TV historian Dan Snow lifts lid on epic hunt for shipwreck Endurance 100 years on



The name alone captures man’s innate desire to conquer the unknown perfectly. Endurance… Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated ship that lies entombed in the Antarctic.

Endurance… the tale of survival, suffering and grit that would deliver Shackleton and his 27-strong crew to safety after months in sub-zero hell.

And endurance… what a crew – including TV historian Dan Snow – will need as they set off to find the shipwreck 100 years after Shackleton died.

The explorer made three polar expeditions but it was the Endurance mission which began in 1914 that is the stuff of legends.

The ship lay stuck in ice for nine months before sinking in October 1915. Its crew, encamped on an ice floe, watched her go down in the Weddell Sea.

Another four months passed before the shifting ice melted sufficiently for a six-day voyage in small boats to Elephant Island.

Crew hauling the James Caird, after their ship the Endurance broke up, with Shackleton looking on
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Press Association)

Shackleton then took five men on an open lifeboat to seek help and, another four months later, the remaining the crew were rescued.

The men were ravaged by frostbite and desperately hungry after surviving on penguins, seals and seaweed.

Here, TV’s Dan, 43, explains why he is joining the bid to find Endurance:

The harbour at Grytviken, in South Georgia, is a haven for mariners. In January 1922, the shore was littered with the rotting carcasses of the whales that drew a small group of hunters to this extremity, on the edge of Antarctica.

The monument to Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton on the main island of South Georgia
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The smell was foul, but the money was good. South Georgia was the southernmost outpost of the British Empire. And on January 5 that year, it was where the legendary Anglo-Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton drew his last breath, aged 47.

He suffered a massive heart attack and died aboard his sail and steam-powered ship Quest in Grytviken harbour after a night chatting with old friends ashore.

He had scribbled a final few lines in his diary: “It is a strange and curious place… a wonderful evening. In the darkening twilight, I saw a lone star hover gem-like above the bay.”

Shackleton, who was on a mission to explore the uncharted coasts of Antarctica, died in the one place where he was truly happy.

The ‘Endurance’ leaning to one side during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914-17
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His long-suffering wife Emily insisted he be buried in Grytviken rather than back in the UK. She knew that in desolate and freezing South Georgia, Shackleton WAS at home.

His obsession almost killed him and his men on dozens of occasions, left him indebted and his family neglected. But those adventures have seared him into the imagination of posterity.

In 1902, Shackleton was in his late 20s and dreamed of fame, wealth and respect.

After winning a place on Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition, he sailed to Antarctica in Discovery, which still sits proudly in Dundee, where she was built.

Ernest Shackleton died in 1922
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They got further south than any other human but almost died of scurvy, starvation and exposure. It only whetted the appetite.

Shackleton borrowed enough money to launch his own expedition in 1907, on which he endured snow blindness and frostbite to set a new record and get within 100 miles of the South Pole.

After Norwegian Roald Amundsen finally made it there in 1911, Shackleton declared the Pole was fine, but the greatest laurels would go to the first team to cross the continent, passing the Pole on the way.

Somehow, he scraped together the funds and set sail in August 1914, just as war was declared.

TV historian Dan Snow will be setting off on the expedition next month
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What followed is one of history’s greatest epics. His ship, Endurance, became trapped in ice off the coast of Antarctica and the crew spent the dark winter entombed.

In October 1915, Endurance was crushed by the ice. Her crew camped on the ice floe and watched her sink.

A few weeks later, the ice broke up enough for them to jump into Endurance’s small boats.

After a tough voyage, they landed at Elephant Island, an uninhabited speck 700 miles of South Georgia.

With winter approaching, Shackleton took one vessel with five men on what is the most remarkable small boat journey of all-time.

After arriving in South Georgia, Shackleton and two others embarked upon a final act of gritty heroism. They made the first-ever trip across the glacier-strewn interior to reach Grytviken and get help, arriving on May 20, 1916.

A Norwegian whaler told Shackleton war was still being fought, millions were being killed – and “the world is mad”. But all that could wait.

Shackleton found vessels to reach those he’d left behind. Their rescue was completed in August 1916 and all returned home.

This year I am lucky enough to join an expedition to find the Endurance.

The Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust is launching a major effort to locate the ship while also investigating changing weather, ice and sea life patterns.

We set sail next month. New technology can search a wide area below the ice sheet. And with state-of-theart camera equipment, I will provide a blow-by-blow account, via satellite.

On the centenary of Shackleton’s death, it feels like he would approve of our journey to one of the most remote places on Earth to engage the world with the polar regions, science, adventure and the memory of one of history’s greatest explorers. Some things don’t change, though.

The top priority for the research ship? Not to get trapped in the ice.

Tributes to explore…

Historian Dan Snow shares five of the best events being held to mark the centenary of Shackleton’s death.

What: Shackleton 100 Exhibition celebrates his life and exploits from Sydenham to South Georgia. Highlights include the Aurora Australis (the first book to be printed in Antarctica), the prospectus for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition and handwritten letters.

Where: Dulwich College, South London – where Shackleton studied.

When: It’s on now. More info at dulwich.org.uk.

What: In the footsteps of Shackleton. Experienced wildlife photographers Eddy and Pam Lane reveal some of the plants, animals and scenery Shackleton would have seen on his travels.

Where: The Woodshaw Inn, Royal Wootton Bassett, near Swindon, Wilts.

When: Tuesday January 25. Book tickets via Barry Bissett on 01793 848217. barry. [email protected]

What: Archives Presents Shackleton 100. Dulwich College’s presents a series of talks, with the chance to see archived objects and materials.

Where: Dulwich College. When: Thursday February 3. More info at dulwich.org.uk.

What: Shackleton’s Last Quest. This free online exhibition marks the centenary of his final expedition, death and burial.

Where: South Georgia Museum When: Get online access at sgmuseum.gs

What: The Antarctic Collection. Includes samples of rocks brought back from Shackleton and Scott’s voyages.

Where: The National History Museum, Central London.

When: Ongoing. Go to nhm.ac.uk and search for Shackleton rocks.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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