Adventure, shipwreck, storms and survival

Going down: The Endurance is squeezed onto its side by ice in late 1915.

What can we learn from Ernest Shackleton? Over 100 years ago his ship, The Endurance, sank in the frozen waters of Antarctica. This week, a modern team of explorers is hoping to find it.

The crew of the Weddell Sea Expedition 2019 has been lucky so far. Its researchers have completed their scientific mission in Antarctica. Now they are beginning a new quest: to find Ernest Shackleton’s doomed ship, The Endurance, which sank over 100 years ago.

The team is “upbeat,” the director of exploration, Mensun Bound, told The Guardian. The conditions are “favourable”, and they hope to find the ship with robotic submarines later this week. “We are relishing the chance to be involved in a search of such significance.”

But who was Shackleton?

The story begins in August 1914. The world was on the brink of the First World War. Shackleton was a well-known British explorer, and he hoped to lead the first expedition across Antarctica. He offered to suspend the mission when war broke out, but the Admiralty sent a single-word telegram: “proceed”.

So instead of joining up, Shackleton and his crew of 27 men sailed to Antarctica. But in January 1915, The Endurance was trapped in the ice of the Weddell Sea. They were stuck — and the mission became one of survival.

The crew spent months living on the ship, hunting penguins and seals for food. They played football and hockey on the ice. In October, “after long months of ceaseless anxiety and strain,” the ship was crushed “beyond all hope of ever being righted.” They were forced to abandon it and live on the ice. “It is hard to write what I feel,” wrote Shackleton.

It finally sank in November. With just three lifeboats and a few supplies, the men set off for land in April 1916, eventually reaching Elephant Island. It was their first dry land in 497 days, and they were “laughing uproariously”.

But civilisation was still more than 900 miles away, at a whaling station in South Georgia. And so Shackleton and five others set out across the open sea in search of rescue. The waters were treacherous; at one point the boat almost capsized. And when they arrived in May, the journey was still not over. Shackleton led two other men on a 36-hour trek across the mountains until they reached a settlement.

In August 1916, two years after setting sail from England, Shackleton returned to Elephant Island to rescue the rest of his crew. Not a single life was lost.

Breaking the ice

What lessons can we draw for this tale? Since he arrived home, Shackleton’s epic survival story has been retold countless times. He is hailed as an amazing leader who not only saved his men’s lives, but kept their spirits up along the way.

But should we really admire him? It was his ego that put people in danger in the first place. Would we view him differently if the crew had been killed? Or would he still be admired for his ambition, like Scott before him?

You Decide

  1. What makes someone a good leader?
  2. Why does Shackleton’s story still fascinate people 100 years later?


  1. Without looking it up in a dictionary, write a definition of the word “endurance”. Then check it against an official definition.
  2. Imagine you are one of the 28 men living on the frozen ice in 1915. Write a diary entry explaining how you spend your time, and how you feel about the future.

Some People Say...

“Difficulties are just things to overcome.”

Ernest Shackleton

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Shackleton’s dream of crossing Antarctica was eventually achieved by the British explorer Vivian Fuchs and his team in 1958. The first-ever solo crossing was completed just last month by American explorer Colin O’Brady. He was joined a few days later by British explorer Louis Rudd. The scientists searching for The Endurance this week have a good idea of its location, which was meticulously recorded by the mission’s expert navigator, Frank Worsley.
What do we not know?
Whether they will find the ship; it all depends on whether the team’s icebreaker, the S.A. Agulhas II, can get close enough. We also do not know what condition it will be in. The ship broke apart as it sank, but it should have been preserved from decay thanks to the freezing temperatures of the water.

Word Watch

Scientific mission
The team has been investigating Antarctica’s fourth largest ice shelf (known as Larsen C) and its largest iceberg (known as A68). The iceberg cleaved from Larsen C in 2017 and has been drifting out to the Weddell Sea ever since.
Ernest Shackleton
A polar explorer who led three missions to the Antarctic. This was his second, and his most famous. He died of a heart attack on South Georgia island before the third mission could fully begin.
The government department responsible for Britain’s Navy. At the time, the First Lord of the Admiralty (and the sender of the telegram) was a young Winston Churchill.
Weddell Sea
Found to the northwest of Antarctica. It is part of the Southern Ocean, and the most treacherous sea in the area (possibly on Earth).
South Georgia
A small island north of Antarctica and east of Argentina and the Falklands.
Robert Falcon Scott, who led one of the first successful missions to the South Pole (although he was beaten there by Roald Amundsen.) He and his team died on the return trip, and he was hailed as a national hero in Britain.

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