Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Shipwreck Discovered Near Canada

The shipwreck of legendary 20th century explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton has been found off the coast of Canada.

Jun 17, 2024By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

the quest ship ernest shackleton


A ship known as ‘The Quest’, which once belonged to British-Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, was discovered in the Labrador Sea off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada last Sunday. The rescue operation was led by a team working for The Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS). Alexandria Shackleton, the explorer’s granddaughter, says this is “the last discovery in the Shackleton story.”


Ernest Shackleton

Shackleton in his army days. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica


Shackleton was a pioneering explorer during the early 20th century, whose travels in Antarctica earned him a knighthood. After working as the third officer on Captain Falcon Scott’s Discovery Expedition (1901-1904), he became leader of the Nimrod Expedition (1907-1909), during which time he and his team travelled closer than anyone in history to the South Pole. He went on to lead the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1917), followed by his last journey, the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition in 1921. His 1,280 ft long ship, which he called the Foca, was later renamed The Quest by Lady Shackleton.


Shackleton’s Last, Fateful Journey

Shackleton in cold weather gear. Source: Cool Antarctica


During his final voyage aboard The Quest, Shackleton had hoped to study the area around Baffin Bay, Canada. But unable to secure financial support for the mission, he hoped instead to map the coastal areas and islands of Antarctica, gathering specimens and looking for sites to install weather stations and other infrastructures. However, Shackleton was unable to complete his last journey, as he suffered a heart attack aboard the ship in 1922, when he was just 47 years old. His death was the only one ever to occur on any of the expeditions he led.


The Quest Continued On

The Quest in the Antarctic. Source: Cool Antarctica

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Following Shackleton’s death, his ship continued to be used for polar expeditions for a further 40 years. Among its many adventures were the rescuing of survivors from the Italia airship crash, and acting as a Royal Navy cargo ship and minesweeper during World War II. During a seal hunting trip in 1962, the ship was badly damaged by ice, and it sank to the bottom of the ocean following the rescue of the ship hands.


Finding the Ship

A sonar image showing The Quest found on the sea floor. Source: ATI


Due to fluctuations in sea currents, the precise location of the ship has remained elusive until recently, when a major operation was launched by the RGCS, led by John Geiger. The team made use of historic maps and modern charts, along with side scan sonar to find the ship, which was remarkably intact, lying on the ocean bed at a depth of 1,280 feet.


Only the main mast appears to be broken, hanging over the ship’s side. Associate search director Antoine Normandin says the ship will remain exactly where it is, since it is a protected wildlife area. “But we do hope to go back and photograph it with a remotely operated vehicle,” he told the BBC, “to really understand its state.”


A Historic Discovery

Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, trapped in the ice during the 1914/15 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Source: Practical Boat Owner/Alamy


The esteemed shipwreck hunter David Mearns spoke to the BBC about the rare discovery, noting its great important place in the history of polar exploration. He said, “[Shackleton’s] final voyage kind of ended that Heroic Age of Exploration, of polar exploration, certainly in the south. Afterwards, it was what you would call the scientific age. In the pantheon of polar ships, Quest is definitely an icon.”


Alexandra Shackleton also sees its discovery as a momentous moment for the preservation of her family legacy, and the significant closing of a personal chapter, telling New Atlas, “My grandfather, Sir Ernest Shackleton, had purchased Quest with the intention of leading a Canadian Arctic Expedition. It is perhaps fitting that the ship should have ended its storied service in Canadian waters.” She added, “I have long hoped for this day and I am grateful to those who made this incredible discovery.”

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.