Weddell Sea expedition team loses contact with autonomous vehicle under ice sheet
The search for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s lost ship, Endurance, has been called off after extreme weather trapped an underwater vehicle under a sheet of ice.
Explorers working on the Weddell Sea Expedition had hoped to find the Antarctic explorer’s vessel, which was crushed by ice and sank in 1915 during his ultimately unsuccessful attempt at a land crossing of the continent. But severe weather closed in and the sea ice conditions led to the loss of the team’s specialist autonomous underwater vehicle, the AUV7.
“Like Shackleton before us, who described the graveyard of Endurance as ‘the worst portion of the worst sea in the world’, our well laid plans were overcome by the rapidly moving ice, and what Shackleton called ‘the evil conditions of the Weddell Sea’,” the expedition’s director of exploration, Mensun Bound, said.
“We hope our adventure will have engaged young people about the pioneering spirit, courage and fortitude of those who sailed with Endurance to Antarctica.”
The team was using the AUV7 to locate the wreck using HD still colour cameras. They were on the final leg of their mission when the vehicle went underneath a vast sheet of floating ice and lost contact with the research vessel, the SA Agulhas II.
The team tried to recover the AUV7, but eventually decided to abandon the mission because of the risk they too might become trapped in ice.
Any captured footage there may have been of Endurance on the seabed was lost. The AUV7 had conducted what is believed to be the longest and deepest dedicated under-ice survey ever, lasting over 30 hours.
“The Weddell Sea Expedition team are truly disappointed that after such a huge effort, and overcoming several major setbacks, we have not been able to find Endurance,” said Dr John Shears, a polar geographer and the expedition’s leader.
“We are, however, very proud of our other achievements over the past weeks in Antarctica. We have greatly surpassed our primary expedition objective of undertaking pioneering scientific research at the Larsen C ice shelf.
“We have also conducted an unprecedented educational outreach programme, allowing children from around the world to engage in real time with the expedition and our adventures from the outset.”
Shackleton’s attempt to cross Antarctica began in 1914. Shortly after the vessel left the island of South Georgia, it encountered ice and became trapped for 10 months before sinking. The explorer and his crew survived for six months before reaching the uninhabited Elephant Island.
Shackleton and five other men then set off to seek help at a whaling station on South Georgia. After three unsuccessful attempts, he finally rescued his men in August 1916.
The Weddell Sea Expedition team said it may attempt its mission to find Endurance again.