Rediscovering the lost "Endurance"

How explorers found this missing ship 100 years after it sank

The sailors couldn’t stop shivering. It was November 21, 1915, and they were stranded on sea ice off the coast of Antarctica. In the distance, they could see their abandoned ship, named Endurance, stuck in the ice and flooding with seawater.

Suddenly, the crew heard the ship’s wood groan and crack. The ice forced itself against the vessel, then quickly retreated. The ship “then gave one quick dive and the ice closed over her forever,” wrote the expedition leader, Ernest Shackleton. For the next 106 years, Endurance would remain lost 10,000 feet beneath the sea.

Adventure gone wrong

Shackleton and 27 crew members set out in 1914 to try to cross Antarctica by land—but first they had to sail there. The 144-footlong ship was specially built for the chilly polar waters, with extra-thick wood planks to keep the dangerous pack ice floating in the ocean from damaging the ship.

But just three months after setting sail from Buenos Aires, Argentina, the boat became stuck in pack ice too thick to sail through. The worthy vessel held up for nine months as the ice pushed it north. But in October, the pressure from the ice buckled the planks, and water slowly poured in.

On October 27, Shackleton ordered his crew to gather their equipment and supplies and abandon the ship, pitching tents on the ice about a mile and a half away. A few weeks later, they watched Endurance sink beneath the Weddell Sea.

Long journey home

At first, the crew tried to drag their lifeboats on the ice, but the snowy and icy terrain was too difficult to cross on foot. So the group camped out on the pack ice as it drifted north. The crew spent the next five months surviving off of penguins, seals, and seaweed.

Finally, the ice broke up enough to allow the crew to sail in lifeboats. For seven days, they sailed more than a hundred miles to the uninhabited Elephant Island. But the crew couldn’t survive there for long. So with five crew members, Shackleton made a dangerous attempt to get help: They sailed 800 miles over 16 days across freezing, stormy seas to South Georgia Island.

Once they arrived, the six men hiked for 36 hours across the island to reach a whaling station. They were dirty, cold, and exhausted—but alive.

With a new ship, Shackleton returned to the uninhabited island to rescue the rest of his crew. All 28 people survived the ordeal. But the Endurance remained lost under the sea.

Lost ship found

Ocean archaeologist Mensun Bound grew up on the Falkland Islands, not far from the Weddell Sea. Inspired by the adventurers, he was determined to find the lost ship. In 2019, Bound and his team tried unsuccessfully to find the ship. They set out again in February 2022 and—just like Endurance—got stuck in pack ice. Luckily, the tide rose a few hours later, and the explorers could sail on.

Bound carefully reviewed the original sailors’ records to choose the search area. The team scanned 107 square miles of the seafloor with remote-controlled underwater camera for more than three weeks. With only three days before the ship had to be back in port, drifting sea ice forced Bound to search elsewhere.

On March 5, 2022, the cameras revealed exciting images: broken masts, ropes, a crewman’s boot, and the ship’s bell. The next day, nearly two miles below the surface, the explorers saw the ship’s name in brass letters on the stern, or back. They had found the lost Endurance.

“You see that, and your eyes pop out,” Bound says. “It felt like I was tumbling back in time. I could feel the breath of Shackleton on my neck.”

Endurance is now a protected historic site, which means that you need a permit to study or film it; you also can’t touch it. A team of experts are working on a conservation plan to protect the ship from looters as well as the effects of a warming ocean due to climate change. For now, Endurance remains safe beneath the sea.

The <i>Endurance</i> leans to one side.
The Endurance leans to one side.
Photograph by Frank Hurley / Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge / Getty Images