SU researchers part of historical Antarctic expedition

[Article by Corporate Communication and Marketing Division]

​​Stellenbosch University (SU) researchers are still basking in the aftermath of being part of the expedition team who recently made history when they discovered the wreck of Endurance, the lost ship of renowned polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton which sank in the Weddell Sea more than a century ago.

In 1915, Shackleton and his team had set out to become the first to cross Antarctica from the Weddell Sea via the South Pole. But Endurance never reached land as it became trapped and eventually crushed by close pack ice. The ship was abandoned and later sank. The 28 men on board escaped in lifeboats and on foot.

Endurance was found at a depth of 3 008 metres in the Weddell Sea, within the search area defined by the expedition team before departure from Cape Town, and approximately four miles south of the position originally recorded by Endurance’s Captain Frank Worsley.

Mensun Bound, director of exploration on the expedition funded by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust, described the find as the “finest wooden shipwreck I have ever seen, upright, well proud of the seabed, intact, and in a brilliant state of preservation”.

The ship’s discovery comes 100 years after Shackleton’s death in 1922.

The SU contingent – consisting of Prof Annie Bekker, head of the Sound and Vibration Research Group at the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering, and postgraduate engineering students James-John Matthee and Ben Steyn – was part of a team of more than 65 scientists and explorers who left Cape Town harbour last month on board the SA Agulhas II in search of the Endurance.

Together with representatives from the South African Weather Service, German firm Drift & Noise, Germany’s Alfred-Wegener-Institute, German Aerospace Centre (DLR) and Aalto University in Finland, the SU team provided crucial logistical support in locating and surveying the Endurance wreck in the harsh environment of the Weddell Sea.

An ecstatic Bekker said, “The SA Agulhas II has been the focus of my research since 2012. I became involved during her first ice trails in the Baltic Sea where she was built by STX Finland in Rauma. At the time, she was brand new! In the past 10 years more than 30 researchers and collaborators from the Sound and Vibration Research Group have participated in research voyages on this ship. To be onboard during this pinnacle moment in her service life with the discovery of the Endurance, takes my breath away. I will always remember the joy and disbelief of the moment when I saw the perfect bronze lettering “Endurance”, with the five-point star, pristinely preserved on her stern.”

According to Bekker, the search box of the Endurance was located in an area of 100% sea ice cover where knowledge about the ice extent and skillful navigation are necessary in order to negotiate a successful search.

“This (experience) has been an incredible opportunity for us to learn more about satellite and radar products and to witness tactical navigation decisions by the AMSOL (African Marine Solutions) crew under the leadership of Captain Knowledge Bengu and our ice pilot, Captain Freddie Ligthelm.”

Another highlight was a brief visit to South Georgia Island to pay tribute to Shackleton at his final resting place.

“The expedition team held a brief memorial service after a magical walk along the beach through fur seals and king penguins,” said Bekker. “We placed photographs of the wreck at the grave stone. This special occasion – and the magnificent surroundings of South Georgia Island –  was a fitting end to our incredible journey.”

Matthee said he considers it an honour “to dip my toes into the water of history, where I could feel the presence of people who live for exploration and discovering new things”.

“Walking (and sailing) in the footsteps of one of the greatest explorers of the previous century has made me realise how necessary it is to always push the boundaries of what we thought we knew. I will definitely integrate this curiosity, not only into my professional career, but also into my personal life,” he said.

Steyn said the discovery and the voyage reminded him why he entered the field of engineering – to solve problems.

“Not everything always goes as planned, and that was the case on this voyage as well. However, when faced with problems, it was amazing to see people from different professions coming together with innovative ideas to find solutions. I learned so much from everyone on this voyage and will certainly carry this experience and the knowledge gained forward into my engineering career.”

​He admits that he also enjoys the celebrity status that has suddenly been bestowed on him.

“I think everyone on board the ship has gained a bit of fame by being a part of the expedition. Not only is your name spread throughout social media, but messages from old friends and acquaintances suddenly fill your inbox.”

Endurance is protected as a historic site and monument under the Antarctic Treaty, which means that whilst the wreck is being surveyed and filmed, it cannot be touched or disturbed in any way.

Picture: Ben Steyn, Prof Annie Bekker and James-John Matthee onboard the SA Agulhas II.

Video: SA Agulhas II cutting through ice in the Weddell Sea (Credit to Endrance22 and the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust).