"The Ship Beneath the Ice" | Reviewed by William Winkler
In August 1914 British explorer Ernest Shackleton and a crew of 27 set sail from London with the goal of landing upon, then crossing, the Antarctic continent. Shackleton’s ship was the Endurance, a 3-masted barquentine specially constructed to deal with polar ice. More than 11 months later Shackleton and his crew watched in dismay as Endurance, her hull crushed by the Antarctic ice pack, slipped bow forward into the inky, bitterly cold depths of the Weddell sea to a depth of nearly two miles.
Mensun Bound, a nautical archeologist, is a native of the Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic. His book, “The Ship Beneath the Ice,” is an account of his attempt to find and identify the remains of Endurance on the ocean bottom. The book also is a retelling of the ingenuity, determination, and seamanship that allowed Shackleton and every member of his crew to escape the Antarctic alive ten months after the loss of Endurance. This part of the story has been told before, but Bound had access to more of the diaries kept by Shackleton and the crew of Endurance, bringing a more human side to the history.
It took Bound and his team two attempts to find Endurance and capture multiple images of her at rest on the ocean floor. The first expedition, in 2019, was thwarted by unfavorable weather and by the loss of one of the unmanned submersibles designed to search for the ship. The second expedition, three years later, was successful in locating and photographing Endurance in her watery grave. This was in part a result of better weather and ice conditions, but also because the expedition used new, improved submersibles. These craft had the ability to reach sites up to one hundred miles from the ship from which they were launched and to return with photos, video, and survey data.
Bound tells his story as a journal. His frequent descriptions of the weather allow the reader to better appreciate the extremity of conditions at the bottom of the world. He has a naturalist’s eye, sharing with his audience the surprising abundance of wildlife that thrives in such harsh conditions. But first and foremost, he is a dedicated explorer whose utter dejection at the failure of the first expedition and his unbridled joy at the success of the second shines as brightly as sunshine on the Antarctic ice.
Some readers may find Bound’s use of nautical argot (“…The iron-strop work that held the pintles which hinged the whole device to the gudgeons on the stern post.”) a bit off-putting, but this should not be a deterrent. “The Ship Beneath the Ice,” considering the highly technical nature of its subject, is a surprisingly breezy and entertaining read.