The sea is not known for giving up its secrets or dead, but with hard work and luck, exceptions do happen.
An expedition funded by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust recently uncovered such a secret, the location of the wreck of the Endurance, the ship of Ernest Shackleton, just over a century after it was sunk by the crushing grip of the Antarctic sea ice.
Shackleton led the Antarctic expedition in beginning in 1914 that saw the loss of the Endurance, crushed by the ice, followed by an 800-mile voyage across the open ocean in a 22-foot boat through hurricane-force wind and seas to seek help from the whalers at South Georgia Island, widely held as one of the most remarkable small-vessel voyages in recorded history.
Michael Patz, raised in Juneau, was part of the expedition hunting for the wreck of the famous vessel, aboard the S.A. Agulhas II, a South African icebreaker, working aboard as a helicopter mechanic.
The Empire spoke with him about his role in the expedition finding the famous vessel, located more than a mile beneath the ice and cold, dark water of the Weddell Sea.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How’d you get involved in the expedition? Have you done work like this before?
The Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust had contracted a South African helicopter company to provide air support for the expedition. Their heavy lift helicopter was no longer available, and they reached out to the company I work for (Rotak). My company asked if I was willing to go. I had not been involved in an expedition of this nature before. My interest was in the adventure, and the historical significance of the Endurance story.
What skill set do you bring to it? Are there collateral duties alongside your primary job?
My career has been field maintenance of helicopters. I have maintained aircraft in remote Alaska conditions as well as a prior trip to Antarctica (McMurdo). I was brought for my maintenance/troubleshooting ability and experience in cold weather and remote operations. The helicopter mechanic assumes multiple roles in civilian aviation. Generally, we will be the load masters, riggers, fuelers, flight attendants, and whatever other tasks come up. Since we didn’t end up flying much, things like coffee machine maintenance, and organizing live music events became collateral duties.
How long did it take to get prepared/do work-ups for the expedition?
We had about a month of notice. While management planned the logistics, me and three other mechanics disassembled and shrink wrapped the helicopter for shipping. It was flown to Johannesburg, South Africa and then trucked to Cape Town where we reassembled it and flew it onto the ship.
What can you tell me about the ship? How many people aboard, what’s it like being aboard an icebreaker?
There were about 100 people between the expedition team and the ship crew. The ice breaker is designed to do well in the ice. It is slow at sea. The living conditions were nice. I shared a room with my co-worker, another mechanic. The room had a small couch, a desk, four beds, and a full bathroom. The galley served three meals a day. There is a small canteen that sells snacks. There were two bars, unfortunately, they were closed for most of the trip due to management concern for safety and emphasis on the mission.
The icebreaking experience was rad. The ship shuddered and you could hear the cracking of the ice. Standing at the bow watching the ice coming, you think you should be steering away from the big chunks, and they just plow through them anyway. It is strange to walk off a ship onto the ice it is parked in.
Where/when did y’all get ready/set sail from?
The ship is based in Cape Town, South Africa. The expedition started loading on Feb 1. We left port on February 5th.
Why did the expedition pick this time of year to head out?
It is the end of the Austral summer. The sea ice is the thinnest and easiest to navigate that time of year. Much later and the ocean will start to freeze again.
Did the expedition have an approximate idea where the endurance went down?
Yes, the crew of Endurance had logged where the ship sank. The coordinates wouldn’t be exact, but it gave them a good place to start their search from.
What are some of the difficulties searching for it?
Ice. The search was constantly at the mercy of the ice flows. They could not maintain one position while they scanned the sea floor. They had to park the ship in the ice, and we would drift while they searched. The depth was about 10,000 feet. It was the deepest recorded use of their (autonomous underwater vehicle). It required very large spools of fiber optic cable to tether to the machines.
How does the searching work? What kind of tools did y’all use?
The primary tool was the Saab AUV. Basically, an unmanned sub that is programmed to fly a survey pattern of the seabed. Side scan sonar allows the survey team to look for anomalies on the floor that may be the wreck.
Now that it’s been located, what are the next steps?
They took lots of great footage and did some serious mapping. The goal is to bring the story of Shackleton to another generation of explorers.
Will you go on other expeditions?
I don’t have any planned. If something unique and cool came along I probably would.
What are some of the things about the expedition that surprised you?
How clear the water in the Weddell Sea was. It is the same clarity as distilled water. I was also surprised by the level of international interest. When I signed up, I didn’t realize it would be as big of a deal as it turned out to be. There were 12 different nationalities on the voyage. The condition of the ship and the level of clarity/detail that the footage produced blew my mind. After 100 plus years, it’s like standing next to the ship before they left on their voyage. The wildlife was a bit of a surprise. I knew we would see some, but it was non-stop penguins, seals, and whales.
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or email@example.com.