Indiana Jones of the deep: one explorer’s final attempt to find a lost ship
Back in February 2022, maritime archaeologist Mensun Bound stood on the SA Agulhas II, a 12,900-ton, 440-foot-long South African icebreaker, and peered through binoculars at the ice edge of the Weddell Sea. Somewhere in this white oblivion, buried 3,000 metres deep, lay the Endurance, the lost vessel of Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.
Bound’s first attempt to find it had failed three years earlier: a multimillion-pound underwater robot had been set off under the ice on its search mission but never returned.
Now Bound, 69, was back for a second time and his career was on an ice edge too.
“I realised I was looking at my fate,” he says. “I had failed miserably during the first season. I dropped an absolute ton of money. If I’d failed the second time, that would be it.”
“Once you have the smell of failure in archaeology, you don’t get more chances. I’d have been out to pasture.”
It would have been a brutal end to a brilliant career. Bound has been directing underwater excursions for 32 years, sometimes raising five wrecks in one season, both ancient and modern. At least 12 museums around the world, including the British Museum, have permanent collections of his cargo.
His discoveries are too numerous to list but include 250,000 intact pieces of porcelain from a 15th-century wreck in the South China Sea and gold coins from Henry VIII’s flagship the Mary Rose. Diving into wrecks, he has found chests spilling with treasure and skulls leering at him through sediment.
Along the way, he has been caught by hurricanes and typhoons and once found himself holed up on a reef being circled by sharks.
An irritating nickname
His nickname ‘Indiana Jones of the Deep’ – first dreamed up by the Discovery Channel – seems thoroughly deserved, although for years it irritated him.
“I thought it made me look unprofessional,” he says.
“But as you get older, you loosen up a bit. When I saw how much my kids loved it, it didn’t seem such a bad thing.”
Bound (he was christened Michael but has always been known as Mensun, his childhood mispronunciation of medicine) has three adult sons and lives with his wife Jo in Oxford, where he enjoyed a distinguished academic career before retiring in 2013 to focus on finding the Endurance, a quest he recounts in his new book, The Ship Beneath the Ice.
A fifth-generation Falkland Islander, Bound’s fascination with shipwrecks stretches back to boyhood. “The first thing I saw when I opened my curtains each morning was Stanley Harbour where there were no less than seven old Cape Horn wrecks,” he says.
“My father and I would clamber all over them and he’d tell me stories of the sea.”
Shackleton had been to the Falklands three times, once staying at an inn belonging to Bound’s family – they still have the signed guestbook – so his story held a special allure.
The greatest story of human survival
And what a story it was. In August 1914, Shackleton and his crew had left London’s West India Docks on the Endurance to cross the continent of Antarctica by way of the South Pole, only to get stuck in the ice of the Weddell Sea.
For nine months, the 28 men remained on board, eking out supplies until their home began to splinter. They abandoned ship, taking what they could, and watched the Endurance disappear below the ice.
Then for five more months they camped on an ice floe until that, too, began to break apart. Next, they boarded three lifeboats and set out on a five-day, 346-mile journey across the most hostile sea on the planet to the uninhabited Elephant Island.
Most of the men waited there, while Shackleton and five others set off again to the whaling station on South Georgia, 800 miles away, where he was finally able to arrange a rescue.
The failure of their original mission was quickly forgotten, replaced by the greatest story of human survival in recorded history. It had been two years since they’d set off from London.
“Twenty-eight men went in and 28 came out,” says Bound. “They shouldn’t have – and yet they did. You’d have to be made of stone not to be excited by that!”
The world’s most unreachable wreck
Buried beneath permanent pack ice, the Endurance has been the world’s most unreachable wreck for more than a century. Only in the past decade did subsea technology – remote-controlled underwater robots – begin to make a trip possible.
The 2022 expedition, funded by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust, had sourced the most advanced technology and a crack team of specialists. Yet their success rested entirely on a single set of coordinates taken by the captain of the Endurance, Frank Worsley, the day after she went down.
Worsley was a brilliant navigator – their safe passage to Elephant Island and South Georgia attest to that. But he had recorded the sinking position after it happened, following days of mist, glimpsing the sun between icebergs. From this, factoring in speed and direction of drift, Bound had drawn a search box.
The Ship Beneath the Ice brilliantly depicts the journey out and breathtaking landscapes.
The sunsets and sunrises are so unworldly, says Bound, it’s as if you’ve “trespassed into some polar hidey-hole where the gods go to drain their rainbows”.
He compares what he sees along the way with what Shackleton recorded at the same points and it’s a sobering read – far fewer whales, fewer penguins and seals, and a much smaller variety of everything.
“Time was running out”
As days passed and the underwater searches yielded nothing, Bound began to give up hope.
“Time was running out and it was totally oppressive,” he says.
“You felt this fat little incubus sitting on your chest every morning. With the next cold spell, we’d have to end it. We’d come to -40ºC, the ship was suffering, we were suffering, the sea was starting to calcify.
“Once you’re into the Antarctic winter, if you get caught between two really big floes, millions of tonnes of ice on either side working against each other, oh my God you’re in trouble.”
On 4 March came the ‘sunburst moment’ he’d hoped for – though ironically, Bound was not present when the shadow of the lost ship loomed into view on the screens in the pilot station. He was taking a last walk on an iceberg, contemplating his humiliating journey home.
When he was called on the Tannoy and learned what had happened, he can only remember tears, laughter, embracing and the shaking of hands: “Think of the best moment in your life, multiply it by a factor of ten and you wouldn’t come close.”
“Everywhere I looked was utterly amazing.”
Shackleton’s ship was upright in a state of perfect preservation. “When we did the first archaeological dive and came up over the stern to see the word Endurance arching over the polar star, it sent shivers down the spine,” he says.
“Sometimes in archaeology, you’re sent tumbling back over the centuries and this was one of those moments. You see the rudder, the source of all their problems, and straight away think of Chippy McNish, the carpenter who tried so hard to stop the water coming in. Everywhere I looked was utterly amazing.”
Within minutes, the Wi-Fi would be cut to ensure the news wasn’t leaked prematurely, but Bound did have time to send a picture to his wife with the words “Behold the Endurance”. She was entering a theatre as she received the message but burst into tears and had to sit out the first half of the play.
Bound has no intention of retiring now. The Endurance has given him ‘a second wind’, he says. In fact, he’s adamant that age and experience were crucial; the whole core team from the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust are all well past retirement age.
“After the expedition, we gave a talk at the Explorers Club in New York and at the end, someone stood up and said, ‘You know what I really like about this story? These amazing institutions with the best science and the biggest bank books tried to do this and failed. In the end, a bunch of old pensioners went out and succeeded!’ I fell about laughing. He’d hit the truth.
“A bunch of young egos competing would have devoured each other. You get to a stage where you’ve got nothing to prove. You want to succeed so you work together.”
Will the Endurance be raised? “I hope so because she is organic,” Bound replies. “All those wrecks in Port Stanley harbour I saw as a boy? They’ve collapsed. It looks good for a very long time but then, all of a sudden, there’s galloping deterioration.”
Conservation science isn’t yet ready, though. “That’s beyond my lifetime,” he says. “We’ve mapped her, and the important thing is to keep monitoring it.”
Until then, the Endurance remains in her still, icy grave – 3,008 metres deep, just four nautical miles south of Frank Worsley’s famous coordinates. And Bound is busy plotting his next quest.
“I wouldn’t say I’m rudderless, but I’m thinking, ‘What next?’,” he says. “There will be a next thing. We’re already talking about it.”
The Ship Beneath the Ice by Mensun Bound was published by Macmillan on 27 October
Written by Anna Moore