Why We Still Care About Ernest Shackleton and ‘Endurance’
Three experts on history’s greatest survival story discuss why the discovery of the Antarctic shipwreck only adds to the mystique of the famed explorer
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The story still resonates with readers more than a century later: the sinking of Endurance amid the pack ice; the bone-rattling conditions on Elephant Island; the improbable 800-mile journey across windblown seas in the 22-foot James Caird; the mountainous trek across South Georgia Island to finally raise a rescue party.
Shackleton and his men have been the subject of much media fervor throughout the last century, and this latest flurry of Shackleton media comes more than two decades after the tale experienced a worldwide revival. In 1998, British author Caroline Alexander published The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition. Alexander’s book, which drew on new source material, birthed two separate Shackleton documentary films, and more media projects followed in its wake. Actor Kenneth Branagh played Shackleton in a 2002 film for British television; American documentary series Nova sent a film crew to Antarctica and hired mountaineers Reinhold Messner, Conrad Anker, and Stephen Venables to trek across South Georgia Island.
Outside covered that Shackleton fervor, and in 2003 contributor Brad Wieners reported on two competing teams of UK explorers who sought, unsuccessfully, to find Endurance. And over the years, there have been multiple attempts to re-create Shackleton’s journey—in 2013 Australian adventurer Tim Jarvis sailed from Antarctica to South Georgia Island aboard a replica of the James Caird and then crossed South Georgia Island on foot.
Now, with the discovery of the wreck, worldwide obsession with Shackleton and Endurance continues—the Royal Geographical Society in London is currently showing a collection of images from the 1914 expedition. Why does the story endure? We sought perspective from Alexander, Wieners, and Jarvis on why the story resonates so strongly with both new generations of explorers and the general public, and what we can learn from this latest discovery.
Why did the undersea hunt to find Endurance continually capture the imagination of explorers?
Caroline Alexander: Two things come to mind. What I found when I was fact-checking my book was that the sources with the highest level of expertise on the sea or the Arctic had the highest level of hero worship for Shackleton. I would say that the type of people who have continually set out to find Endurance or to re-create Shackleton’s footsteps are in that category of expert. The more you see truly rough seas, and ice, or experience extreme cold, the more you appreciate the story and what Shackleton and his crew went through. By the time people set out to re-create Shackleton’s voyage or search for his ship, they have some context for what he experienced, and that context places him at the very pinnacle of their regard. The other is that, to my knowledge, there are a lot of interesting historic shipwrecks around. The Endurance was a ship we knew quite a bit about before she set out. But she was a very complicated vessel. What is unique about Endurance is it comes upon the scene at the dawn of photographic recording, and you can learn a lot about her every nook and cranny by looking at these photographs. If you are a Shackleton fanatic, you know what the wardroom looked like, or the deck did, all of these intimate things. And the more you investigate her every inch, the more you want to see her.
Brad Wieners: Well, it’s not a grave site and there’s no treasure to recover, so I really do think it’s about the survival story and the technical challenge of finding her. So many have become invested in this epic—especially in the UK, where Shackleton’s resolve and no-man-left-behind success is a point of great national pride. As a legend like this grows, I think, you want to see the thing, to go to the source, to know it’s true. There’s the needle-in-a-haystack puzzle of it—there’s a lot of ocean floor! And the Titanic and many other big ones have been found already. There’s the difficulty of finding it beneath the ice and the potential of a search operation meeting a similar fate. Finding her is an impressive feat in its own right.
Tim Jarvis: The loss of the ship gave birth to the greatest survival story of all time, and there are so many stories of leadership that resonate with the types of people who might want to find it. I work in the environmental space, and Shackleton’s leadership lessons give us some really good guidance. How to pull together as one. Realizing that different members of your team are motivated by different things. Tailoring the message to the individual. Having the emotional intelligence to get people to become part of the solution of saving themselves. Facing incredible adversity with good humor and optimism. The sinking of the ship was the beginning of something that became greater than the original journey, and we’re still learning from it today.
What was most surprising about the state of Endurance from the photographs?
Caroline: In all candor, I hadn’t eagerly followed all of these previous expeditions to find Endurance, and I was ambivalent about the value of it—what can we learn, really, from finding her? And I was ambushed by my own emotions when I saw the images. It was the pang of recognition—oh, it’s my ship! To see her there, with the nameplate completely free so you could see every letter and the Polaris star, was uncanny. What struck me was the elegance of Endurance. She was always described as a beautiful ship, and this was in an age of seafaring where sailors would express love for a vessel as a female, and the men really felt she was a lovely ship. When I saw her lying there I was struck by her gracefulness. I felt that she looked at peace. It was something about the clarity and the lack of destruction. And at the depth she was at she was surrounded by those starlike jellyfish that were rather flowery-looking. It wasn’t a creepy scene; it was a gentle one. When news broke, the other news of the world was pretty terrible, so to see the story evoked in this very physical way—I found that very comforting.
Brad: How intact she is. Though the cold water had been expected to preserve the wood better than in other parts of the ocean, she’d been crushed in the ice—why she sank. So I imagined a pile of timber, not such a complete hull. I was along on a National Geographic expedition when Dr. Robert Ballard found John F. Kennedy’s PT-109. The only thing left of that craft, in the bottom of a strait in the Solomon Islands, was the torpedo tube. The wood had all disintegrated. I’ve also loved seeing all the marine life that made her something of a fixer-upper reef, too. Not sure there are any octopus at that depth, but it’s a sea anemone’s garden in the shade.
Tim: Of course I was asked about this over the years, and I always said that if they do find Endurance, I don’t think there will be much left. I was wrong—the stern still says Endurance for all the world to see. When it’s down at 10,000 feet with no oxygen and no microbial activity, all of the wood and metal had survived. And seeing it like that, I had an emotional reaction, and I really had to write some words down to help process what I was feeling. For some people, this is the end of a grail quest, and there’s almost a tinge of sadness there, having solved the mystery.
What can be learned about Shackleton’s story through the discovery of Endurance?
Caroline: The story of Endurance still matters. If this story had come out and there wasn’t a firestorm of media attention, then we would have known that the flurry of interest in Shackleton a few years back was just something of the time—but that’s not what happened. This went viral. Everyone was talking about it. People I had long lost touch with dropped me a line. Shackleton now has a sort of double-history to the story. There was a fervor around Shackleton 20 years ago, and here it is and we still seem to be emotional about a story that happened over a century ago. It still matters and we still care about it, and in a strange way the lesson is that stories do survive from one generation to the next. In terms of history, I don’t think the discovery will shed any light on why she sank.
Brad: Not a whole heck of a lot, honestly. As Caroline noted during a previous attempt to find Endurance, we had pictures of the boat in her death throes, we have all the survivors’ testimonies. No great mystery to solve. What I do think we can learn from this, though, is how the Weddell Sea and the Antarctic have changed since she went down. The poles are overheating three times as fast as the rest of the planet, and yet it’s not a linear heating and melting. While massive ice loss in the Antarctic is raising sea levels, other areas of the Antarctic are adding ice. It’s complicated. Something I’d hope we can agree on is that we really need to understand what’s happening there better to protect the coastal communities of the world and all the life in the seas. The so-called “heroic age” of exploration of Antarctica, you could say, ended with Shackleton dying on his return. But the scientific era of exploration of Antarctica—and the implications for all of us—is on now.
Tim: It teaches us that the spirit of adventure in people like [expedition leader] Menson Bound is very much alive. Finding this ship has been a 30-year quest—perhaps even greater. I think this discovery shows us that the Shackleton story will come to live, yet again, for another generation.
Why do you think the Shackleton story continues to resonate with the general public?
Caroline: It reinforces that survival stories are always thrilling. I think back to that extraordinary caving crisis in Thailand, and how breathtaking it is when there is hope in the face of overwhelming disaster, and what happens when people don’t give up. Examples of humans pitching their best skills and putting it all out there for other human beings and succeeding is greatly moving, and those elements are also found in the Shackleton story. Another element of the Shackleton story from a narrative point of view is that it takes place within a wasteland. Here is this cosmic palette, this pure test. It is this cast of characters and nobody else. We take these people in a boat, no other humanity around, and it is this laboratory of survival. The first test is psychological—can you survive seven months on a ship and not go crazy? Then, the ship vanishes, and everyone is into the lifeboats, and they don’t know where they are going. They land on Elephant Island, one party departs, the other has to stay and survive. The voyage on the 22-foot boat James Caird and this amazing test of seamanship, and they arrive on South Georgia Island, and they’re not mountaineers, they’re not even physically fit, and they have to navigate this island. The whole thing is this exercise in overcoming obstacles that nobody can wrap their head around.
Brad: Kenneth Branagh? Kidding. But he made a decent Sir Ernest in the miniseries. While I can’t say why it resonates for others, I can tell you it still inspires me. Anyone who has been paralyzed by a big decision can relate to what the rescue party took on. Overwhelmed, against all odds, they found the courage to act rather than remain stuck, overwhelmed, lost. And we all need our Frank Worsley [Endurance’s captain]. His navigation got their 22-foot open-air boat across the Southern Ocean. And his records, too, made finding Endurance possible.
Tim: The big picture is that many people today feel an underlying sense that we are in a state of crisis in the world. Whether it’s armed conflict, or the environment, or the honesty of our public officials being called into question, and people are looking back to this era of polar exploration for inspiration and guidance. We see that people would do things selflessly and not just for the pursuit of money or fame. Shackleton left nobody behind. He sacrificed his original bid to reach the South Pole 97 miles short in order to save everyone. On this expedition he suffered the most in order to bring everyone home. These values sit well with people in a time when we don’t demonstrate them. Plus, it’s just a hell of a story.