Day 15: 15 January 2019.

Whereas the overwhelming majority of shipwrecks that have been studied by archaeologists are all within a depth of, say, 50 meters, and thus reachable by people with aqualungs, the Endurance, by contrast, is 60 times deeper, at 3000 meters.  The Endurance takes us into the archaeology of hyper-depth of which there is very little experience and thus a dearth of reliable data.

For reasons we have discussed, the ship’s timbers, though in a state of disarray, are likely to be reasonably well preserved, and thus by further inference are likely to reflect her disposition on the seabed following impact.  So the question becomes what actually happened when she hit the ocean floor?   Was contact gentle, as in lips to lips (in which case she would certainly have retained her shape)? Or, was it more of a bus-hitting-a-brick-wall moment (in which case she would have been splattered)?   Basically there are three broad possibilities: she retained her form, she broke open,  or she was left in a condition that, in the Aristotelian phrase, partook of both.

The Endurance was very heavily timbered and exceptionally well fastened;  at the time of her construction she was called the second strongest wooden ship ever built (the first being Amundsen’s Fram).  Although her hull had been ruptured in places by the ice (and indeed by Shackleton’s men) before she sank, I still believe, she would have retained enough of her structural integrity to have survived impact in reasonably coherent state.  Of the wooden wrecks I have seen, most of their hulls had opened up, but, this had nearly always happened after deposition.  This could often be proven because, on the underside of the collapsed planking, it was usually not hard to find evidence of biological activity which demonstrated that, after settling, the ships’ sides had remained upright for a period before the disintegrating processes (that we have talked about) led to their collapse. 

The distinction to be made is that almost all the wrecks I have studied were within 90 meters of the surface, whereas the Endurance went down in 3000 meters.  There is reason to suggest that the dynamics of sinking ships in these depths are different to those experienced by wrecks that have foundered within standard diving depth.

Fluid scientists love their tidy worlds of perfect spheres of known mass in liquids of known viscosity (it goes back to Galileo and his cannon ball drops from the Tower of Pisa), but the plummet of Shackleton’s much injured ship would have been anything but perfect.   I have attended seminars on the subject of sinking vessels in which eminent physicists could not even agree on such basics as whether or not a sinking wooden ship would follow a linear trajectory, or would arc back and forth in the manner of a playing card upon the wind.

What I would most like to know is the terminal velocity of the Endurance as it was sinking.  From such a figure one might be able to make some useful deductions regarding the violence with which she struck the bottom.  The problem  with such a determination, I am told, is that in a wrecking situation such as this, there are too many factors to be taken into account that resist reliable scientific quantification. The various considerations include (to name but some) buoyancy, gravity, volume, mass, pressure,  acceleration,  body shape, salinity, current and, above all, the particularly tricky matter of the drag coefficient and the changing density of the water column.  Playing a part in all this is Stokes’ law, Newton’s second law, a bit of Archimedes, variations on Brownian motion and a little something called a Reynold’s number.  If any of the foregoing makes sense to you, you can take it that it makes less to me.  I cannot even be bothered to pretend that I understand half this stuff.  In the sinking of the Endurance there are just so many variables, imponderables and behavioural ambiguities that I am reminded of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in that you can pretty much make of it what you will, or, as with a Bob Dylan song, read into it whatever you like.   

Turning to the evidence of my experience.   The only wooden ship in truly deep water that I have ever been able to study was completely different to anything I had ever seen within standard diving depth. It left me completely astounded.  It was a wooden barque, about a 150 years old, in approximately 5,500 meters, that had smacked the bottom keel first but with such violence that it had blown open the hull into three equal-length longitudinal parts disclosing all her cargo and giving the impression of a pair of cupped hands.  The keel assembly , sternpost and flooring were upright, in the middle where the vessel had landed, while the two sides, above the ballast line, had been snapped off like match sticks and thrown sideways leaving corridors along either flank of the keel assembly that were so wide apart one could have driven a vehicle through them.  Circling the three parts was an impact crater.  The seabed at this point was carpeted in metal nodules but the pressure wave from impact had been so great that they had almost all been blown to the periphery.

On instinct, and on the strength of her construction, I think that if we locate the Endurance,  the greater likelihood will be that her hull is semi-upright and still in a semi-coherent state.  However, on the evidence of the only deep-water wooden wreck I have been privileged to study, I must concede that there is every possibility that she could have been wrenched wide open by impact thus exposing her contents  like a box of chocolates.

                                    *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

I was watching the seabed footage from the camera on the ROV.  Most of the life we see is pretty sedentary, anything that swims tends to flee as soon as they see us coming, but today this quietly subversive little fish came over and nibbled the corner of our lens.  I have been going through Worsley’s diaries and it is interesting to note that on this very day in 1915 Clark also had a rather pleasant surprise with a fish: ‘Clark secures a half specimen of an alepidosauridie, allied to the mackerel.  It has extraordinarily long sharp jaws and long thin teeth, slightly  recurved and a very beautiful silvery colour all over.’  He then sketched it.

Hurley in his diary for this day also noted a rare experience that he had with marine life.  ‘We witnessed,’ he wrote, ‘a phenomenal sight.  Hundreds of crabeater seals speedily made their way towards the ship, and treated us to a wonderful display, gambolling, sporting, racing and diving under the ship’.  All this he caught on film and is included in the movie he later made and which created a sensation wherever it was shown.

Noon position:   65  58.6  S,  060 20.2 W