Day 27: 27 January 2019.
With pipes playing, drums beating and banners flying we are on our way – to find the Endurance, that is. Or, at least, that is how it felt for it was, in fact, 03.06 hours and the ship was asleep when we officially paused the science and set off on our long transit to where the Endurance sank.
We are a joyous bag of wonks on this ship, we come from every nook and rabbit hole on the planet, our t-shirts are shouty and we wear every colour of sock. At the top end there are a couple of elderly jaded-faded academics and some leathery old sea-dogs who are supported by an incredible range of can-do technicians; and then there are the mad scientists followed by some very serious post-docs, all hell-bent on becoming mad scientists, and finally, because this is all about science, we have with us a few chirpy young students who are still in mint condition.
After a month at sea we have all bonded well. It hasn’t been hard, we have found common denominators. We all watch football, we all enjoy Beatles music, we all like ketchup on our chips and, above all, we are all card-carrying Shackleton fanatics. It is this last quality that has led to the current quiver of optimism on board.
Let’s face it, as shipwrecks go the Endurance is a grade-A, gold-plated, five-star archaeological legend that everybody wants found. With many on board it seems to be almost a foregone conclusion that we have an appointment with history. I don’t feel that way. My own views are far more guarded. This is the most unreachable wreck the world has ever known; everything is going to be difficult; if it was easy somebody would already have found it. Although it is hard not to be carried along on all the optimism, I am going into this with eyes wide open like a lemur.
In broad terms, I see four major hurdles ahead of us, each higher than the one before:
Can we reach the search area? We have over 80 miles of dense ice to plough through before we even begin the search.
If we can get there, can we launch and recover our AUVs? We need some open water for this and right now there is 10/10ths pack-ice coverage over the search area.
Will our equipment perform in these extreme conditions? We have the most sophisticated unmanned search submersibles in the world, but never have they been stretched like this.
Is the wreck within our search box? A question to which I hope to be able to address in a later blog.
To me, when you add them up, the challenge seems even greater than the sum of its parts. I am not, however, as Eeyore-ish as this sounds because, thanks to Ocean Infinity and the Flotilla Foundation, this project could not be better resourced, financed or equipped; we have the most incredible people steering us from London and Texas, and we have the most skilled and experienced team I have ever known in a life time of maritime archaeological fieldwork. If anybody can find the Endurance, we are the ones. And, what is more, in terms of ice coverage, this is the best year there has been since 2002. All this notwithstanding, this project is going to test us all, the ship, the equipment and we as people.
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Our final tasks before commencing transit were to wet-test AUV 9 in upward-looking mode under the ice, and to land people on a floe in order to conduct three last science projects. The first, under Wolfgang Rack from Canterbury University in New Zealand, was to dig a pit to study the stratigraphy, or the depths and densities of the snow/ice layers and how they help determine the buoyancy of the floe as expressed by its freeboard above the waterline and keel below. The second project, under the supervision of Annie Beker from Stellenbosch University, was taking core samples through the ice in order to study its chemical composition, micro-crystalline structure, biological-nutritional content and, finally, its ability to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. The third scientific project, also under Annie Bekker, was to use the ship to whack off a few large chunks from the floe which were then fished on board using cargo nets slung from the crane. From these she and her colleagues cut oblong samples, which they then ‘bent’, or put under weighted-pressure, in order to establish their breaking strain and other mechanical properties, knowledge that will help with the design of the next generation of ice ships.
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Our current heading is north-east, conditions are favourable and we are surrounded by a full monty of huge, grounded, tabular icebergs. Yesterday the captain charted our course. The Endurance site is not that far away, but between us and it, there is nothing but solid multi-year ice, and to punch our way through that will take a long time. There is, however, about 80 miles south-east of the site, a large patch of relatively open water which we have been watching for some time on satellite imagery, when cloud cover allows. The Weddell Sea is one vast, clockwise-moving gyre and slowly that patch is edging towards the Endurance, but not fast enough.
What we are going to do is head for the clear patch, but to get there we need to follow the relatively open water north-east from where we are, and then at some point swing east and then south, in that way we will circle around the outside of this massive gut of solid ice that at present characterizes the centre of the Weddell Sea. The distance to the patch is 420 nautical miles, which, at an average speed of 7 - 8 knots in relatively open water, we should be able to cover in 52 hours, which we have rounded out to three days. Once in the patch, the real battle will commence as we slam, bludgeon and claw our way north-west. It will be a distance of about 80 miles and a brutal slug-fest every inch of the way that could take two to three days. So we are looking at a total transit time of five to six days.
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Progress so far
Before breakfast, at 07.00 hrs, I was on the bridge with Captain Knowledge Bengu and John Shears when, in glorious wide-open skies, we passed Snow Hill and Seymour Islands which were named by James Clark Ross in 1842; after this we entered Erebus and Terror Gulf, named after his two ships. It was here that we stopped to calibrate our high-precision acoustic positioning system (or HiPAP), which entailed putting down the ROV to establish a temporary transponder station on the seabed. The sun was in full dazzle which made us feel as if we were in the middle of some magical ice garden that had been painted by sleepy jazz musicians in every hue of blue from sapphire gin to robin’s eggs and denim. As for the shapes they came in all kinds from platelets to knobblings, to slabs, growlers, pinnacles and flat-tops. We could see that many of the towering tabular bergs, which had calved from the shelves, had grounded because of the high-tide marks along their sides. Overhead there were terns, snow petrels, giant petrels and cape pigeons; but what delighted us most were the Adélie penguins that were either porpoising through the water beside us or just lazing about on the floes.
Five hours after the ROV had first entered the water we resumed our transit and by 21.00 hrs were off Paulet Island at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula (where Shackleton was hoping to reach) and starting to wheel eastward to take us out and around the ice pack.
Noon position: 64⁰ 11.05 S, 055 50.85 W
Mensun Bound (Director of Exploration)