SA Agulhas II and Saab underwater vehicle play key role in discovery of Endurance shipwreck

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The Endurance22 expedition team has located explorer Sir Henry Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, at a depth of 3 008 metres under the Antarctic ice – a feat that would not have been possible without the SA Agulhas II polar research vessel, and Saab’s Sabertooth underwater vehicle.

The Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust (FMHT), the driving force behind the Endurance22 expedition, signed a charter agreement for the South African polar vessel for its expedition to find the wreck of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s iconic ship in the Weddell Sea. The FMHT signed an agreement with the South African Government’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE) to charter the vessel, which departed from Cape Town on 5 February 2022.

Two Sabertooth underwater vehicles from Saab were on board and enabled the expedition team to successfully complete the task of locating, examining and filming the wreck, which was discovered on 5 March. Two underwater search experts from Saab formed part of the expedition team.

Since Shackleton’s ship sank after being crushed by ice in 1915, several expeditions have tried and failed to locate the wreck.

Donald Lamont, Chairman of the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust, said: “The spotlight falls today on Mensun Bound, the Director of Exploration, and Nico Vincent, Subsea Project Manager. Under the outstanding leadership of Dr John Shears, they have found Endurance. But this success has been the result of impressive cooperation among many people, both on board the remarkable SA Agulhas II with its outstanding Master and crew, a skilled and committed expedition team and many on whose support we have depended in the UK, South Africa, Germany, France, the United States and elsewhere. The Trustees extend to them all our warmest thanks and congratulations on this historic achievement.”

“We are overwhelmed by our good fortune in having located and captured images of Endurance,” Bound said. “This is by far the finest wooden shipwreck I have ever seen. It is upright, well proud of the seabed, intact, and in a brilliant state of preservation. You can even see ‘Endurance’ arced across the stern, directly below the taffrail. This is a milestone in polar history. However, it is not all about the past; we are bringing the story of Shackleton and Endurance to new audiences, and to the next generation, who will be entrusted with the essential safeguarding of our polar regions and our planet.”

The objectives of the Endurance22 expedition were to locate, survey and film the wreck, but also to conduct important scientific research, and to run an outreach programme. The wreck is protected as a Historic Site and Monument under the Antarctic Treaty, ensuring that whilst the wreck is being surveyed and filmed it will not be touched or disturbed in any way.

The graphical data collected by Saab’s Sabertooth will allow the expedition team to gather detailed historical data and produce a precise 3D model of the wreck.

“Locating the Endurance wreck in challenging Antarctic conditions at a depth of around 3 000 metres is not an easy task. We are very proud that Saab’s advanced underwater vehicle Sabertooth succeeded in completing this mission, making a great contribution to world history,” said Peter Erkers, Sales Director at Saab’s business unit Underwater Systems.

It was Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ambition to achieve the first land crossing of Antarctica from the Weddell Sea via the South Pole to the Ross Sea. The Ross Sea Party which was landed at Hut Point on Ross Island had the task of laying supply dumps for Shackleton’s crossing party, and achieved its objective, but at the cost of three lives lost. In the Weddell Sea, Endurance never reached land and became trapped in the dense pack ice and the 28 men on board eventually had no choice but to abandon ship. After months spent in makeshift camps on the ice floes drifting northwards, the party took to the lifeboats to reach the inhospitable, uninhabited, Elephant Island. Shackleton and five others then made an extraordinary 1 300 km open-boat journey in the lifeboat, James Caird, to reach South Georgia. Shackleton and two others then crossed the mountainous island to the whaling station at Stromness. From there, Shackleton was eventually able to mount a rescue of the men waiting on Elephant Island and bring them home without loss of life.