On March 5, 2022, a research expedition’s remote submersible spotted the wreck of HMS Endurance, sitting intact ten thousand feet below the surface of the Weddell Sea. The ship has rested there since November 21, 1915, when, after months of being trapped in pack ice, she crumpled from the pressure and sank. The history of the ship and the failed attempt of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent are well known, as all twenty-eight members of the expedition overcame improbable odds and survived to tell the tale.
But did they tell the whole story? A chilling discovery has upended the well-documented history of the Shackleton expedition. A week after finding the wreck of Endurance, the submersible’s cameras captured a shocking sight within the ship’s hull: the skeletal remains of a person. Caught in its rib cage was a small metal box, encrusted with barnacles and sponges. The bones could not be retrieved, but the box was removed and brought to the surface. Inside was a journal, as well as several fish hooks fashioned from shell, all preserved in eerily good condition by the cold. Below, translated from German, is the journal’s final entry.
November 21, 1915
One of the many stories my grandfather told me as a child was about two strange, menacing lands. In one, the sun never rose; in the other, it never set. Deviant souls were exiled to one or the other, depending on their sin. I grew up thinking hell was for later, or maybe not at all, but I find myself on a journey that has already taken me into the first world and will soon bring me into the second.
A year ago, the crew of HMS Endurance found me adrift. They rescued me at 44 degrees south latitude, five hundred miles south of Mar del Plata, where I had set out on my skiff for a morning of fishing. When Captain Worsley told me our position and the date, I was both unbelieving and unsurprised, as my time alone on the ocean was at once endless and strangely unmemorable.
Now we are at 69 degrees south latitude, in the Antarctic’s Weddell Sea, two thousand miles from my home. We are no longer on board Endurance. We abandoned her three weeks ago and set up camp about a mile away, on ice more solid than the floes that have been jostling and squeezing Endurance for months.
With Endurance’s fate uncertain, we unloaded much of the gear and provisions, as well as the ship’s boats. Although we left the ship, we remain bound to her, not ready to venture away on our own. Our dependency on her, however, is probably an illusory one. For months she has withstood the crushing sea ice, her frame bending but not breaking, but she can’t possibly endure much longer.
Since we abandoned the ship, Captain Worsley’s role has been solely one of navigator. Commander Shackleton is in charge. I fear he is not a realist like Worsley. Shackleton is utterly confident that we will survive, but his confidence belies the severity of our circumstances. Or perhaps, I tell myself, our situation is so dire that pragmatism is of no use, and hope is our better guide.
A gale last week caused a great wave of ice to pile up against Endurance’s starboard side, leaving her listing grievously to port. A breach in the bow allowed the forecastle to fill with ice and snow. It is dangerous to go below decks.
My existence is a secret. The crew have been sworn to silence, and they are forbidden from writing anything about me. When Endurance found me adrift, sunburned and near-starved, there was no question of turning north to take me home. That would have ruined the expedition, whose schedule is so dependent on the seasons. Instead, I would go ashore at the whaling station on South Georgia, the ship’s final landfall before proceeding to the Weddell Sea. By the time we got to South Georgia, however, Captain Worsley had come to rely on me, as he found his crew inadequate to handle the rigging in the gales that harassed the southern ocean. Commander Shackleton was reluctant to keep me on, but at Worsley’s insistence, he allowed me to stay, on the condition that my presence be kept secret. It is a British expedition, after all, and the inclusion of a German—with the two countries competing to conquer the Antarctic, and now at war, no less—would not contribute to the impression that Shackleton hopes to make on the world.
For my part, joining a doubtful mission across the frozen southern continent was preferable to the alternative of joining a ship in pursuit of whales, as I could little count on the whales to head in the direction of my home. I agreed to continue on the expedition, but with no intention of abiding by Shackleton’s edict against writing. I write in secret. After months alone at sea, on the edge of death, and then a year on this voyage, half invisible, my family ignorant of my fate, I simply cannot bear to disappear entirely.
If we lose Endurance, we will be stranded on ice hundreds of miles from land, with only the ship’s boats and our own feet. Yet Shackleton is certain of success, and he spends his days convincing his men they will return home. To them, he owes a chance to see their families. To himself, he owes a chance to get another ship and try again. To me, he owes nothing.
For ten months we’ve been trapped in the ice, much of the time in the darkness and brutal cold of the southern winter. For two months the sun failed to show itself above the horizon at all, imprisoning us in the bleak, frozen world described by my grandfather.
We drift at the mercy of the winds and seas, which have been driving the floes toward the continent, squeezing Endurance with a frozen fist. But the seasons are shifting, and we are hopeful. Shackleton insists on it. We hope for winds from the south to push the ice out into the open ocean and release the ship. The sun also gives us hope. The lengthening days bring higher temperatures and perhaps thawing ice. Yesterday, the sun stayed up for more than twenty-three hours. It skittered around the entire horizon, dipping below for only a matter of minutes. Today, it won’t set at all. Shackleton has been getting the crew excited about today, the first day without a sunset, saying it is an auspicious one.
When we abandoned the ship, Shackleton allowed each of us to take no more than two pounds of personal possessions. Yesterday, though, he determined that amount to be insufficient for our survival. In particular, he decided we needed the flute belonging to Blackborow, the steward, who often entertained us during the voyage. Shackleton isn’t wrong that music will lift our spirits, and that lifted spirits will bring greater hope, but I continue to wonder whether hope is the proper remedy for our desperate circumstances.
Yesterday, under Shackleton’s orders, I made my way to Endurance to retrieve the flute. I hunkered down on the ice on her lee side, in the slight protection she offered from the freezing gusts. Her condition had worsened—her bow was crushed and two masts had collapsed. I waited for a lull in the wind to go below, as the ship was shuddering under the force of the great slabs of ice being pushed against her hull. I waited for hours, drifting in and out of sleep. I was awake to see the sun dip below the horizon for the briefest of nights, knowing it was the last time it would do so, and that I would soon enter the nightless world described by my grandfather.
Today, the wind continues to whistle across the ice. Louder yet is the screeching of the massive ice blocks as they collide with each other and with the ship. Above, the ship’s rigging, in disarray, slaps and bangs against the few spars that still stand. From within the ship’s hull comes a haunting sound—the groaning of the frame timbers as they push back against the crushing weight of the ice. But I’ll go below and get the flute, as it’s an auspicious day—a day without a sunset.