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The Definition of Endurance

Known as the ‘Indiana Jones of the Deep’, maritime archaeologist Mensun Bound has been excavating, evaluating and recording shipwrecks for decades. He was Director of Exploration for the project that found the Endurance, 10,000ft below the surface of the Weddell Sea. It was his most significant discovery yet.

Your search for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s lost ship Endurance was the culmination of years of research and dedication. What is your connection to this particular wreck?
I come from the Falkland Islands, where Shackleton stayed three times. My father had his books and he actually stayed in our family lodgings on the waterfront in Port Stanley when he visited. We still have the visitors book in the family, with Shackleton’s signature. I could never escape the connection.

You journeyed to Antarctica on a mission to find Endurance, which sank in 1915. How did being there,
in challenging weather conditions, impact you?

You empathise with Shackleton and the team and their situation on the ice. We were facing temperatures of -40° which is seriously dangerous. It’s enough to freeze mercury, or in my case, to pop my fillings! All the crew had, when the ship sank in 1915, was a linen tent, and it was so thin you could see the moon from inside.
Describe the moment you knew you’d found the wreckage.
We’d come through a really brutal period of weather, white-outs and crushing ice. The ship was stretched to the limit, the only one left on the Weddell Sea. I was just getting out of my polar gear, trying to warm up, when a young cadet appeared and said that the captain required our presence on the bridge immediately. We had a really bad season in 2019 where we lost our search vehicle. I had bad memories and I hoped to God we hadn’t lost it again. We burst on to the bridge and project manager Nico Vincent thrust his phone in my face. There was an amazing sonar image of a wreck on it and he said: “Gents, let me introduce you to the Endurance!” It was just a moment of incredible joy, just utter undiluted happiness. I felt like I had the breath of Shackleton himself on the back of my neck.

What were the first things you noticed about the ship?
Everywhere I looked I was reminded of people. When we came up over the stern of the ship, the paintwork intact, I saw the ship’s wheel. There’s a bit of film by ship photographer Frank Hurley of expedition geologist James Wordie sailing the ship, so at that point, I thought of him. Just behind is a companionway down to the accommodation deck and there’s a famous photograph of Hussey, who played the banjo, standing in the doorway. Seeing the door, I immediately thought of him. Up on the poop deck, there’s a wonderful bit in Shackleton’s book where he talks about looking down the engine room skylight and seeing the engines being shifted over to one side because of the damage that was occurring. When I saw that, I thought of him. I can count off all of the cabins on the ship and I know who was in them; I read every diary. It’s a very human experience. It’s not just a technical construct, it’s a construct full of people with all of their extraordinary merits and quibbles, infatuations and pettinesses!
Were there any surprising finds aboard?
We found a roll of linoleum! That might not sound too exciting, but seeing the patternwork, identical to the photograph we have of men scrubbing the winter quarters, was a moment. When I saw the portholes to Shackleton’s cabin, it was intoxicating. I knew that between the portholes, Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’ would be in a frame, screwed to the wall. Little things like that just electrify – we were completely high on what we were seeing.

How did Endurance compare to what you’d imagined she’d be like?
I’ve done a lot of very deep ocean work so I made four predictions when we launched the project in 2019 and all of them were correct – I was quite proud of that. I said that the ship would be upright on the seabed, that she’d be proud on the seabed and not below the mud and that she’d be in a great state of preservation because it’d be too cold in the Weddell Sea for ship worms. I also said she’d be largely intact, which she was. I knew how incredibly strong she was built because I’d seen the plans.

You’ve been excavating shipwrecks with your wife Jo since the early 1980s. How did you tell her you’d found Endurance?
Jo and I had a code that we’d agreed on. If we found the ship, I’d message ‘bingo’. If there were multiple underlinings, it’d mean she was in incredible condition and if I added multiple exclamation marks, it’d mean she was just knock-your-socks-off beautiful beyond words. So I sent ‘bingo’ with the lines and exclamation marks! She was sobbing with happiness. That’s how it felt on the ship for us too, a feeling of pure euphoria. At last, we had succeeded!

Mensun’s book, The Ship Beneath The Ice, is out now via Pan Macmillan. The blow-by-blow account of his two expeditions to find the Endurance can be found now where all good books are sold, including on Amazon Kindle.


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