Day 30: 30 January 2019

Sometimes you just want to throw back your head and howl at the heavens.

Four a couple of days we have been looking for a clear patch in deep water where we can conduct a test dive of the ROV.  At  xxxxxx we came upon a suitable spot and hove to.  There was no ice anywhere, the sea was calm and we had 3000 meters beneath our keel, the same depth as the Endurance.  The Eclipse team had already gone through their pre-dive checks and the ROV was poised at the stern ready for launch.   The objective was simply to descend to 3000 m, perform some checks and then head back.  It was so routine nobody gave it a thought.

The ROV submerged at  xxxxxx  Everything proceeded without a hitch until they were at 2976 meters, just 24 meters from their test-depth.  It was xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx on the clock when suddenly they lost telemetry and the screens went black.  They didn’t even flicker at first, as usually happens when there’s a problem – they just went black.  All of them.

‘At first’, said Steve March who was piloting, ‘I thought it was maybe something to do with the fibre connectors, maybe a bit of water penetration.  The usual response is to take it up a hundred meters to relieve the squeeze and, if everything is again working, you just proceed as before, maybe a bit slower.  So we took it up, and still there was no response from anything so at that point the boss [Steve Saint Amour] gave the order to abort.’

It took two hours for the ROV to return to the surface, at which point the focus was on recovery.  It was not until it was secured on deck that the inspection began.  The first over to take a look was Dave O’Hara, a burley guy from Belfast who, when not on ROV ops at sea, organizes music festivals.  The front of the ROV looked alright, so he went around to the port side;  there he paused before bending down for a closer look.   He later told me that the thought that ran through his head at that moment was ’We’re in shit.’  Steve Saint Amour came over.  ‘Can you see the problem?’.  Dave just pointed.  Steve adjusted his glass and bent down.  Dave told me that neither of them said anything, ‘we were both of us just speechless.  It felt like somebody had just backed over your child.’  At that point Ray xxxxxx came over and bent down to follow their gaze, ‘Holy cow!’ was all he said.  A bit later I came over, ‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.  Dave looked up and gave it to me straight,  ‘Its dead Mate.  It’s a paper-weight.   The pod’s gone – crushed’.   

The heart of the vehicle, the electronics bottle, had literally imploded.  None of us had ever seen or heard of anything like this before.  There were spare parts and replacement components for everything, but not this.  The nearest ports were Punta Arenas, Chile, and Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, both at least a couple of days away.  To fly in replacement parts and steam to either of these destinations would cost us at least a week which would run us out of time.  At that moment my prospects of conducting a proper archaeological survey of the Endurance also imploded.

The situation was reported to HQ on the other side of the world.  After several hours they answered saying they would courier the spare parts into King George Island on a specially charted plane.  This surprised us all;  first the expense and then the idea of King George Island which is one of the South Shetland Islands off the western tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.  Nobody was confident that this was achievable but it was a plan, and it might just work.  And so as I write this we are heading for Prince George Island .  ETA 04.00 on 1st February. 

A stressful day and spirits are low.  The more so because it has now been decided that some of our scientists whose work is largely over will be flown home from King George Island.  There are sound reasons for this but the team has bonded closely, and nobody wants to leave while there is still any chance of finding the Endurance.  None of us yet knows who will be on ‘the list’.  The mood at dinner was the most subdued I have yet seen.

Position where ROV malfunctioned:  66  41.1 S,  045  59.8  W.

Noon position:   67  13.4  S,   045  52.0  W