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Search begins for legendary shipwreck off Antarctica: "The worst portion of the worst sea in the world"

One man's solo trek to the South Pole
One man's solo trek to the South Pole 06:16

A South African icebreaker departed Saturday morning in search of Ernest Shackleton's ship Endurance, which sank off the coast of Antarctica in 1915 after being slowly crushed by pack ice. The expedition is headed to a location that the famed explorer called "the worst portion of the worst sea in the world."

"The Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust is pleased to confirm that the Endurance22 Expedition, which is aiming to locate, survey and film the wreck of Endurance,... has departed on schedule from Cape Town, headed for the Weddell Sea in Antarctica," the expedition's organizers announced.

As part of the renowned polar explorer's Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition between 1914 and 1917, Endurance was meant to make the first land crossing of Antarctica, but it fell victim to the merciless Weddell Sea.

Just east of the Larsen ice shelves on the Antarctic peninsula, it became ensnared in sea-ice for over 10 months before being crushed and sinking some 3,000 meters below the surface.

The voyage is something of a legend, due to the miraculous escape Shackleton and his crew made on foot and in boats.  

Shackleton's Ship, Endurance
Shackleton's ship, the Endurance, as it lay locked in the Weddell Sea, where it finally sank, Antarctica, August 27, 1915. The remarkable lighting was furnished by an oil fire at the bow and a great deal of flash (gun) powder. / Getty Images

After the ship sank, for the next five months, the men drifted on the equivalent of a melting ice cube, 1,000 miles from civilization. Desperate and hungry, finally they had no choice but to shoot their animals, eat them, and take to their lifeboats. They eventually made it to a bleak outpost called Elephant Island.

Almost as soon as the men reached land, badly frostbitten, Shackleton picked five volunteers and prepared the sturdiest of the life boats, the James Caird, for an even more extraordinary voyage. They set sail in a 22 1/2 foot boat for South Georgia Island, more than 800 miles away - to get help.

The 22 men left behind on Elephant Island had no idea whether Shackleton and the others were alive or dead. Weakened, malnourished, demoralized, they still packed up every day just in case Shackleton appeared to rescue hem.

 After four months and four tries, Shackleton did appear, on Aug. 30, 1916.

Frank Worsley, the ship's captain, recalled, "Shackleton peered with almost painful intensity through his binoculars. At last he sighted the men and counted them. He shouted to me, 'they're all there Skipper!' Shackleton's face showed more emotion than I've ever seen before."

Historian Caroline Alexander, author of the book, The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, told CBS News that the story of Shackleton and his men is regarded "as the greatest survival story" of the 20th century.

Weddell Sea Base
Officers and crew of the 'Endurance' - the shore party group pose under the bow of the 'Endurance' at Weddell Sea Base during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914-17, led by Ernest Shackleton. SPRI University of Cambridge / Getty Images

"The worst portion of the worst sea in the world"

The South African icebreaker S.A. Agulhas II set off from Cape Town on Saturday morning with a crew of 46 and a 64-member expedition team aboard, including scientists from top international institutions.

"The preparation has been comprehensive, although not without its challenge, including COVID," said Donald Lamont, chairman of the organizers. But "the team has remained nimble and determined and this has brought us to where we are today."

The search team include members who came close to finding the wreck in 2019, the BBC reported. After reaching the reported sinking location, they deployed an autonomous underwater vehicle to survey the seafloor, but after 20 hours below, the AUV lost communications and the sea ice forced the Agulhas II to retreat.

The expedition will last for between 35 days and 45 days, with the vessel navigating its way through heavy ice and harsh temperatures.

Sir Ernest Shackleton
Sir Ernest Shackleton, Antarctica, 1914. Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-1916 (Weddell Sea Party). Royal Geographical Society via Getty Images

It hopes to find the iconic shipwreck with state-of-the-art technology and explore it with two underwater drones, and also undertake scientific studies which could help furthering knowledge around ice conditions and climate change.

But the journey will be a difficult one.

The Anglo-Irish explorer himself even described the site of the sink as "the worst portion of the worst sea in the world."

The 144-foot-long ship sank in the Weddell Sea, which has a swirling current that sustains a mass of thick sea ice that can cause problems even for modern ice breakers.

It is one of the hardest parts of the ocean to navigate.

Endurance22's director of exploration, Mensun Bound, said that his team "very much hope we can do justice to this magnificent chapter in polar exploration."

"Believe me, it's quite daunting," Bound told the BBC. "The pack ice in the Weddell Sea is constantly on the move in a clockwise direction. It's opening, it's clenching and unclenching. It's a really vicious, lethal environment that we're going into."

If they do find it, it will be left untouched but they will do a 3D scan of it and broadcast it in real time.

Despite the optimism, there is no guarantee the 110-year-old ship will be located.

"In terms of shipwreck challenges, it is the most difficult," David Mearns, one of the world's leading shipwreck hunters, told AFP. "You won't get any more difficult than this because of the ice conditions."

The  S.A Agulhas II icebreaker
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