UK Seeks to Expand Protections for the Wreck of Shackleton's Endurance

The Endurance sank in 1915 after being crushed in the ice (Credit: © Royal Geographical Society-IBG)

Published Jul 9, 2024 9:10 PM by The Maritime Executive


A UK-commissioned management plan for the wreck of Sir Ernst Shackleton's famed ship Endurance proposes to set up a protection zone of more than a nautical mile around the site. The wreck has profound cultural value as a monument of the golden age of Antarctic exploration, and as a testament to the expedition's heroic story of survival. 

In partnership with Historic England, the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust began assembling a site management plan for Endurance soon after the wreck was discovered on the bottom of the Weddell Sea in March 2022. The final proposal was presented by the UK government at the 2024 edition of the Antarctic Treaty meeting, with support from four other nations. 

The plan envisions protecting the wreck for decades into the future. The Weddell Sea's heavy ice cover protected the site from discovery for a century, but the ice is expected to retreat due to warming in the years ahead. When that happens, the site could become accessible to cruise tourism, fishing activity or even treasure-hunting. 

Endurance is "beautifully preserved" in the frigid waters of the Weddell Sea, according to the trust, and presents a great opportunity for marine biologists and archaeologists. In order to defend against future threats to the historical site's integrity, the trust recommended expanding the protected area around the Endurance to a distance of 1,500 meters (1.2 nautical miles), ensuring that it encompasses all of the potential debris field from the ship. The area does not prohibit vessels from entering, but it does restrict the kind of activity that operators can engage in. 

The organization also recommended strengthening the rules for entering the area by designating it as an Antarctic Specially Protected Area - the highest level of protection available under the Antarctic Treaty. If the Antarctic Treaty's members approve the plan, Endurance's wreck would be the first marine heritage site ever considered for this designation. 

If approved, this designation would require prior authorization and a permit for any visits, and would forbid casual entry. The bar for a permit is high: the permitted activity must be intended for the preservation or study of the site and must be non-intrusive. The plan includes a special requirement for scientists to publish any data from the site so that natural changes to the wreck can be tracked and any deterioration monitored.  

As for tourism, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) has already asked its members to avoid the wreck site, both above and below the surface. The general public will have several opportunities to visit the site virtually, thanks to a new documentary from the expedition that found Endurance and a virtual tour of the wreck itself.