The Discovery of Shackleton’s Wreck Is as Disquieting as It Is Amazing – The New York Times

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The world today is smaller and less mysterious than when Endurance sank. At the same time, we know too much about the past to be nostalgic.
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Sometimes history speaks in rhyme. On March 5, 1922, the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton was buried in a hillside cemetery on the island of South Georgia, in the frigid far southern reaches of the Atlantic. Recently, a team of marine archaeologists announced that it had located the long-sought wreck of his famous ship, Endurance, a three-masted schooner barque that sank off Antarctica more than a century ago. The ship was found on March 5, 2022 — exactly 100 years after Shackleton was laid to rest.
Four days after the discovery, the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust, which organized the search for Endurance, released a video showing the ship at rest on the ocean floor, nearly two miles below the surface of the Weddell Sea. The images are mesmerizing. A submersible camera circles the wreck, revealing portholes and hatches, a splintered mast, splayed ropes, an anchor chain and, on the deck, the ship’s wheel, which appears almost totally intact. Endurance has become part of the deep-sea ecosystem, encrusted with sponges, sea stars and other organisms. Nevertheless, the boat is remarkably well preserved — a fact attributable, experts speculate, to the absence from cold Antarctic waters of wood-eating creatures like parasitic worms. The most striking shot in the video shows a ghostly white anemone, suctioned to the ship’s transom, above still-glinting lettering that spells the name “ENDURANCE.”
The ship’s story is one of the most illustrious in the annals of exploration. Late in 1914, Shackleton and a crew of 27 sailed south to the Weddell Sea. It was there, early in 1915, that Endurance became trapped in pack ice. The ship drifted amid the floes for more than 10 months before the shifting ice began to crush its hull and the sea finally swallowed it. Shackleton had intended to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent; instead, he gained renown for, yes, endurance, braving months stranded on the ice, stormy open-boat voyages and treks across glaciers to ensure that his marooned men would make it home alive. Today, the expedition stands as a parable of astounding courage and the poignancy of dreams not quite realized. The headstone placed at Shackleton’s grave site bears a quotation it attributes to Robert Browning: “I hold that a man should strive to the uttermost for his life’s set prize.”
The discovery of the long-lost ship is a reminder of Shackleton’s deeds. It’s also a lesson in how technology is transforming our encounters with the past. The Endurance video is well-nigh Spielbergian, almost too wondrous, too exquisitely “art directed,” to be believed. Watching it, I couldn’t help imagining what sights we might have beheld had a videographer been present at the opening of King Tutankhamen’s tomb, or if a drone camera were on hand when the jungle cover was stripped back to reveal the citadels of Machu Picchu. We live in a world where real-life “Indiana Jones” scenes may, at any moment, pop up on our social media feeds. But our relationship to these ruins and remnants has changed. These days, a sunken ship inspires not just awe but melancholy, moral unease, even dread.
The world today is smaller and less mysterious than in Shackleton’s time. Earth’s remotest realms have given up their secrets. To know the lay of the land in distant places once required literal boots on the ground — in Shackleton’s case, boots with nails punched through the soles, makeshift crampons for clambering over icy peaks. Now, thanks to our conquest of the most distant frontier, outer space, all-seeing satellites provide detailed maps of Antarctica’s ice-sheet moraines, available at the tap of a touch-screen. Journeys once undertaken only by the intrepid — to the depths of the Amazon or the heights of the Himalayas — are on the adventure-tourism circuit. What would Shackleton make of “Journey to Antarctica: The White Continent,” a cruise-ship vacation that offers encounters with icebergs and Emperor penguins amid “the luxury of comfort — a quality of shipboard life and a philosophy of wellness designed to relax and rejuvenate body, mind and spirit”?
Yet we know too much to romanticize the swashbuckling past. The history of exploration, after all, is inseparable from exploitation, the relentless drive of empires and private enterprise to claim territory and expropriate raw materials. The story is ongoing: As natural resources dwindle, global powers are racing to mine new frontiers of the jungles, the oceans, the Arctic north. Antarctica, the world’s last true wilderness, is protected by a treaty, signed by 42 countries, that imposed a ban on resource extraction from the continent, except for scientific research purposes. But nations are jockeying for access to Antarctic fishing, mining and oil reserves — including, most aggressively, China, which has expanded its presence on Antarctica during the pandemic and seems to be preparing for a potential expiration of the mining ban in 2048.
Even if the treaty remains in place, all is not well at the bottom of the planet. When Shackleton and his men voyaged to Antarctica, they entered a frozen world. Pictures of Endurance, taken by the expedition’s photographer, Frank Hurley, show the great ship iced into place, high and dry on the ocean’s wintry wastes. The images are iconic; they are also documents of a landship that is vanishing quickly. The Great White South is thawing out. Once, the ice that covered the Weddell Sea made underwater exploration impractical, but in recent months the thickness of that ice has been at some of the lowest levels ever recorded. The discovery of Endurance was aided by climate change.
Other old things are emerging from under ice as the planet heats. Researchers are discovering vestiges of lost worlds, preserved by the now-impermanent permafrost, from tools and weapons of early human societies to the corpses of mammoths and wolves that once roamed the Siberian steppe. Scientists worry that ancient pathogens may be unleashed along with them — that our next pandemic might be a disease that felled our ancient ancestors. Graver still is the vast quantity of carbon, trapped in undecayed plant matter for thousands of years, that is released into the atmosphere as permafrost thaws, creating a feedback loop: temperatures rise, soil melts, gases disperse, temperatures rise further.
In Shackleton’s time, the hardiest adventurers — those strivers to the uttermost — made journeys to the poles. Now, as glaciers dissolve and sea levels rise, the poles may, in effect, journey to us, swamping our shores. When we watch the video of Endurance, we are seeing an artifact of the past, but is it also a portent of the future on our ailing planet? To keep this ship afloat may take a heroic effort.
​Source photographs: ​Frank Hurley/Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge/Getty Images; Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust; New York Public Library.