Photo credit: CBC.ca

You know you’re a history nerd when a shipwreck’s discovery elicits an “Oh my God!” instead of an “Oh, cool.”

I was ecstatic to learn yesterday that the wreckage of the Endurance, the vessel commanded by Sir Ernest Shackleton in his 1915 attempted expedition to the South Pole, had been discovered – intact- in the Weddell Sea. The ship had sunk in 1915 after being crushed by pack ice. Shackleton, his crew, and their incredible story of survival in the frigid waters near Antarctica are very meaningful to my Dad and I. The very first thought that ran through my head once I’d read the headline wasn’t Holy Cow!, but I can’t wait to tell Dad about this! What started out as little more than a bedtime story when I was younger has resurged in public consciousness with yesterday’s momentous discovery. So who was Shackleton anyway, and why was his expedition so important? Those questions and more will be answered in today’s blog post about an intrepid explorer and his crew’s relentless battle against the ice.


Like many, Sir Ernest Shackleton dreamed of joining the ranks of explorers such as Christopher Columbus and James Cook. Unfortunately, by the turn of the twentieth century, most of the landmasses on our planet had already been “discovered” by Europeans. British Shackleton turned his sights on the one piece of land he knew had barely been touched, for good reason: Antarctica. Though others had technically gotten there first, Shackleton wanted to make his mark on history by becoming the first to make a land crossing of the frozen continent. Armed with the knowledge he’d gained from previous attempts, Shackleton and the twenty-seven person crew of the Endurance set off for the far south under the banner of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in August 1914. Meanwhile, another ship, the Aurora, departed for the opposite side of Antarctica from where the Endurance would land to set up a series of supply depots to sustain the trekkers throughout their land crossing. This sub-group of the expedition became known as the Ross Sea Party and would also endure hazardous conditions during their journey. The men involved in the Ross Sea Party, however, suffered losses far greater than those of Shackleton’s crew.

By December of 1914, the Endurance‘s journey was halted by the buildup and pressure of the pack ice surrounding them. Unable to sail any further, the crew had no choice but to wait for warmer temperatures to melt the ice. The ice, however, had other plans. A staggering nine months after first becoming stuck in the ice, the continuous pressure of the ice against the ship lifted the Endurance above the shifting ice floes and onto her side. Her crew quickly evacuated but realized that the weight of their supplies wouldn’t enable them to continue much farther in either direction. They encamped for five months on a solid ice floe, watching as the Endurance sank on November 21st, 1915. Meanwhile, the Ross Sea Party had no idea of the Endurance’s fate and still believed that Shackleton’s men were on their way.

When the pack ice finally dissipated in April 1916, Captain Frank Worsley navigated the Endurance’s three lifeboats to a piece of land called Elephant Island. Barren and isolated, Shackleton led a few men in a lifeboat towards the nearest inhabited land (a good 800 miles/1,300 km away) to requisition a rescue ship for the twenty-two men left behind. They battled 30-meter high waves and torrential winds during their 17 day journey- that they made it to land in an open lifeboat is astounding. Despite their grueling journey just to get to inhabited land (South Georgia Island), Shackleton had the misfortune of landing on the opposite side of the island. He and two others spent thirty-six hours climbing over treacherous peaks while the other three (two of them ill) waited behind. And if that weren’t enough, several of the first attempts to send a ship to rescue those left behind on Elephant Island were no match for the ice and were forced to turn around. Shackleton eventually turned to the Chilean government to borrow a ship to rescue his men! The twenty-two remaining crew of the Endurance were picked up on August 30th, 1916. Astoundingly, not a single man had perished throughout the entire journey. The same could not be said for the crew of the Aurora.

Aeneas Mackintosh, captain of the Aurora, first encountered trouble when he assumed command of his ship. Limited funding meant that Mackintosh had to rely on donations to furnish the ship; the crew primarily consisted of inexperienced men looking for “an adventure”. With Shackleton’s men departing from England and Mackintosh’s from Australia, there was no means of communication to determine the progress of Shackleton’s mission. Had they landed yet? Had they gotten stuck, or been forced to turn back? The Aurora continued south to begin establishing small supply depots as the Endurance slowly sank beneath the waves. In May 1915, the Aurora, which had too become enclosed by the pack ice, was torn by a gale from her moorings and dragged offshore. Ten men on land at the time could only stand helplessly as their means of returning home vanished from sight. The Aurora, unlike the Endurance, did not sink, and decided to head for home once the ice had melted, fearing either that a damaged rudder would make a rescue mission perilous or that those marooned were already dead. Three of the ten had died, not all, but three deaths were still three more than necessary. One man died of scurvy; the other two (including Captain Mackintosh) walked off into a blizzard and were never seen again. Help finally arrived in January 1917 and the remaining men of Shackleton’s expedition were finally brought home.


After two perilous years spent fighting the elements, it wasn’t a stretch for Shackleton’s men to expect to be celebrated as heroes when they finally returned home. Yet because they’d departed and returned during the Great War, the magnitude of what they’d endured was soon eclipsed by the latest reports from the Western Front. Shackleton’s men had all survived- an incredible feat, but one hard to stay excited about when thousands of soldiers were losing their lives every day in battle. The story of the Endurance was remembered in the decades to come for what her crew had managed to survive, failing to remark upon the lives lost in the Ross Sea Party or the fact that Shackleton’s expedition hadn’t actually achieved any of the goals they’d set out to complete. Shackleton put together another expedition in 1921 for one last attempt at icy glory but died of a heart attack on the same island where he’d raised the alarm to send a rescue vessel five years earlier. Interest dipped after his death in the story of the Endurance and charting a path through Antarctica. Antarctic exploration was passed over for the feats of 15th-century explorers; the Endurance overlooked in favour of the Santa Maria. It’s not a surprise that many hadn’t ever heard of the Endurance or Shackleton before yesterday. What the 28 men of that ship, as well as the men of the Aurora, suffered through to make it home are not details to be considered lightly. If you get cold when it’s 10 degrees celcius outside, imagine constant exposure to an environment below -20 degrees celcius. Imagine knowing that the nearest civilization is thousands of kilometres away, nothing standing between you and death except meagre foodstuffs and sheer will. That these men made it back home is a testament to Shackleton’s leadership and their determination to make it home at any cost.


I was 7 or 8 years old when I first heard about the Endurance. My love for history was just in its early phases, but my Dad helped to foster it by choosing a “Step Into Reading” leveled reader entitled Sea of Ice: The Wreck of the Endurance as one of our bedtime stories. The reader was full of detail, but concise enough to keep my attention. I remember cuddling beside my Dad as he read the book, excited to learn through Shackleton’s character that seeing seaweed in the water meant that you were close to land. I was worried about whether the men would get home, and envisioned exploring Antarctica one day myself. Sea of Ice still holds up to this day and sits proudly on my bookshelf.

One of the things I found interesting about Sea of Ice was that not all of the illustrations were, well, illustrated. Several of the images were actual black-and-white photographs from the famed expedition. This led Dad to show me our coffee-table copy of South With Endurance: Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917; The Photographs of Frank Hurley. Frank Hurley was the designated photographer of the expedition, whose photographs provide a valuable record of the daily lives of the crewmen and their surroundings over the course of their two-year adventure. It’s also handy proof that every part of their survival, no matter how impossible it may seem, really did take place. Dismissing this story as being exaggerated is easily disproven by these photos. One of my favourite aspects of this book were the little captions beneath each photo. Some of the comments were taken from snippets of Hurley’s journal, giving insight beyond where and what the photo is of. I’d rather learn that Hubert “Buddha” Hudson was considered dull, or that one of the ship’s best soccer players couldn’t participate in a match atop the frozen ice due to a recent dog bite any day of the week!


The thing that astounds me as I view footage of the wreck of the Endurance is how well-preserved she is. Thanks to the depth at which she was found (nearly 10,000 feet) and the frigid temperature of the water, you’d never be able to tell at first glance that she’d been under water for over a hundred years. Viewing the wreck gives you a crystal-clear understanding of what it must have been like to be an early 20th-century explorer. My childhood imaginings of sailing forth to Antarctica have been made all the more vivid- the ship even settled into the ocean floor in an upright position, so I can easily picture the crew walking across the deck to marvel at the size of the ice floes. Disney+ has already acquired the rights to a documentary on the Endurance and I cannot wait to watch it with Dad when it’s finally released.

I hope that through reading today’s post you’ve gained both an understanding of or appreciation for the perils and hardships undertaken by the men of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Their story is an inspiration: it’s possible to survive in even the harshest of climates if you have a good leader, work together instead of against each other, and believe with all your heart that you will one day overcome this challenge. History is full of lessons like this, as plentiful as the shipwrecks that dot the ocean floors.


To learn more about Shackleton, the Endurance, or the Ross Sea Party, check out these links below which I used to research this post. You can view the Wall Street Journal’s footage of the wreck of the Endurance here.

https://www.livescience.com/shackleton-endurance-expedition

https://www.npr.org/2022/03/09/1085432575/endurance-ship-found-ernest-shackleton

Published by macinnla12

My name is Leah, and I love to read! Through this blog, I will demonstrate my passion of reading by recommending books, authors, and book-related things to you. I will also occasionally post short stories that I have written. Feel free to leave a comment with any suggestions or feedback that you may have.

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6 Comments

  1. Thanks for this interesting and informative review of Shackleton and the Endurance, Leah
    James

    Like

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