Review: The hunt for Shackleton’s ’Ship Beneath the Ice’
“The Ship Beneath the Ice: The Discovery of Shackleton’s Endurance” by Mensun Bound (Mariner Books)
That old proverb your mother taught you — “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” — applies to marine archaeology just as it does to other aspects of life. That’s the lesson of a new work of nonfiction from Mensun Bound, one of the world’s foremost shipwreck hunters, who failed in 2019 to find Sir Ernest Shackleton’s “Endurance” on the bottom of Antarctica’s Weddell Sea, but succeeded three years later.
A history lesson for those not steeped in Shackleton lore: He’s the guy who lost the race to the South Pole in the first part of the 20th century, then became the guy who tried to sail across Antarctica via that same pole, only to abandon his ship when trapped in the ice.
The ship, named “Endurance,” broke apart under the crushing pressure and sank on Nov. 21, 1915, as Shackleton and his crew watched from a camp they set up on an ice floe about a mile away. Miraculously, they spent five months surviving on the ice before rowing three lifeboats almost 350 miles to an uninhabited island, where most of them stayed behind as Shackleton and a few mates navigated one of the lifeboats an additional 800 miles across open sea to reach South Georgia island, where their ill-fated journey began almost a year and a half prior. In the end, all 28 members of the crew, along with their diaries, survived to tell a story that captivated the world and created one of maritime history’s greatest mysteries: Where is the watery grave of the Endurance?
Enter Bound, a maritime archaeologist who grew up on the Falkland Islands, fascinated by Shackleton’s exploits. At the tail end of a legendary career of his own locating and diving to some of the most iconic shipwrecks around the world, Bound signs on as the “director of exploration” of not one, but two attempts, to locate the Endurance.
The first, in 2019, is scuttled after the onset of the Antarctic winter and the loss of the submersible that scans the ocean floor. In 2022, the expedition relaunches with many of the same crew and even better shipwreck-seeking technology, and — spoiler alert — the Endurance is discovered, remarkably preserved, more than 106 years after she sank. The book recounts both of the expeditions in great detail, framed as Bound’s diary entries recounting events, and often weaving in Shackleton history.
Bound’s passion for what he’s doing and his love for the most unexplored geography on Earth is evident on every page. His writing blends the required scientific explanations with what touches on poetry. Here he is on deck in 2019 watching a sunset: “It seemed almost as if we had trespassed into some polar hidey-hole where the gods go to drain their rainbows.”
It’s captivating stuff, even for readers who will never see an iceberg.