained.

Revising calculations

Looking through the contemporary weather log books, the team noted there had been a strong north easterly gale, which would have pushed the ship in the ice south. With this historical insight, Endurance was indeed found around 2NM south of the recorded positions. Ligthelm’s emotion when they realised the AUV had found the wreck? “Relief! Soooo relieved!” 

Interestingly, you don’t have to be a master marine to undertake this kind of expedition. Eight of the crew worked for specialist tourism company White Desert, that also provides logistics and support to scientific bases in Antarctica. The White Desert team was charged with ensuring the safety and survival of the expedition members when they ventured out onto the surrounding sea ice. White Desert’s Carl Elkington was overwhelmed by the historic discovery.  

“The shipwreck was so incredibly well preserved it gave us all goosebumps,” he said.  

Endurance22 hopes its success will inspire new generations to explore and respect the polar regions. Indeed, Freddie Ligthelm’s advice for young people who are ‘adventurers at heart’ is to give serious consideration to a seafaring job. “It is not for everyone, but it sure as hell beats sitting behind a desk and in traffic every day,” he said.

June 8 is UN World Oceans Day. Experience seafaring life aboard the Endurance with iconic photographs taken by Frank Hurley, digitised by the Royal Geographic Society. 

The IMarEST’s education partner Encounter Edu also provides fascinating education programmes that are perfect for inspiring a sense of adventure and discovery amongst ocean enthusiasts of all ages.


Amy McLellan is a journalist and author. She was previously editor of Energy Day. Twitter  @AmyMcLellan2