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Ship of renowned polar explorer Ernest Shackleton found on ocean floor

By Taylor Nicioli, CNN

(CNN) — Shipwreck hunters have found the vessel Quest — once captained by renowned Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton — largely intact on the ocean floor, 15 nautical miles off the coast of Canada, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society has announced.

Shackleton was aboard the famed exploration ship when he died of a heart attack in January 1922. Quest carries not only the history of his voyages, but potentially artifacts from expeditions that continued until 1962, when the vessel sank, experts say.

“Finding Quest is one of the final chapters in the extraordinary story of Sir Ernest Shackleton,” said John Geiger, expedition leader for the search and CEO of the society, in a news release. “Shackleton was known for his courage and brilliance as a leader in times of crisis. The tragic irony is that this was the only death to take place on any of the ships under his direct command.”

A team of international experts located Quest using sonar equipment on June 9 after a 17-hour search that covered about 24 nautical miles. Prior to spotting the vessel, the team conducted months of research and analysis to home in on the best area to look for the wreck, said marine scientist and oceanographer David Mearns, director of the search, at a Wednesday news conference held by the society.

Shackleton was on what would have been his fourth expedition to Antarctica when he died at age 47 while docked on South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic. The celebrated polar explorer was buried there, and the ship and crew continued on, trying to complete the so-called Shackleton-Rowett Expedition. But heavy ice made it difficult to complete the voyage, and Quest returned to Cape Town in South Africa, according to London’s Natural History Museum.

Originally, Shackleton had intended to use Quest for a Canadian Arctic expedition, but he was unable to get the approval of Canada’s prime minister at the time.

His death marked the end of what is known as the “heroic era” of Antarctic exploration. But Quest’s journey didn’t end there.

After being sold to a Norwegian company, the ship went on several other expeditions before ending as a sealer, a vessel used for seal hunting. Quest sank on May 5, 1962, after being crushed by ice in the Labrador Sea off of Canada, according to the news release. The crew evacuated and marked the ship’s final known location, which was 2.5 kilometers (about 1.6 miles) away from where the research expedition found it.

“The fact that Quest has been found now, roughly in waters he would have passed had he succeeded in his dream of a Canadian Arctic expedition, it’s somehow fitting it should end here,” Geiger said at the news conference.

The ship sunk stern first, due to its heavy engine, and is now standing upright 390 meters (1,280 feet) below the ocean surface, Mearns said at the news conference. “We’ll be very excited for the second phase of the expedition, which is to actually photograph and visually document the shipwreck and the artifacts.”

The society is hoping to return to the wreck for the second phase of the expedition with an ROV, or remotely operated vehicle, later this year, Mearns said.

Shackleton’s legacy

In 2022, shipwreck hunters found the Endurance — a vessel from one of Shackleton’s previous expeditions — in Antarctic waters, over 3,000 meters (about 9,843 feet) below the surface.

The Endurance sank in 1915 during Shackleton’s journey to attempt the first land crossing of the Antarctic, after the ship was trapped by heavy ice in the Weddell Sea near the northernmost part of Antarctica. The crew took lifeboats to an uninhibited island nearby, known as Elephant Island, but it was only Shackleton’s quick thinking and bravery that got them all off the island four months later when he and a few men took a lifeboat across 1,287 kilometers (695 nautical miles) of ocean to find help in South Georgia. All 27 members of the crew survived, according to the society.

“Any serious reminder of Ernest Shackleton’s leadership is a really good thing in today’s world,” said Nancy Koehn, a historian and professor of business administration at Harvard Business School who has studied Shackleton. “He’s just an excellent example of a leader who made himself and his team capable of making the impossible possible.”

It is noteworthy that a handful of men on Shackleton’s Quest expedition were also on Endurance’s expedition turned survival mission, Koehn said.

“Anytime the world gets to read a little more about Ernest Shackleton, we’re a little more inspired, we’re a little more serious about our purpose, and we’re a little bit better at trying to make ourselves good leaders,” she said.

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