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CULTURE | 31-12-2022 22:37

Brilliantly told tale of persistence and collaboration

The Ship Beneath The Ice by Mensun Bound; Hardback, 403 pages, 39 photos and diagrams; Published by Macmillan.

The loss of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance is the stuff of legend. She was crushed in the ice of the Weddell Sea in 1915. The subsequent escape of Shackleton and his men is an epic of heroism and survival.

Now Mensun Bound’s book The Ship Beneath the Ice provides a detailed and well-written account of the international efforts which finally discovered the wreck. It’s a story of persistence and international collaboration in the face of seemingly endless problems – brilliantly told.

It begins in the austral summer of 2019, when the high-tech icebreaker, South African owned, S.A.Agulhas II left Cape Town for the Weddell Sea. On board were 44 crew, and 51 scientists, technicians, film makers, and even students, with Mensun as director of exploration – plus the latest scientific equipment. Mensun provides a well-written day-to-day account of the struggle against weather conditions, the ice, and equipment problems. He describes the personalities involved and gives many references to the Shackleton expedition over a hundred years earlier.

The 2019 expedition ended with the failure of their submarine drones. Both had been capable of diving the 3,000 metres to the grave of the Endurance, but both had failed. Then, as with so many Antarctic expeditions, it became a race against time. The approach of winter and the risks of being trapped in the ice – as Shackleton had been – forced the Agulhas II to leave.

The story returns in 2022. In this second attempt the Agulhas II sailed again from Cape Town in early February 2022, with many of the same people involved. Like the first attempt, the expedition was led by Dr John Shears (ex-BAS) and Mensun was director of exploration. A media crew was on board to make a television documentary and produce material for social media and educational purposes. The public “face of the expedition” was the well-known TV personality Dan Snow. Antarctic weather conditions were milder, which Mensun points out was probably due to undesirable climate change.

The ship made good progress to the site of the wreck. After just four days, debris from the Endurance was located only 460 metres from the position left by Shackleton’s brilliant navigator Frank Worsley. Sadly, that was not the main wreck, and disappointment ensued. It took another two weeks to find that. The excitement as the team controlling the submersible 3,000 metres below closed in on it can be experienced by the reader. The wreck’s astonishingly good state of preservation meant that brilliant photos could be flashed around the world. It marked a milestone in the history of marine archaeology. One of the world’s most famous shipwrecks had been located. 

The expedition involved experts from 10 different countries. It was organised by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust, chaired by former Falklands Governor Donald Lamont, with Mensun one of the trustees. He is a Falkland Islander and internationally-known marine archaeologist. He has been active in other wreck investigations over a career spanning 30 years. 

It was a world-beating achievement to find the Endurance – and Mensun’s book about it is excellent.

by Peter Pepper, for the Times

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