Endurance wreck: Nations look to protect Shackleton ship from damage

A 500m perimeter is being implemented to aid the protection of Endurance, the ship famously lost in the Antarctic by explorer Ernest Shackleton.

The vessel’s position on the Weddell Sea floor was finally identified in March, 107 years after its sinking.

Member states of the Antarctic Treaty have already declared the wreck, which lies in 3,000m of water, a Historic Site and Monument (HSM).

Now they have asked for a management plan to guide its ongoing conservation.

This will be drawn up by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT). It will determine the kinds of restrictions and responsibilities that will be placed on anyone who goes near Endurance in the future.

Even now a permit is required to visit the ship.

Submersible launch
Image caption,Remotely operated submersibles were used to find the wreck

It’s noteworthy that the Treaty parties have agreed to publish the exact coordinates of the wreck, at 68°44’21” South, 52°19’47” West.

A little vagueness might have been regarded as more appropriate given the way some marine archaeological sites have been looted in the past. But the location’s general inaccessibility as a result of it being covered by perennial sea-ice is a unique deterrent, says Amanda Milling, the minister responsible for polar regions at the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO).

“At present, its best protection is its location 3,000m below an ice-covered Weddell Sea,” she told BBC News.

“That may not be forever, not least due to climate change and shrinking sea-ice. That is why we have commissioned the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust to work with experts to prepare a conservation management plan, and to consider whether additional protection measures are needed.

“We have already declared it a historic site and Antarctic Treaty members have agreed to increase the protection zone around it from 150m to 500m.

“This incredibly well-preserved ship, and its artefacts, are a part of the Shackleton legacy – they must be safeguarded so they can inspire future generations.”

Satellite image
Image caption,Agulhas II icebreaker viewed from space: The Weddell Sea is routinely covered in frozen floes

The Endurance story is one that has captivated the world for decades.

It recounts how Shackleton led his men to safety against all the odds when their expedition ship was trapped and then holed by ice in the Weddell Sea in 1915.

The vessel’s discovery on 5 March this year was nothing short of a sensation.

It had been regarded as perhaps the single most difficult wreck to find anywhere on the globe.

https://emp.bbc.com/emp/SMPj/2.44.16/iframe.htmlMedia caption,

Shackleton’s diary records the day the Endurance went down

The Endurance22 project, led by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust, managed the feat using robot submersibles launched from the South African Agulhas II icebreaker.

The sunken vessel’s timbers were pristine. The hull looked reminiscent of its condition seen in photos taken just days before the plunge into the deep more than a century ago.

The new 500m perimeter has been established to encompass any objects that may have separated from Endurance as it descended to the seabed. This would include parts of the ship (although it looks very intact in the submersible scans) and any of the crew’s belongings.

The future management plan may look to extend the perimeter upwards into the water column by several hundred metres, and conceivably all the way to the surface.

The purpose would be to put strict, permit-driven controls on activities in this three-dimensional space.

Today, with the brutal ice conditions that persist in the Weddell Sea, those activities are going to be few and far between. But for how long?

Within weeks of the discovery, this correspondent received a message from a tourist company that was offering its paid-up passengers “the unique opportunity to view the wreckage for themselves”.

Such a prospect is divorced from reality today but that might not always be the case.

Filter feeders

“As you know, tourism is growing around the Antarctic Peninsula, and people are looking for new opportunities, and new adventures, and trips into the Weddell Sea will definitely be on the cards. But it’ll be a while, I think, before ice conditions change to allow a super yacht to get that deep into the Weddell Sea,” said Camilla Nichol, the CEO of UKAHT.

“Perhaps the greatest danger going forward may be from longline fishing, or some sort of fishing activity in that area. If it’s not controlled it could cause accidental damage to the wreck.”

Endurance’s status as an Antarctic Historic Site and Monument meant Endurance22 had to promise not to remove any artefacts. The search team wouldn’t have got its permit from the FCDO without that pledge.

Others will undoubtedly want to make a follow-up visit. For deep-sea biologists, the ship would represent a fascinating study. Endurance is now covered in all manner of organisms that are exploiting it as a platform from which to feed on any morsel of food moving through the water current.

Now is the time to work out how this kind of access might work.

Prof Mike Meredith, from the British Antarctic Survey, told a recent meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Polar Regions: “A big retreat in sea-ice has been identified recently, due to many factors, and 2022 was the lowest recorded minimum in the Weddell Sea. There’s no doubt that the effects of climate change on sea-ice cover will make the Endurance wreck more accessible in the future.”

The UKAHT expects to have a management plan ready for consideration by Antarctic Treaty members at a meeting next year.

  • December 1914: Endurance departs South Georgia
  • February 1915: Ship is thoroughly ice-locked
  • October 1915: Vessel’s timbers start breaking
  • November 1915: Endurance disappears under the ice
  • April 1916: Escaping crew reaches Elephant Island
  • May 1916: Shackleton goes to South Georgia for help
  • August 1916: A relief ship arrives at Elephant Island