Endurance went down entombed in ice, “in a sea of other people’s expectations,” as the saying goes. Men had drowned in seas like that. The year was 1915 and the place was Antarctica, and there — but for Sir Ernest Shackleton, photographer Frank Hurley and a small group of men determined to survive, damn the odds — no more would have been said, heard or told about it.
And yet, here we are.
Just days ago, on 27 January, 2019, the Weddell Sea Expedition and the 13,700-ton South African icebreaker SA Agulhas II, with some 30 climate scientists, geologists, historians and polar explorers aboard, started to break their way through 75 miles (121 km) of sea ice in their effort to reach the final resting place of Shackleton’s ship.
It’s midsummer on the far side of the world, and while climate deniers have complained all week about it being colder in Chicago — minus 30°C — than it is in Antarctica — minus 25°C — the fact is that, even in midsummer, this part of Antarctica is still entombed in ice. Expedition members have spent the last few weeks taking measurements of the Larsen C ice shelf, together with climate readings of the Weddell Sea, parts of which remain covered in ice up to 3 metres thick.
Make no mistake, this is very much a 21st century expedition. Team members are using satellite imagery, drones, autonomous robotic submarines and underwater Remote Operated Vehicles (ROV’s) in their effort to find what remains of the 145-foot (44 metres) three-mastered barquentine which sank to the bottom of the Weddell Sea in the polar spring of November, 1915 after being trapped in sea ice for 10 months.
We may be living through troubled times, but in this tiny corner at the far end of the earth, hope springs eternal.
“We hope to achieve what we thought was impossible,” 2019 Weddell Sea Expedition director-of-exploration and maritime archaeologist Mensun Bound said in a prepared statement. “Although the odds of success were initially against us, the mood within the team is upbeat, given the favourable ice and weather conditions, which we think will allow us to reach the search area.
“We now view this as the best opportunity to locate Endurance and we are relishing the chance to be involved is a search of such significance.”
Thanks to the obsessiveness and penchant for detail of Shackleton’s master navigator and skipper Frank Worsley, the Agulhas II is not operating in the dark as it were. Worsley took great pains to record the exact coordinates of where Endurance went down, never dreaming of a day more than a century later when autonomous robot submarines could scan the sea floor.
This past Sunday, just 72 hours ago, the expedition was in the Erebus and Terror Gulf — named after Sir John Franklin’s two ships in Franklin’s own, ill-fated effort to find his way through Canada’s Northwest Passage in the high Arctic, at the other far end of the earth— calibrating high-precision acoustic positioning systems, which is a high-falutin’ way of describing the use of modern-day technology to track down a century-old shipwreck.
The Agulhas II scientists and crew members have shared moments of unalloyed joy in their weeks so far, from an impromptu game of pick-up soccer on making first landing on the Antarctic Peninsular — recreating a game played by Endurance crew members a century earlier, before they realized the hardships and terror that lay before them — to bright-eyed selfie videos in front of walls of ice, shared in real time, on Facebook and Twitter. Before turning their attention to finding Endurance, the scientists spent the better part of a month collecting ice samples and surveying the effects of climate change near the Larsen C ice shelf carved an iceberg four times the size of Greater London in July, 2017. Satellite images from the European Space Agency have since revealed that the iceberg, dubbed A68, has moved away from the ice shelf and is floating out to sea.
This may be the Age of Trump, but the fact is that the 2019 Weddell Sea Expedition is making real discoveries in the name of science, in fields that include oceanography, glaciology, biology, geology — and now, potentially, history.