Last week the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust announced the resumption of the search for Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance which lies in deep water beneath the ice of the Weddell Sea. A hundred years after his death Shackleton is still big news and media outlets around the world were quick to pick up on the story.
Marine Archaeologist and Islander Mensun Bound is the expedition’s Director of Exploration. He is on record as saying that this is the greatest wreck hunt ever during an interview with the Falklands' Penguin News.
PN Tell us about the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust.
MB: The Trust was formed to oversee the search for Admiral von Spee’s flagship Scharnhorst which, as everybody in the Islands knows, was lost during the Battle of the Falklands in December 1914. Following the success of that search the Trust just went from strength to strength. We felt that we had accrued valuable experience in deep-ocean search and- survey that should not be lost.
The Chairman of the Trust is former governor Donald Lamont, he is the powerhouse behind it all. And then, along with myself as a Trustee, there is Bill Featherstone a banker and long time friend of the Falklands, and Saul Pitaluga, who needs no introduction. But the core is actually wider and includes the logistics expert John Shears who used to be with BAS, and Nico Vincent of Deep Ocean Search, one of the world’s leading oceanographic engineers. More recently we brought on Dan Snow and his team to handle media, because if we find the Endurance it will be, as Dan says, the history event of the year, and we need somebody with his skills to speak to the world and tell the story.
He will be streaming live from the ship so it should be easy for anybody who is interested to follow what is happening. The new initiative is called Endurance22 and can be found a the https://endurance22.org/
PN: So what went wrong in 2019? And why shouldn’t it happen again?
MB: Yes, it is true that last time it all came crashing down and I had to return to England with my tail between my legs, but actually, for a while everything was going very well indeed. Although our ship was trapped a couple of times in the ice, we eventually always managed to break free and, more importantly, to bludgeon our way through the ice until we reached the search area at the very heart of the Weddell Sea pack. And we even managed to deploy our Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) and get them down to the seabed 3000 meters below. I had defined a search area of 107 square nautical miles and we actually covered well over half that area before something went wrong and the vehicle simply never turned up for one of its programmed, ‘handshakes’ in which we interrogate it, check its payload systems and issue any new navigational instructions that might be needed.
There were a number of things that could have gone wrong but I think, for whatever reason, it released its ballast, aborted its mission and returned to the surface where it became trapped beneath the ice, a dead zone in which we had neither acoustic nor satellite communications. The bit that eats at me is that we might have found the Endurance but just don’t know it.
PN: What is there to prevent this happening again?
MB: We have learned some hard lessons. This time we will be using different methodologies and a completely different type of submersible. The new vehicles, especially made by Saab of Sweden, are called ‘Sabertooths’.
These are the most advanced subsea search-and-survey vehicles in the world. The main difference is that they will be linked to the surface with over three km of fiber- optic tether which will allow us to follow their progress in real time and, if there is another technological miscarriage as in 2019, we will know where to find them.
We not only have the most advanced kit in the world but also a crack team of technicians and scientists. There are over 60 people on the ship and they have all been hand-picked for their knowledge, skills and experience. Obviously it will still be a challenge, but if this team can’t find the Endurance then, hell, nobody can.
PN: You mention challenges, what are the most daunting of these?
MB: Last time the main challenge was breaking through the pack to reach, what Shackleton himself called, ‘the worst part of the worst sea in the world’. We were not certain we could do it.
With ‘Endurance22’ (which begins in less than a month) we will be using the same South African ice breaker (Agulhas II), the same skipper (Knowledge Bengu) and the same ice skipper (Freddie Ligthelm), so with this ship and these people, I know we can reach the spot.
My main concern this time – at least from my point of view – is the technology. It is so new and advanced that we don’t really know how robust it will be in such extreme conditions. The AUVs which we had before we knew inside out; with the new Sabertooths I feel we are still, to some extent, in the getting-to-know-you phase of our relationship. We tested them rigorously several months ago, but I still can’t help being a little worried. And then there are things that happen, circumstances if you like, that I cannot control any more than I can control the ice. Things that just come out of nowhere and whack you.
PN: Any other worries?
MB: Yes, time. We only have 12 days on site, which is incredibly tight and our backs are right up against the Antarctic winter. As always we will be working night and day, but even so, to cover the search area, all the equipment and team will have to operate at a very high level of efficiency. And if we have to operate from camps on the ice, then it is imperative that the weather holds as we will have to erect derricks for the ice drills, and the two helicopters we are taking with us will have to be running constantly. And we cannot do that in white-outs or on floes in which the ice isn’t firm.
When the weather is fine in Antarctica it is breathtakingly beautiful; but when it turns on you it can be absolutely brutal. There is nowhere more hostile on earth. People are just not meant to be there.
PN: And what if you find her, what happens then?
MB: The wreck and its debris field will be mapped photogram metrically but also we will be using laser cameras to complete millimeter-accurate 3D computer models. From these we will be able to create physical 3D models for display in the Falklands Museum and elsewhere. I have to stress that our work will be non-intrusive and that nothing – but nothing – will be touched or removed. This is archaeology, not some smash-and-grab, help-yourself, bring-‘em-back-alive expedition.
PN: What about the pandemic, is that something that could scupper the project?
MB: I can’t pretend it isn’t a big concern. But if the situation deteriorates significantly we can always roll everything over into next year as we have made a provisional booking with the South African authorities who operate the ship in case anything goes wrong.
PN: Let’s turn to Shackleton. Explain his links to the Falklands?
MB: Shackleton had actually been intending to visit the Falklands for coal and supplies on his way south, but in the end he was advised against this because von Spee’s raiders, in particular the Dresden, were on the loose, and obviously the Falklands were a potential target. So instead he went direct to South Georgia after leaving the River Plate.
Shackleton first arrived in the Falklands on 31 May, 1916, when he turned up in the whale catcher Southern Sky following his first failed attempt to rescue his 22 men on Elephant Island. He came here to get help and communicate with the UK because he knew we had a radio station here. He sent a report on what had happened to the Endurance and his team, and the next day it was all over the front pages. It was from the Falklands that the Shackleton legend was born.
The next visit was on the 24 June, 1916, when he returned to the Falklands on the Uruguayan fishing trawler Instituto de Pesca Numero 1 following his second failed attempt to rescue the marooned men.
His third visit was with the Chilean auxiliary-schooner Emma on 3 August, 1916, following his third failed relief of the Elephant Island party. By this time Shackleton was absolutely desperate and Frank Worsley (captain of the Endurance) who was with him wrote how he was ‘beating up Port William into Port Stanley’ with Shackleton in ‘the depths of despair’.
At that time The Boss was a teetotaler but then, wrote Worsley, ‘for the first time in three years I saw him take a glass of whiskey. He was unaccustomed to it and it affected him at once.’ After this Shackleton was drinking more than he should. Just as you can say that it was from the Falklands that the Shackleton legend was born, you could also say, at a stretch, that it was the Falklands that drove him to drink.
PN: And finally, you have said that there is a personal dimension to the hunt for the Endurance?
MB: Well, yes, but extremely tenuous. My mother was a Biggs and the Biggs family used to run the old First & Last at the bottom of Hebe Street where Brian Summers, now has his house. Frank Worsley and Tom Crean (Captain and Second Officer of the Endurance) stayed there.
Shackleton was a guest at Government House during his first two visits, but after he fell out with Governor Young, I think he may also have gone there. The best photo we have of the three of them in Port Stanley was taken outside the First & Last.
As with, I think, most families in the Falklands back then, mine were Shackleton rather than Scott fans. My father had an old framed picture of Worsley which I now have. And I still have Webster Smith’s Sir Ernest Shackleton which was a Sunday School attendance ‘prize book’ from the Cathedral when I was seven or eight. Later, when my mother started Boundbooks on John Street, she had Lansing’s Endurance on her shelves. It was a huge best-seller and the FIDs used to buy it from her by the box load. It made a huge impression on me, and I still recommend it as a good downhill read to anybody wanting to know more about the Endurance expedition.
Later, when Lord (‘Eddie’) Shackleton (Sir Ernest’s son) came to the Falklands, I was his driver. I used to pick him up in my old Series 1 at Government House, drive him to wherever he had to be, wait for him and then drive him back to Government House. More’s the pity, but I can hardly remember a thing we spoke about; but he must have remembered me because years later he invited me to become a Trustee of the Falkland Islands Foundation.
I remember being totally awestruck when sitting between him and Sir Peter Scott at meetings in the Natural History Museum. I was just a scruffy student at the time and didn’t dare open my mouth, but I kept thinking how much their fathers disliked each other, and yet there they were, the best of friends, dealing with Falklands matters.
Even today in Stanley it is hard to escape Shackleton. My kitchen abuts the east end of the Cathedral so I am just ten yards from the Shackleton family flag, and every morning when I throw open my curtains, the first thing I see directly opposite is the word ‘ENDURANCE’ writ large in stone on the other side of the harbour.
This, of course, was left not by the original Endurance, but by the naval survey ship that was named after her. So yes, I suppose I could say the Shackleton saga is something that haunts me a little.