Button Menu
Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust and National Geographic Caption - The stern of the Endurance with the name and emblematic polestar

Adventure! Searching for Shackleton

When Tim Jacob ’03 alerted us that he was participating in the expedition in search of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s lost ship, Endurance, we enthusiastically took him up on his offer to share his story with DePauw Magazine readers. His tale of adventure inspired us to ask other DePauw alumni to tell us about their exploits and explorations too. Their stories follow.

By Timothy Jacob ’03

On May 5, 2022, the place to be aboard the South African icebreaker S.A. Agulhas II was the closet-sized shipping container on the ship’s aft deck. Outside of the container, early winter gusts of Antarctic air sent wisps of snow swirling in and among heavy machinery and then off into the great white emptiness of the frozen-over Weddell Sea. I watched orange fiber-optic tether pay out slowly from a nearby winch, rising up and through a pulley before plunging down into the sea below. The other end of the tether led straight to the shipping container. When its door opened, I caught the eye of one of the marine robotics specialists, who beckoned me closer with a look of frenzied excitement. Inside, all eyes were glued to a bank of glowing computer monitors projecting live images from the seabed 10,000 feet below. Live images of the most famous undiscovered shipwreck in the world – undiscovered no more.

My journey to the aft deck of an expedition ship in one of the harshest and most remote corners of the planet began in Greencastle, Indiana, when my English professors preached the joy of writing about what you know. I didn’t know much of anything at the time, so after graduation from DePauw in 2003, I moved to the wilds of New York City and began collecting experiences. I spent my days editing articles for a travel magazine, and my favorite weekday diversions were the Monday night public lectures at The Explorers Club on East 70th Street. As I sat in the Jacobian headquarters, surrounded by leather-bound journals, narwhal tusks, globes, ships’ bells and oil portraits of larger-than-life explorers, I felt a connection to a bygone age of pure wonder and larger-than-life adventures. And inevitably, as soon as the lectures began, I was reminded that exploration is not a romantic relic, but rather a state of relentless curiosity. Becoming an explorer didn’t feel like an actual career path, but I finally knew what I wanted to know well enough to write about it.

My next adventure was a move to South Bend, Indiana, where I got my teaching license and saw firsthand how the life-changing benefits of travel and global exposure are not accessible to everyone. Many of my sixth-grade students were amazed to see a Google Earth photo of their neighborhood, take a field trip to Chicago or consider what life is like in another country. I wanted to share the world with them, inspire them to feel the same sense of wonder and possibility that I felt. We joined a Reach the World virtual exchange with a college student who shared her study-abroad experiences in Italy with my students through weekly written articles and Skype calls. I could see the boundaries of my students’ mental maps expanding by the week.

Fast-forward to February 2022, where after several years of classroom teaching and many more years working for Reach the World as an editor, I found myself aboard the S.A. Agulhas II in Cape Town harbor, watching the sun set over Table Mountain during my last night in port for almost two months. I joined the Endurance22 Expedition as Reach the World’s onboard educator/explorer, tasked with leading a virtual exchange program that allowed K-12 students around the world to join the search for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s legendary lost ship, Endurance, in real time. That night, I hosted a livestream event for 30,000 students in 26 countries from the top-most observation deck of the ship, during which I talked about ice-breaking ships, the geography of Cape Town, the difference between sea ice and icebergs and how it felt to be on the cusp of a great adventure. I referred to myself as an explorer for the first time, and invited everyone on the call to think of themselves as explorers, too.

The story of Shackleton’s third Antarctic expedition, the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, was perhaps the best story I could have hoped to share with young people, especially in parallel with a modern international expedition to find the ship Shackleton was forced to ve behind. He hoped to be the first to cross the Antarctic continent by land via the South Pole, but Endurance became “nipped” in the Weddell Sea’s swirling gyre of sea ice and swept far away from the expedition’s intended landing place. Nine months later, Endurance’s captain, Frank Worsley, used a sextant to calculate the approximate coordinates where Endurance succumbed to the relentless sea ice, slipping below the surface and beginning its 10,000-foot descent to the cold, dark depths of the seabed below. Shackleton, Worsley and the rest of the expedition team lived on the sea ice until it began to break up, and then used Endurance’s lifeboats to complete a series of stunning open-ocean journeys that ultimately led to their rescue by Norwegian whalers on South Georgia Island. Remarkably, every person under Shackleton’s direct command survived – some minus a few toes. I’m leaving out a slew of unbelievable, harrowing moments that happened along the way, and I highly recommend reading a fuller account of the expedition (Alfred Lansing’s “Endurance” is a great place to begin) so you can decide for yourself at what point you might have tapped out. I’m not sure I would have survived the first winter.

The story of the modern-day expedition is similarly compelling. After a herculean effort to bring helicopter pilots, sea ice scientists, marine robotics experts, marine archeologists, ship’s crew and other experts (plus tons of specialized equipment) to Cape Town from all over the world in the midst of a global pandemic, the Endurance22 Expedition was likely the last and best opportunity to locate Shackleton’s shipwreck for the foreseeable future. Departing Cape Town harbor felt like a now-or-never moment, laden with both great possibility and a stifling historical weight. We were, in essence, attempting to write the final chapter of Shackleton’s story. 

South African icebreaker S.A. Agulhas II
Discover More

South African icebreaker S.A. Agulhas II 

Jacob stands in front of ship at the site of discovery of Endurance
Discover More

Jacob at discovery site

After a 3,000-mile, 10-day journey from Cape Town to the edge of the Weddell Sea ice pack, across the “Roaring 40s” and “Furious 50s” – some of the most perilous parallels on the globe – I learned very quickly that 100 years of technological advancement weren’t necessarily enough to ensure our success. There are many good reasons why Shackleton’s Endurance is considered the most challenging shipwreck in the world, most of which have to do with the sea ice. More than 107 years after the Weddell Sea caught and claimed Endurance, the sea ice remains incredibly dynamic and powerful, often crashing into itself and creating double-thick pressure ridges that could rebuff many modern icebreaking ships. I loved to stand on the bow of the S.A. Agulhas II – Titanic-style – as the bowl-shaped hull rose up onto a ice floe and, using the weight of the ship to its advantage, parted the frozen landscape to reveal the water below. The ship left car-sized ice chunks bobbing in its wake and Adélie penguins scuttling to keep their distance. We had the advantage of a team of remote sensing specialists who used daily satellite images of sea ice conditions to help the bridge determine the path of least resistance. One particularly advantageous section of light ice that led directly to Worsley’s coordinates was affectionately dubbed “Neptune’s Finger.” Just arriving at the last-known location of Endurance felt like a significant accomplishment. Fewer than five ships have ever been to that particular place on the planet.

As soon as we entered the search area, the race began to survey as much of the seabed below as possible. The sub-sea team switched to around-the-clock operations, launching, monitoring, retrieving, charging/repairing and re-launching the marine robotics on repeat as the ship tried to anticipate and outmaneuver the very conditions that bested Endurance 107 years prior. The journey south had been a physical rollercoaster, and the day-to-day search for Endurance was an emotional one. Would we have enough time? Would all of the sensitive technology work in such extreme conditions? Were we looking in the right spot? As a veteran expedition member told me, when you find a shipwreck, you either find it right away, or you find it at the last possible moment. We didn’t find it right away.

Thankfully, there was no shortage of diversionary work to do both on and off the ship during my three weeks in the Weddell Sea. I joined the sea ice scientists on the ice floes around the ship every chance I got, traveling in a basket carried by the ship’s crane from the deck to the sea ice below. I enjoyed watching the scientists collect ice core samples, analyze ice crystal structure and measure the average thickness of miles-wide ice floes using sleds equipped with electro-magnetic sensors. I spent a wonderful afternoon pulling one such sled more than a mile away from the S.A. Agulhas II with the expedition’s chief scientist, learning all about his research along the way. We walked far enough to reduce the 440-foot vessel to a spot of red on the blindingly white horizon. I didn’t even have to squint my eyes to imagine how Shackleton might have felt as his ship – his lifeline – disappeared beneath the ice. The silence was intoxicating. 

I made a mental note of everything I felt and saw and hurried back to the ship so I could tell students all about it during that evening’s livestream event. Oftentimes, before I could fully process a remarkable experience myself (minke whales surfacing alongside the ship; a helicopter flight around an iceberg; a midday parhelion, with a perfect circle of light around the sun), I was on Zoom, telling the story to young students and seeing it more clearly through their eyes and questions. Together, we explored every corner of the S.A. Agulhas II, met the crew and learned their stories, crossed paths with emperor penguins and crabeater seals and, ultimately, experienced every twist in this journey to the Weddell Sea together. I’m 99.9% sure that I made the first-ever Zoom call from atop the Weddell Sea ice, which should absolutely not go down in the annals of exploration as a life-changing achievement, but the thrill I felt being the first to do anything in this day and age gave me a taste of what kept Shackleton coming back to the Antarctic. We were all living Shackleton’s story while writing one of our own. As the days ticked by, I could feel the students leaning in from thousands of miles away, itching for the perfect ending to both stories.

Sir Ernest Shackleton
Discover More

Shackleton

Crew of Shackleton's Endurance
Discover More

Crew of the Endurance

Tim Jacob '03 at Shackleton's grave
Discover More

Jacob at Shackleton’s grave

The perfect ending came – as predicted – at the last possible moment. A hundred years to the day after Shackleton was buried on South Georgia Island, I was standing on a ship floating directly above his beloved Endurance, watching live as a marine robot flew slowly around the deck, reclaiming in 4K detail all the wreck’s secrets for the world to see. I felt pure joy and relief and a sense of history being made, all at the same time. I couldn’t wait to share this incredible news and these images with students. When we finally met on Zoom on the day the media embargo was lifted, the students’ questions for world-renowned marine archeologist Mensun Bound and marine robotics specialist Chad Bonin did not disappoint. 

“Did you take anything from the wreck?” No, the treasure is the images, videos and survey data we have collected. 

“Did you find any new marine species?” I’m not sure, but maybe… there are some funky creatures living on this ship! We’ll have to ask a marine biologist. 

“How does it feel to be a part of history?” You tell me! We are living this moment together.

From the bottom of the world, I could feel the world reacting to the news of the discovery. I felt extraordinarily proud of the inclusive, engaged learning community my colleagues at Reach the World and I had built. All students had the chance to see themselves reflected in the diverse cast of expedition characters. It was one of those rare opportunities as an educator to see the impact of your work. 

Before we left the Weddell Sea, the ship’s crew extended a walkway out the side of the ship into a stable ice floe so all 100+ people aboard the S.A. Agulhas II could celebrate with a slippery game of soccer, a floating dinner and one final promenade with the penguins. We then broke through nearly 50 nautical miles of sea ice to reach the open ocean, racing the cold breath of a rapidly approaching winter beneath the Antarctic Circle. I will never forget leaving the Weddell Sea ice behind, gathering with the entire expedition team on the helipad for a South African braai (barbeque), and watching the sun set in the South Atlantic while surrounded by dozens of humpback and fin whales. We stopped at the former Norwegian whaling port of Grytviken on South Georgia Island to read one of Shackleton’s favorite poems at his gravesite and reunite him in spirit with a color photo of his Endurance. 

While the ink was drying on the final chapter in Shackleton’s story, I joined the Endurance22 Expedition team on the uppermost deck of the ship as we left the mist-covered peaks and glaciers of South Georgia in our wake and began the 3,000-mile ocean journey back to Cape Town. Through the power of virtual exchange, these dream-like places were now more real than ever to a new generation of explorers, historians, scientists and conservationists. Forging my own personal connections with Shackleton and the Weddell Sea allowed me to write and speak about what I knew and, with luck, those words will inspire young people everywhere to pursue journeys of their own. 

Jacob is the director of the traveler program at Reach the World, a New York City-based global education nonprofit that makes the benefits of travel accessible to K-12 classrooms. Reach the World’s mission is to inspire the next generation of curious, confident and compassionate global citizens through the power of virtual exchange. Since 1998, Reach the World has connected thousands of college-age travelers (including DePauw students on study-abroad adventures!) with K-12 classrooms, helping young students form positive, personal connections with the world. To learn more, visit about.reachtheworld.org.

Reach the World’s full Endurance22 virtual exchange program is supported by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust and is available on demand (and at no cost) to K-12 educators around the world. Visit explore.reachtheworld.org to learn more.

Photos of Endurance: Falklands National Heritage Trust and National Geographic. 

  • Share
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Email