The Search for Shackleton’s Ship: The Man, The Myth, & the Land Surveying Legend

The Search for Shackleton’s Ship: The Man, The Myth, & the Land Surveying Legend

The early days of exploration are filled with eccentric historical characters that took incredible risks to venture forth into the unknown. The drive to be part of geographical and scientific discovery led many to treacherous lands. Explorers from Marco Polo (who traveled along the Silk Road) to Christopher Columbus (credited with discovering the new world’) and Ferdinand Magellan (the first European to cross the Pacific Ocean), the age of exploration was one of the exciting discoveries that would change the course of history and people’s understanding of the earth, its landmasses, its oceans, and its natural landscapes. 

Through it all, these explorers took on the role of land surveyor, as they all made notes and observations of the lands and used early land surveying instruments to navigate and orient themselves. 

This month, we go back in time to explore the story of Ernest Schakelton, a somewhat controversial and misunderstood historical figure.

The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration and the Men That Searched for Answers 

During the late 19th century and early 20th century, Antarctica was (and continues to be to some extent) a mysterious muse that calls enticingly to the hearts of those with a dangerous proclivity for adventure and the unknown. During that time, Antarctica was a great mystery, one that promised a level of adventure to fulfill the innate drive of any curious explorer. The exploration of the “Tiera Incognita” was largely limited. 

In 1895, a Congress meeting in London declared the exploration of the Antarctic continent as “the greatest piece of geographical exploration still to be undertaken.” 

Ernest Shackleton, the Man 

Like many discovery expedition leaders of the time, Shackleton has accrued a certain amount of ‘street cred’ in the long list of fearless explorers. Before he set sail for the unknown, however, Shackleton was the son of a doctor born in Ireland. In his early teens, his family moved to London. Already harboring an innate call for adventure, young Shackleton would defy his father’s wishes of following in his footsteps and going to medical school for a chance to join the Royal Navy. He was only 16 when he joined and qualified as a master mariner in 1898. He traveled extensively with the Navy but had a secret love for the promise of exploring the Arctic, which was all the rage at the time. 

Ernest Shackleton, the Legend in the Making 

In 1901, young Ernest Shackleton got his first taste of polar exploration when he was chosen to go on the Arctic expedition led by the famous Robert Falcon Scott. They set sail on the ship ‘Discovery’ towards the South Pole and got closer than any other expedition had before. The ship traveled in harsh conditions and met severe resistance, but Shackleton became gravely ill and had to return home. 

About eight years after his first polar expedition, Shackleton returned to treacherous seas onboard the ship ‘Nimrod.’ On this voyage, his crew met some extraordinary circumstances, made some important discoveries, and climbed Mount Erebus. Upon his return to England, he was knighted. 

The Endurance Sets Sail 

In 1911, an expedition led by Roald Amundsen was the first to reach the South Pole. About a year later, another expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott also reached the South Pole, although without the knowledge that they had in fact been beaten by Amundsen’s party. Sadly, Falcon’s expedition perished on the return home. Amundsen’s expeditions, however, would bring back land survey data that would be useful to the scientific world including data that documented a great chain of mountains from Alaska to Patagonia. This ice barrier was believed to be a big obstacle to further Antarctic exploration. 

The Endurance Expedition was tasked with crossing the Antarctic continent from one end to the other through the South Pole. Despite the widespread news of Robert Falcon Scott’s tragic end in his expedition, volunteers jumped at the idea of sailing to those treacherous lands. The expedition was set to set sail as World War I was breaking out. Shackleton himself offered up his ship for the war cause but was told to proceed with the expedition. 

Once the Endurance set sail from a short stay in South Georgia where they collected provisions, the ship battled her way through thousands of miles of pack ice. 

A Ship Stuck in the Ice 

Then, the ice closed in around the ship. The ice around the ship gripped it tight and dragged it, drifting them further away from their intended course. The ship would be frozen in for the winter and one of two scenarios were likely to occur: 

  • The ice around the ship would melt in the Spring and set them free
  • The ice would continue to put pressure on the ship and crush it

Meanwhile on board, the crew played hockey and sports games on the ice, trying to make the best out of a dire situation. Eventually, the situation led Shackleton to conclude that the ship was lost and they must abandon it. This meant the crew was floating on ice with no hope of being rescued. 

The crew had to split up and Shackleton led a few men on a lifeboat to try and seek help at the nearest whaling station hundreds of miles away in South Georgia. It was a treacherous journey but the only hope. The men fought giant waves, cold weather, overcast skies (which hindered navigation) but they carried on. They managed. Once they made it to South Georgia, they had to cross mountains to reach the whaling station, another treacherous journey. They finally reached it and made their plea to go back and rescue the others. Shackleton did not give up on the remaining men and managed to get boats and help to go back and rescue half of his crew left behind. Not a single man of Shackleton’s 28-man crew was lost. 

The Adventurous Spirit and The Advancement of Land Surveying and Navigation

The spirit of discovery and understanding our planet is still very much part of land surveying all over the world. In Feb 2022, an expedition led by advanced technological land surveying and navigating equipment will attempt to locate and find Shackleton’s lost ship.
And while we’re not out exploring the South Pole, Land-Mark Land Surveyors continue the tradition of land surveying here in the Southwest. We survey land before it is used for residential or commercial purposes. Call us to learn more!

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