Renowned marine archaeologist Mensun Bound was Director of Exploration for Endurance 22, the team that discovered the wreck of the lost ship of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-1917 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
Bound will be visiting the Newberry on September 21 for a Meet the Author conversation at 6pm and joined us for a Q&A in advance of the event. His book "The Ship Beneath the Ice" was published earlier this year.
NL: You’ve been exploring shipwrecks all over the world for decades. What prompted you to seek out the Endurance after so many years?
MB: The discovery of the Endurance was 10 years in the making. It wasn’t actually my idea, but that of a close friend. It all began in August 2012, when he and I were meeting in a coffee bar on the Old Brompton Road, in South Kensington. At that time I was interested in Captain Scott’s Terra Nova, the ship that took him on his fatal expedition to Antarctica in 1911. It was the centenary of his death and the Natural History Museum were mounting a special exhibition to commemorate his life and deeds, and they asked me if I could find his ship. But the very morning we were meeting in the coffee shop it was announced in the press that the Terra Nova had been found. I showed my friend the article and he said, ‘Well, what about the Endurance?’ and that was the moment of inception. Not only was he the one who came up with the idea, but he was the single driving force behind both expeditions to find her, the first in 2019, and the second last year.
NL: Is there extra meaning to you as someone who grew up in the Falkland Islands, a place that played a role in Ernest Shackleton’s story and is the closest thing South Georgia has to a neighbor?
MB: I have been conducting wreck hunts, excavations and surveys all my life. But the Endurance was different. It felt personal. Coming from the Falkland Islands I was brought up on the Shackleton story. My father had a large framed photo of Frank Worsley, the Captain of the Endurance. But more than that, Shackleton stayed with my family on one of his three visits to the Falklands while he was trying to rescue his men on Elephant Island. We had a bar and bedding establishment on the waterfront of Port Stanley called the ‘First and Last,’ and Shackleton along with Worsley and Tom Crean, stayed there after Shackleton fell out with the Governor. The visitors book is still with my family, and their signatures are in it.
NL: Shackleton described the Endurance’s location as ‘the worst portion of the worst sea in the world.’ Does the Weddell Sea live up to its reputation, or are there other places you’ve experienced with more challenging conditions?
MB: Shackleton wasn’t exaggerating. The pack is out to get you and squash you like a bug. The times we got caught it felt as if we were within the coils of a boa constrictor. But I have experienced worse in the Drake Passage which sweeps under Cape Horn and the Falklands. They really are the most consistently savage seas on earth. Back in 2014, I spent five months at sea southeast of the Falklands in an old Cold War submarine chaser that used to masquerade as a fishing boat. We were looking for Admiral Von Spee’s flagship, the Scharnhorst, that had gone down fighting in the Battle of the Falklands in 1914. On one occasion we got hit by a freak wave (or, as the Mate described it, a ‘wall of water’) that whacked us over on our beam ends. You then felt the ship falling away into the hollow behind the wave. We just lay there in a pile at one side of the bridge waiting for the follow-up wave to roll us under. To this day I remember the voice of the bosun who had been at the wheel praying in Spanish. But the second wave never came and slowly we righted ourselves. It shouldn’t have happened but, just like Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, we all lived to tell the story.
Shortly before the pandemic I was down in those same waters again when, in the middle of a storm, we picked up a Mayday call from a yacht that had also been slammed over. When we got to it in the middle of the night, two people had been washed away and drowned and another was very badly injured. It took a day, but we got her to within helicopter reach of the Falklands where they winched her up and flew her to hospital. She survived. In the days of the old Cape Horners, those seas gulped down more fine men and ships than any other patch within the Five Oceans.
NL: The discovery of the Endurance took place after your 2019 expedition had to be cut short due to the loss of a submersible. How much was good luck involved in 2022?
MB: Luck, good and bad, certainly played its part. In 2019 we were unlucky. The Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) that was conducting the search was doing well. I had drawn up a search box that was 107 square nautical miles and the AUV had covered over half the area before it malfunctioned and disappeared without a trace. Now that we know the position of the Endurance, we can see that, had the AUV completed its mission, we would have found the wreck in 2019.
Last year was very different. The ice was not nearly as thick and aggressive as it had been in 2019, but we were into winter, conditions had deteriorated and on the back deck temperatures had plummeted. The Captain had told me that neither man nor ship could take much more of it. Our backs were against the wall. And then we just got lucky. At the moment when we most needed it, we had two days of brilliant weather and it was during that window that we discovered the wreck. But it was very tight. In fact, after we found the wreck we only had time for two dives on her. The first to secure the data and the second was the archaeological inspection dive. The highlight of my life as an archaeologist. And that was that. The weather came back with a vengeance, and we had to get out of there post-haste.
NL: You changed your search vehicle and methodologies for the second search. Can you explain this?
MB: The main technical difference between 2019 and 2022 was the equipment we used, for both seasons provided by the top deep ocean marine robotics company, Ocean Infinity. In 2019 our main search vehicle was a Kongsberg AUV, a fabulous piece of deep ocean technology that I had worked with on many other operations, but it was probably not best suited for search and survey missions beneath pack ice. The AUV is genuinely autonomous; you programme to search a specified area and then afterwards, when it has been recovered, the data is downloaded and converted into a format that is legible for the analysts who scrutinized it for anomalies. Once the anomalies, or Points of Interest, have been identified, we then go down with a tethered Remoted Operate Vehicle (ROV) and check them out. It sounds complicated, and it is, but its virtue is that it usually works.
In 2022 we used a Sabertooth that is made by Saab. It is billed as an AUV/ROV hybrid, meaning you can operate it in autonomous mode or as a tethered system. We used the latter. The beauty of the Sabertooth is that you always know where it is if something goes wrong. The other main difference for us was that we were receiving our data in real time. This meant that if we spotted an anomaly on the sonar returns, we just switched the vehicle from ‘search mode’ to ‘inspection mode’ and could go check it out.
With regard to the Sabertooth, I would like to mention the incredible subsea team under Nico Vincent who throughout the pandemic worked in Sweden and France to get the new system up and operational in time for the 2022 season.
Our program with Mensun Bound will be held in-person at the Newberry and livestreamed on Zoom on September 21. The online version of this event will be live captioned. Please register here.