By Sean Kingsley for Wreckwatch magazine* – Mensun Bound is a fifth-generation Falkland Islander, born to the sea and its mysteries. By fusing academia with firing the public imagination, he creates buzz after buzz around underwater archaeology. In the 1980s he set up and directed Oxford University MARE, England’s first academic maritime archaeological unit, and in 1994 was appointed the Triton Fellow in Maritime Archaeology at St Peter’s College, Oxford.
Mensun has run shallow and deep-sea projects from the Turks and Caicos in the West to Vietnam in the East, successfully illuminating new and poorly known fields of research. Off Alderney he excavated an Elizabethan war supplies ship. The Campese Bay wreck off Giglio in Italy shed new light on little-known Etruscan trade around 600 BC. In 1993 he directed a survey of the famous 1st-century BC Mahdia ‘statues’ wreck off Tunisia.
Off Vietnam, Mensun recovered over 250,000 intact pieces of porcelain from the Hoi An ship, wrecked in the mid-15th century at a depth of 80 metres in the South China Sea. The site yielded the widest known range of Vietnamese ceramics made in the Cu Dao kilns on the Red River Delta. Mensun’s great interest in ships of war began with his survey of Lord Nelson’s Agamemnon and culminated three years ago with his discovery off the Falklands in the Southern Ocean of the World War I German wreck of the Scharnhorst. Along the way he located in the River Plate the World War II German battle cruiser Admiral Graf Spee. Mensun’s publications The Archaeology of Ships at War and Excavating Ships of War are seminal works. Mensun’s excavations and surveys have been the subject of numerous documentaries, as well as two major summer exhibitions, one at the Tower of London, the other at the National Archaeological Museum in Florence. Mensun lives outside Oxford with his wife Jo. When not working on wrecks, his main enjoyment is off-roading in his Defender with his three sons and old school friends in the Falklands.
How long has the mystery of the Endurance been on your radar?
I was born in the Falkland Islands where everyone of my generation was a Shackleton enthusiast. Shackleton was in the Falklands three times and even tried to set up a sealing enterprise there. When he wasn’t at Government House, he and the captain of the Endurance, Frank Worsley, and the Second Officer, Tom Crean, stayed at the First & Last, a waterfront bar and an 11-room boarding establishment run after 1910 by my Great-Great-Uncle, Vincent Biggs.
The guest book with their signatures still survives. Shackleton was not a great payer of bills. He left owing money to Government for his telegrams and, story has it, his account at the First and Last was left dangling. My first introduction to Shackleton was through my father and, later, when I was about seven or eight I was given Webster Smith’s book, Sir Ernest Shackleton, for Sunday School attendance. I still have it and took it with me on the Edurance22 expedition. In the 1960s, my mother started a bookshop in Port Stanley called Bound Books – what else – and it was there, in my teens, that I first read Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. It was a downhill read that I ripped through in a weekend.
The base of ops for the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust sounds a bit off the beaten track. Why the Falklands?
In the Falklands during the 1950s and 60s, our lives revolved around ships. We are a very isolated frontier community of just 2,000 souls and they were our only links with the outside world. A ship used to go once a month to Uruguay and once every three months to the UK. And that was it. We depended on them for everything, including our survival. And when they arrived, there was huge excitement. Mail, magazines, materials, food and people. Everything I saw about me had arrived by ship. Little wonder the sea became my life’s fascination.
I used to read the books of the great Alan Villiers about the old Cape Horn sailing ships. In the harbour were the hulked remains of no less than nine of those old inter-oceanic square-riggers. In fact, Port Stanley was then the finest outdoor museum of 19th-century nautical antiquity in the world. The Falklands were the downwind companions of Cape Horn, and those ships had run into trouble while trying to find a vital slant in the face of the implacable westerlies that would allow them to escape the Atlantic and claw their way up to the Pacific. In bad years the battle with Cape Horn could last up to three months, wearing down both men and ships.
Those that didn’t make it would turn, and with whatever sail left bellied out before the wind, would limp for the Falklands where they would often be condemned as unseaworthy. For more than a hundred years there they survived, excellently preserved. They were part of the island’s landscape but, as often happens with wrecks, decay became galloping decay, and within a couple of decades they had all gone except one. You couldn’t help but be aware that the heritage of the Falklands was, in a word, the sea. But my love of ships really stems from my father.
I particularly remember holidays spent in a little tin shepherd’s hut lit by a kerosene lamp and heated by a peat fire at Sparrow Cove, just across from Port Stanley Harbour, where Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s great masterpiece, the SS Great Britain, was hulked. Of course, now it’s a fabulous museum ship in Bristol. My father told me its story. He, my younger brother and I would clamber all over the ship. He used to say we were going to get duck eggs. I don’t know why, we never even saw a duck. Basically, it was an excuse to explore. We did, however, collect mussels from the sides of the Great Britain’s hull to eat, scraping them off with a garden rake with a chicken-mesh catchall attached beneath its teeth.
How did the search for the Endurance begin?
This August will be ten years since the idea was conceived. I can’t claim the credit. I was meeting with a friend at a coffee bar in South Kensington in London. It was 11.45am on 16 August 2012. High on my agenda was the Terra Nova. It was the centenary of Scott’s death and there was a big exhibition on his life and work at the Natural History Museum. I had been contacted by the museum, asking if I could find the Terra Nova that carried Scott on his last expedition in 1910. I knew that I could locate it in a few days with the right equipment. Bizarrely, as I was waiting at the counter for our coffees I began leafing through a copy of that day’s Times newspaper. On page seven I noticed a tiny item announcing that the Terra Nova had been found. I was completely shocked and dismayed. I showed it to my friend who just shrugged and said, “Well, what about the Endurance?” And that was it, the moment of inception.
At the time, finding the Endurance felt like an impossibility. Other eminent bodies had tried to mount expeditions and failed. It was, after all, under the perennial pack ice of the Weddell Sea. I called the Endurance the “most unreachable wreck in the world”. To be honest, I didn’t believe the technology was quite ready. Besides, there was the matter of finding an ice-breaker that could chomp into the search area. In places the ice was over 5 metres thick and I didn’t know of any ship that could bludgeon its way through a hundred miles of that.
In broad terms, the idea was to get as close to the search area as possible and then deploy AUVs (Autonomous Underwater Vehicles) programmed to transit under the ice to the search area. But it wasn’t easy. First the AUVs had to be manufactured and a team of highly skilled pilots, engineers and data analysts assembled to operate them. During this time, I spent long periods at sea in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans learning about AUV deployment, maintenance and data cumulation. It was hard work but you were viewing life, landscapes and shipwrecks that nobody ever gets to see. We felt like the Lords of the Deep.
The set up took much longer than anybody had expected, so it wasn’t until 2017 that all the hardware, skills and know-how were in place to begin organizing the actual hunt. The next phase began when my wife and I were with my friend at a lunch in the Cotswolds on 16 April 2017. By the end of that afternoon I had been tasked with finding the Endurance, and a mutual friend, John Kingsford from Deep Ocean Search, was tasked with sourcing an ice-breaker. I started an intensive period of research and John began contacting agents all over the world.
A management committee was formed that brought in Donald Lamont, ex-Governor of the Falkland Islands, who became the central force behind Endurance22. George Horsington, a shipping specialist, was also on the committee and later was joined by John Shears who had been a logistics specialist with the British Antarctic Survey. They were the core management team behind the 2019 search, the funding for which came from the Flotilla Foundation.
Tell us about the first campaign to find the Endurance in 2019?
The first search for the Endurance was more challenging than anything I’ve ever known in my long career in maritime archaeology. The foremost obstacle was the pack ice. I only knew of one ENDURANCE CONQUERED 38 Director of Exploration (right), Endurance22 project. Expedition Leader Dr John Shears (left) & Mensun Bound, 39 WRECKWATCH MAGAZINE other ship that had ploughed through the Weddell Sea pack as we were intending to do. Shackleton called it “the worst portion of the worst sea on earth”, and he wasn’t exaggerating. Nobody we knew had any experience of the deep pack, which is hardly surprising: why would any ship deliberately put itself in harm’s way? What we were going into was old, gnarled, multi-year ice that was very thick and virtually impenetrable.
We had chosen as our mission ship a highly regarded South African ice breaker called the S.A. Agulhas II. The master, Knowledge Bengu, and the ice pilot, Captain Freddie Ligthelm, were both greatly experienced icemen. But even for that ship the ice was often too thick to break; the pressure within the pack was at times incredible. By backing and ramming we could often hack a path through. Frequently, though, we could see the pressure sealing the lane behind us. This was worrying. If we couldn’t move ahead or astern, then we would be in serious trouble. And at times we did get stuck.
Beyond the difficulties of the ice, we also had technical dramas. The electronics capsule of our ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) imploded, leaving it inoperable, and then one of the AUVs was lost under a floe. To recover it, we had to cudgel the ship through more ice. All in all, with the AUV we had to chomp out an area of ice the equivalent of 114 football pitches. But worse was to come. When at last we broke through into the actual search area, we lost our main submersible.
What actually went wrong in the search for the Endurance in 2019?
¬The search area was about 130 square nautical miles. Unusually, its size was determined by time. I had wanted a bigger area but, in accordance with the terms of our ship contract, the charter had to end on a certain day to prepare for its next assignment, the relief of scientists on Queen Maud Land before winter set in. Because of all the time we lost to equipment failure, by the time we got through to the search area we were reduced to just 50 hours of bottom time. Enough time for one dive of 42 hours and then, if we didn’t succeed in finding the Endurance, we had an additional six to eight hours to cover a further strip to the south.
The 42-hour search area was divided into 11 lines set 1.4 kilometres apart, and the AUV was programmed to fly those lines at an altitude of 70 metres and a speed of 3.2 knots. Every now and then we would meet with the vehicle at prescribed The S.A. Agulhas II breaks through ice in the Weddell Sea, Endurance22 poject . rendezvous points to interrogate its various payload systems. If everything was in order, we would issue fresh navigational corrections, if needed, and release the AUV from its holding pattern. Everything was going brilliantly, we had completed several successful ‘handshakes’, as we called this phase, and were brimming with confidence.
Then, with the AUV well over halfway through its mission, it failed to turn up for a rendezvous. We had beaten through the ice and were on station over Line 7, but it never arrived. It may have lost propulsion and drove into the seabed or have gone into drift mode, carried away on the current. Or, and I think this is more likely, it self-aborted its mission and returned to the surface. When you are in open water this is just an irritation as you are in immediate satellite contact with it the moment it surfaces; but if it came up under the ice, we would be unable to establish its position because radio waves can’t pass through water. Any way you look at it, the 2019 search to find the Endurance was a fiasco. I returned to the UK with my tail between my legs, beaten.
The low didn’t last long. I was given just enough time to change my socks before returning to the high latitudes of the South Atlantic to resume the search for the Scharnhorst, the flagship of Vice-Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee’s East Asia Squadron, lost during the Battle of the Falkland Islands in December 1914. I had spent five months in 2014 looking for this ship from a fishing vessel and former Cold War submarine chaser. It was brutal stuff; everything that passes under Cape Horn sweeps up under the Falklands gathering ‘fetch’. We were being swatted about by one storm or another while searching an area half the size of Wales with several miles of cable spooled out over the stern, at the end of which was an old-fashioned duel-field towfish, which we had to hold 30 metres above the seabed. In 2019, though, I was on the Seabed Constructor, one of the most advanced deep-ocean survey ships in the world with a hanger full of AUVs, and this time I ‘quickly’ found the Scharnhorst. The Smithsonian made a documentary about the search, showing what we were up against. For me, 2019 was a year of devastating lows and euphoric highs.
So history would show, the 2022 project proved that the Endurance lay within the area of our projected second dive in 2019. If the AUV had performed to expectation, we would have found the wreck that year.
Turning to Endurance22, what was different about the 2022 survey?
The catastrophic 2019 search was a big learning process. We acquired valuable knowledge about the nature and behaviour of the ice pack and realised the need for a different technological approach. The solution was the new Sabertooth vehicle being manufactured by SAAB in Sweden, an ROV-AUV hybrid that can operate in autonomous mode, but when desirable can be controlled like an ROV via a fibre-optic tether to the surface.
Not only would we be able to monitor and supervise the vehicle at all times, we would also be receiving all its acoustic data in real time. If an anomaly appeared on a sonar cascade, we could switch to high frequency and visual inspection mode. And if we ever lost the vehicle, we would know exactly where it was three-dimensionally and could deploy the second Sabertooth to recover it. Endurance22 went very well indeed. The Sabertooth was a success and on 5 March 2022, at a little after 4pm, we found the Endurance.
For Endurance22, John Shears and I remained, but because of their successful discovery of the Scharnhorst, the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust that oversaw that search was put in overall control of the new Endurance campaign. The Trustees comprised Bill Featherstone, Saul Pitaluga and I. The man who provided the drive and leadership was again Donald Lamont.
The other group that deserves special mention was our subsea team headed by Nico Vincent and his deputy J.C. Caillens. For them it was especially dangerous work, with temperatures dropping to -35º Centigrade. Frostbite was a concern. Eyelashes were even frozen closed by tears. I have never known such a crack band of specialists as on Endurance22. The South African press called us “the dream team”. Not very original, but it certainly felt apt.
I can’t pretend the mission went without a hitch. Our main problem turned out to be the brand new on-deck winch system. In the two minutes from when the tether left the sea, to being spooled on the winch drum, the water on the cable froze solid, causing major complications. The winches also struggled to maintain correct tension. The overriding layer of cable would sometimes bite into the layer below, which could and did rupture the fibre optics in the cables’ sheath. Luckily, almost on a whim, Nico Vincent decided to bring as back-up a 25-year-old Saab winch system that, in the end, saved the day.
What were your emotions when you saw the Endurance for the first time?
Believe it or not, I was off the ship at the moment of discovery with my friend and colleague John Shears. The ship that day had cut its way into a huge ice floe in which was trapped a very large iceberg, about 1.5 kilometres off to starboard. John and I had been wanting to stretch our legs for some time, so we decided to trek to the berg. And, typically, it was while we were at the berg that an anomaly first appeared on the sonar screen.
What excited the guys monitoring the data cascade was its height at 3-4 metres. Previous anomalies had been flat. The team switched modes on the Sabertooth to conduct a low-altitude, high-frequency pass over the target, which produced high-resolution sonar images confirming we had found the Endurance. The birds-eye view showed the wreck in clear outline with its masts and funnel down.
Out on the ice we were having a pretty good time, knowing nothing of what was happening. It wasn’t long before we were back onboard the Agulhas II. The moment we touched the deck, the tannoy crackled to life demanding our immediate presence on the bridge. We rushed up, knowing something major had happened. John was worried we had lost the Sabertooth. Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed one of the data analysts in a doorway, smirking. If we had just lost a submersible his face would have been ashen. So, I knew we were in for some good news.
When we got to the bridge, out of breath, Nico Vincent thrust his phone camera in my face. On it was a high-frequency sonar image. “Gents, let me introduce you to the Endurance,” he smiled. The ship erupted.
At that moment I felt the breath of Shackleton himself on the back of my neck. The quest had been ten years in the making. Now it was over. The curious thing was that we found Endurance exactly 100 years to the day after Shackleton was buried on South Georgia.
Are there any plans to return to the wreck of the Endurance?
It’s been discussed. In particular, we’d like to conduct a marine biological survey. On and around the wreck we saw a range of crinoids, hydroids and cnidarians, as well as zoo plankton flicking by and even a whiptail-like fish. I spotted some gelatinous life forms and other more spectral species that I’d never seen before. And there must be all sorts of other benthic dwellers down there. From a marine biological point of view, the Endurance is unique, the only wreck in the central Weddell Sea. On the vast abyssal plain it represents a pulsating oasis of life. And we need to start understanding that.
What’s next for you and the Sabertooths?
For me personally, I’m waiting for all the laser-cloud imagery to be processed to begin the archaeological report. I have all the ship’s plans and it will be extremely illuminating to compare them to what we found beneath the ice. Since my early work on the 19th-century square riggers in the Falklands, wooden ship construction has always been my foremost area of special study. It will be a challenge to interpret the ruptured timbers. On the other hand, I won’t be dealing with masses of individual artefacts. All that is locked away within the hull.
With regard to the Sabertooths, the Trust has some important projects ahead. We’re very keen to get back to the Scharnhorst off the Falkland Islands. When we found the wreck in 2019, we were unable to conduct a proper archaeological survey.
Just one brief orientating dive was completed before everything went wrong. First, our large work-class Schilling ROV had problems with its tether management system and fishing debris damaged one of the ship’s main thrusters, forcing us to abandon the project and limp to South America in search of a dry dock.
* The full version of this interview by Sean Kingsley was published in the May 2022 issue of Wreckwatch magazine, a special issue about ice wrecks and exploration. Subscription is free: www.wreckwatchmag.com.”