15 Aug 2013

Shackleton's ship could still be in good condition

5:41 am on 15 August 2013

New research is indicating that the wreck of the ship sailed by Ernest Shackleton may prove to be in surprisingly good condition, if it is ever found.

The polar explorer was forced to abandon Endurance on his ill-fated Antarctic expedition in 1915 when it became trapped by pack ice.

The BBC reports that experiments by the Natural History Museum on London on how sunken wood degrades in southern polar waters, have found that submerged planks returned to the surface in near-pristine condition after a year yunderwater.

Scientists point to the absence wood-boring "ship worms" in the region. Anywhere else in the world, these molluscs would normally devour sunken wood rapidly.

Dr Adrian Glover said the currents that circle the Antarctic likely prevent the organisms from getting anywhere near the continent.

The experimental planks were untouched. He said that means the remains of old wooden shipwrecks, such as the Endurance, which was pierced by ice, may be remarkably well preserved in their water graves at the bottom of the sea. The ship was built of oak and pine.

"I think it's a reasonable hypothesis to suggest Endurance is still in good condition, certainly based on our experiments and what we know about low microbial rates of degradation in the cold Antarctic deep sea," Dr Glover told BBC News.

"Marine archaeologists and historians have long dreamt of finding the wreck and recovering artefacts from Shackleton's expedition,'' he said.

''But I'm interested in how deep-sea ecosystems function and how they recycle large organic inputs. All that oak and pinewood down there would be an amazing experiment in itself, and it would be fascinating to see it."

The team's research is published in the latest edition of the Royal Society journal Proceedings B.

Locating the wreck

Shackleton's Endurance is thought to have settled about 3km below the surface of the Weddell Sea. The BBC reports a number of groups have talked about trying to locate it.

David Mearns from the Blue Water Recoveries company said the new research reinforced his view that the wreck was in a good state.

"She was badly holed in the stern by large chunks of ice that broke through the ship's sides below the water line and caused her to flood," he said.

"As the damage was too bad to be repairable, Sir Ernest was left with no other option than to abandon ship and set up camps on the ice.

'While Endurance will be a wreck, I expect to find her hull largely intact. She would have suffered additional impact damage when hitting the seabed, but I don't expect this to be too bad."