Monday, January 28, 2008

 

Shipwrecks and Shackleton: Endurance explores Antarctic depths

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Defence News
January 28, 2008

The Royal Navy ice patrol ship HMS Endurance has located the position of cruise liner M/S Explorer, which sank in Antarctic waters last year. The ship has also honoured its own provenance by ferrying a special visitor to the island site of another, much older wreck.

HMS Endurance is undertaking hydrographic survey and mapping work; providing support to the scientific work of the British Antarctic Survey and carrying out other taskings to deliver the UK's responsibilities under the Antarctic Treaty.

The charting work contributes to the safety of shipping in the Antarctic region - work of particular significance with the increasing number of cruise liners in the Antarctic. HMS Endurance herself went to the assistance of the M/S Nordkapp cruise liner when she struck a rock and was holed early last year. And in November, the M/S Explorer hit ice and sank – luckily without loss of life.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office requested that HMS Endurance undertook a search for the wreck of the Explorer to ascertain its position, assess the likely condition of the vessel on the seabed and observe any ongoing fuel seepage or other evidence of pollution.

After an initial unsuccessful search earlier this month, Endurance revisited the area to carry out the systematic search of an area ten kilometres by five using the ship's advanced multibeam echosounder, which uses sound waves to create an accurate chart of the sea bed.

The seabed in the search area was flat and featureless, but a contact was detected at a range of 4,373m from the reported sinking position of the vessel. When compared to the reported sinking position of M/S Explorer this was broadly consistent with the direction of the prevailing current.

The wreck's position is at the northwest end of the Bransfield Strait, and was located at a depth of approximately 1,130 metres. The actual location is at 620 24.2929' south 570 11.7748' west. It was judged that the depth of the wreck showed that it presented no hazard to shipping. Apart from the oil slick, no debris was seen in the water and no debris was observed on any of the land in the vicinity of the wreck visited by personnel from HMS Endurance.

Both the FCO and Ministry of Defence consider that finding M/S Explorer has highlighted the wider role and primary purpose of HMS Endurance in supporting the aims and principles of the Antarctic Treaty system.

Commanding Officer of HMS Endurance, Captain Bob Tarrant, said:

"I am very proud of my survey team who are operating our world class system at the edges of its performance. The Royal Navy continues to support UK responsibility to the Antarctic Treaty by surveying and charting the difficult waters of Antarctica to improve safety for all mariners"

Ghosts of the past
In an echo from 1916, while on her current deployment, HMS Endurance has taken the son of an Antarctic explorer to visit the desolate island where his father spent 138 days waiting for rescue after the original Endurance – part of Sir Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated expedition - got trapped in the ice, was crushed, and sank.

67-year-old Mr Viv James, son of Shackleton's physicist Reginald James, lives in South Africa, and visited HMS Endurance when she was in Cape Town last year. He was invited to join the ship for a work period which would take her to desolate Elephant Island, where his father and 21 others awaited rescue. Shackleton, who had set off in an open boat with a party of five, successfully reached South Georgia 800 miles (1,290km) away and after four attempts successfully returned to rescue his crew on board Chilean Navy tugboat 'The Yelcho'.

Viv James' first glimpse of Elephant Island was from one of HMS Endurance's Lynx helicopters, and later, after studying aerial pictures and those taken on the original expedition, he landed by boat at the actual site used in 1916.

Safely back in HMS Endurance, Viv described how the party was welcomed by "savagely growling" fur seals among the penguins:

"With due respect to them, I picked my way onto the shore where there were fewer seals. Only then did I have time to look around me and actually see and smell the place where my father and his shipmates spent five winter months in a hut made from two upturned boats, being warmed and fed by penguins and seals like those that were surrounding me.

"As we left, I thought 'been there done that', but my admiration for my father and his fellow explorers has increased tenfold and I will never forget today's experience or Bob Tarrant, his crew and the Royal Navy for making it possible for me to do this."


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