How Shackleton’s Endurance inspired a modern expedition to find the sunken ship – Orange County Register
Growing up in the Falkland Islands, maritime archaeologist Mensun Bound was enamored of adventure tales and stories from the sea. He was particularly taken with the saga of Ernest Shackleton, the legendary British explorer whose most famous misadventure started and ended nearly 1,000 miles to the east on South Georgia Island.
In 1914, Shackleton set out to become the first to cross the Antarctic continent on land. The expedition was a disaster: his ship, the Endurance, got stuck in pack ice in 1915 and Shackleton never set foot on the continent.
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But like this quote from Shackleton’s favorite poem, Robert Browning, “Prospice” – “For suddenly the worst turns the best to the brave” – Shackleton’s journey is now remembered as one of the greatest survival stories of all time. After the sinking of the Endurance, Shackleton’s leadership and courage helped guide his 27 men through horrific conditions across ice and sea to eventual rescue. They all survived.
The story has been told and re-told, from Shackleton’s own book, “South” to a BBC mini-series, “Shackleton” starring Kenneth Branagh. For all these years, the Endurance itself has remained hidden at the bottom of the Weddell Sea.
In 2019, Bound and polar geographer John Shears embarked on a mission to find the ship using depth-searching submersibles. However, the ice and storms that destroyed Shackleton’s plans also derailed theirs. In 2022 they returned and this time they made history, returning with stunning images of the beautifully preserved remains of the Endurance.
(The issue of raising the ship remains contentious, with legal and logistical complications; Shackleton’s granddaughter wants it to stay put even though it might one day “disappear” as Bound once put it. He would not discuss the subject in this interview.)
Bound, who will speak at The Adventurers’ Club of Los Angeles on March 30erecently spoke via video about his book, “The Ship Under the Ice,” which deftly weaves an account of Shackleton’s original voyage with his 2019 and 2022 voyages.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. You wrote, “Normal people don’t go to sea.” Do normal humans need people like you and Shackleton to join us?
I think so. With Shackleton, we see this thing in the human condition that always pushes us to push our limits. This is what distinguishes us from animals. This is what will one day carry us to the stars.
But now you have half a dozen people claiming to be the first at something – the first to get to the South Pole on a pogo stick with one hand tied behind their back. Really? Where does this lead us?
In my case, I do maritime archeology so it’s all about acquiring new information. This is always my criterion. We went there with a very well-defined objective, to reach the inaccessible – the greatest wreck hunt of all time – but our objectives were also archaeological. We didn’t just do this to be first, we really had – and I know that sounds pompous – pretty lofty goals.
Q. Your first expedition also involved significant scientific research, but the second was only to find the Endurance. Beyond the archaeology, was it worth it on a cultural level alone?
Shackleton’s saga was one of them. It’s probably the greatest escape story of all time and it’s a story worth telling again and again for every generation. We were very aware that by finding the ship, we were bringing this great story to light.
Q. Like Shackleton’s Endurance, your ship got stuck in the ice. Modern science and technology have set you free.
In 2019 I was pretty cocky and thought the ship could dominate the ice and we could go where we wanted to go. I felt it was a battle of wills – our will to succeed and the pack ice’s will to resist.
We felt the pressure of the ice and could hear it, like the crack of a gunshot or the distant rumble of thunder, out there in white oblivion – millions of tons of ice working against each other . They were primordial forces.
We really had to punch and bludgeon to get our way through and fought every inch of the way, getting caught in the ice multiple times for quite long periods of time. You would be sealed from behind as soon as you crossed. It was as if you were wrapped up by a boa constrictor.
But we had a superior ship and the advantage of satellite intelligence telling us what was happening to us.
The second time around, rather than imposing our will on the peloton, we let the peloton impose theirs on us – we used the data to find the right kind of ice and steer us in the right direction at the right speed.
Q. Was there, however, something exciting about seeing nature being able to assert itself, imprisoning you, at least temporarily, in the ice?
I remember after we left the pack we felt relieved to be out of harm’s way, but that night I realized that I never felt as alive as that night as in the pack .
Last year, however, it was quite the opposite – I was shocked and scared to see how much the ice had deteriorated in just three years. We just squirmed most of the time. There was none of the pressure and muscle in the ice that we had when we first searched. I couldn’t believe the change. It’s not that last year was a bad ice year, it was part of a trend caused by the climate crisis. And it’s absolutely terrifying.
Q. Has battling through ice and storms made you feel a stronger connection to Shackleton and the team?
You had those wormhole moments where you felt like you were making mental contact with them. I had read all the unpublished diaries and really felt like I knew the whole team, their quirks and skills. Being in the peloton made it very easy to sympathize with them and reminded me of the miracle of their survival.
Shackleton possessed three amazing qualities: his determination, his bravery and his leadership. It’s hard to think of a greater leader of men. He didn’t always make the right decision, but he got the best out of the men. Some wrote how he spoke to each of them quietly and thoughtfully alone on the bridge. Sometimes he quoted poetry. Other times, he imposed his will on them.
Q. Would you have liked to be part of Shackleton’s Endurance team?
I would have signed up right away, without a second thought. When I was a teenager, I was hungry for adventure. I was eager to taste life. Finally, I went to sea, embarking on an old ocean liner. Then I left the ship in Punta Arenas and hitchhiked to New York for the next eight months. Looking back, I’m quite horrified that I did this, but it says a lot about my character. Now I just feel tired thinking about it.
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