Day 5:  January 5 2019

Something more than a ship

4 a.m. Couldn’t sleep. Got up. Had the whole vessel to myself. Or so I thought until I ran into the ship’s doctor, Anna Smith, at the coffee station. We sat down in the lounge together, and then, without sugaring her words she gave it to me point-blank:

‘Why ?’, she demanded.

I blinked, ‘Why what?

‘Why bother with the Endurance?’ What do you hope to achieve?’

It is a good question and one that needs to be addressed.

I have been directing underwater excavations and surveys since I was 28 years old. For 32 consecutive years I worked on shipwrecks from antiquity to the modern day, often several a season. Some were big and important that I look back on with pride, others, that I try to forget, were a spectacular waste of money, time and resource. Back in the 70s, 80s and early 90s (which many now look back on as the Golden Age of maritime archaeology) there were more wrecks being found than there were diving archaeologists and, as a result, most of these new sites were never surveyed and have now been plundered out of existence by looters.

In those early years I was focused on ancient wrecks in the Mediterranean, mainly off Italy. Diving, as a recreational activity, had become huge - and Roman wrecks were popping up everywhere. From Britain there was only Toby Parker, Honor Frost and myself who were conducting campaigns every year in those waters. Divers would come up to us with amphorae they had found and we had to make brutal decisions regarding which wrecks could be saved and which would be lost to learning. There was only so much time and money to go around. The measure I applied was simple. If field archaeology is all about the advance and dissemination of knowledge, particularly new knowledge, then what, I would ask myself, does this site tell us that we do not already know? If the answer was not a lot, then the site would be ignored, but if it raised important questions, then it would probably be surveyed and, depending on that evaluation, it might go on to excavation. It was a yardstick that served me well all my career. The problem is that when you apply it to the Endurance, the site does not fare well.

Since candour is the currency of these conversations I have to say that, if we find the Endurance, it will not tell us much of any significance that we do not already know. Every detail of her construction has survived on paper and in the beautiful photographic record made by the expedition’s intrepid Australian photographer, Frank Hurley, back in 1914-16. We know too what she contained and the circumstance of her loss. In this regard it is hard to think of a wreck that is better documented. So, from a strictly archaeological point of view (and not everybody will agree on this, and I am here deliberately side-stepping issues of conservation and marine science), it is hard to justify what we are doing.

However, if we analyse it from an historical perspective, things look very different. Few I think would ever argue that this is not a site of outstanding cultural importance; the Endurance is to the

Shackleton saga what the Victory is to the Nelson story. Both ships are rooted in the British psyche, both represent valour and all that is best in the human condition - but they go beyond that. They have become legends that belong to the world. One of the unpublished diarists on Shackleton’s team said it well when he wrote of the Endurance that she was ‘something more than a ship’.

Now may not be the moment and we may not be the people to do it, but – I promise you this – ‘not all the water in the rough, rude sea’ will prevent this wreck from one day being found, and so, therefore, it is important that she be found by a responsible team (such as ours), without any predatory designs or commercial intentions.

Think what happened to the Titanic which sank just three years before the Endurance (and which, by the bye, also went down lacerated by ice while on her maiden voyage). The moment she was found, the site became a free-for-all, a help-yourself and smash-and-grab for anybody with a deep-water submersible. We feel certain that nobody wants what happened to the Titanic to happen to Shackleton’s Endurance. If we are so lucky as to find the Endurance, our first task will be to record the site for monitoring purposes and then, to prevent its depredation, seek its protection in law as a site of outstanding, international cultural heritage.

In broad terms, the answer to Anna’s question is that we are seeking to find the Endurance so that she might be protected and preserved into the future, when conservation science will have advanced sufficiently for a responsible body to consider whether it would be advisable to raise her remains for preservation and public display.

* * * * * * *

We are now out of the ice and are crossing the mouth of the Weddell Sea on our way to the Larsen C ice shelf on the eastern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Today was the anniversary of Shackleton’s death. He died in 1922 of a suspected heart attack while on his ship, the Quest, at South Georgia. At his wife’s request , he was buried on the Island in the whaler’s cemetery at Grytviken.

During the evening some of us drank to his memory and we all watched the excellent Kenneth Branagh film ‘Shackleton’.