Exploration

Interactive: Researchers searching for wreck of Ernest Shackleton's final ship, the Quest

The Shackleton Quest Expedition searched the depths of the Labrador Sea to locate the wreck of Shackleton's last ship, the Quest, on which the famed Antarctic explorer died. Were they successful?

Words by Oceanographic Staff
Photographs by Jill Heinerth & Rosemary Thompson
Videos by Royal Canadian Geographical Society

The Shackleton Rowett Expedition of 1922 on board Quest is acknowledged to be the final chapter in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration (1880-1922) which saw polar titans Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen lead pioneering expeditions to the frozen continent in the name of science and discovery.

Quest was a low-powered, schooner-rigged steamship that sailed from 1917 until sinking in 1962. Here, it can be seen arriving in London:

 

Quest was originally built in Risør, Norway in 1917 as the wooden-hulled sealer Foca 1. She was renamed Quest by Lady Emily Shackleton. Shackleton died of a heart attack aboard Quest on January 5, 1922, while the ship was anchored off Grytviken, South Georgia. His death is often cited by historians as the dividing line between the ‘Heroic’ and ‘Mechanical’ ages of exploration.

Shackleton was enroute towards Antarctica on the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition. He had been forced to abandon earlier plans to use Quest on a Canadian Arctic expedition after the Canadian government of Arthur Meighen withdrew its support. A British philanthropist, John Quiller Rowett, stepped in to fund the Antarctic expedition.

The death of Shackleton on 5th January 1922 is often cited by historians as the dividing line between the ‘Heroic’ and ‘Mechanical’ ages of exploration. When Shackleton died, he was 47 years old and in the early stages of a journey to explore several islands and uncharted areas of the sub-Antarctic region.

After his death, Quest was acquired by a Norwegian company, and was involved in a series of important expeditions, including the 1930-31 British Arctic Air Route Expedition led by British explorer Gino Watkins, who himself tragically died aged 25 while exploring Greenland. Quest was also used in Arctic rescues and served in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War, before resuming work as a sealing ship. On 5th May 1962, Quest was damaged by ice and sank off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. All the Norwegian crew survived.

An old photograph shows the moment the Quest is sinking.

150 years after Ernest Shackleton’s death, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society set out to find the Quest, in collaboration with the British expedition and apparel company, Shackleton. The Shackleton Quest Expedition was born.

Expedition leader and CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, John Geiger, headed an international team of experts, including search director, the world-renowned shipwreck hunter David Mearns. Participants were drawn from Canada, the United Kingdom, Norway and the United States and included oceanographers, historians and divers.

“Finding Quest is one of the final chapters in the extraordinary story of Sir Ernest Shackleton,” said Geiger. “Shackleton was known for his courage and brilliance as a leader in crisis. The tragic irony is that his was the only death to take place on any of the ships under his direct command.”

Here, the research team is loading up the boat and the last briefings are given before heading offshore from St. John’s in Canada:

Prior to the expedition, historic logs and maps were researched thoroughly to determine the location of shipwreck. The historical data was then cross referenced with modern technology to determine where the ship may have been located based on currents, weather conditions and other factors.

Shackleton, the Anglo-Irish explorer, died aboard Quest in 1922 off the island of South Georgia in the South Atlantic, on his fourth journey to the Antarctic. Just seven years before, he had captured the attention of the world when he enabled the survival of all 27 members of his crew after their ship, the Endurance, was trapped and sunk by sea ice during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

The discovery of Quest represents the last major part of the jigsaw in assembling Shackleton’s physical legacy. His granddaughter, and expedition co-patron, Hon. Alexandra Shackleton, said it was her “dream” to find Quest. Joining Alexandra Shackleton as co-patron of the expedition was Traditional Chief Mi’sel Joe of the Miawpukek First Nation.

“Quest sank in the traditional waters of the Mi’kmaq, Innu and Inuit in 1962, while on a sealing expedition,” said Chief Joe. “I was happy to share local knowledge with the captain and crew of the search vessel to find Quest. Our team at Miawpukek Horizon Marine assisted in planning the expedition. Having our presence and involvement in this expedition means a great deal to our people.”

Watch a briefing from David Mearns, the expedition’s search director: 

On the way to the location where the researchers suspected to find the Quest, the research data was recapped for the team. It is estimated that the ship sank over a period of roughly 36 hours in relatively calm conditions.

Antoine Normandin, deputy search director of the Shackleton Quest Expedition, said: “We know that the position was accurately reported in other sources and came from the Nordbjørn which was one of the ships involved in the rescue because it was also the ship that had the captain on board.” Depending on these findings, the researchers were highly confident that the ship would still lie where they suspected it to, but were aware that many different scenarios could have played out back then, influencing the ship’s final resting place.

Day 2 of the expedition was all about preparing the search gear, a sidescan sonar and towfish combination.

However, the team quickly encountered some challenges along the way and were soon worried about the time frame of the expedition, as Normandin pointed out: “It’s becoming a bit of a race against time as we only have a few days to go out, do the tracks and the search patterns and come back to St. John’s.”

In an interview with Oceanographic, Geiger explained: “Oddly, the greatest challenges involved one of the simplest bits of equipment. The hydraulic winch failed. It was installed on the eve of our departure and allegedly had been tested but did not work at sea. This caused a delay of more than a day as we had to return to port for repairs. Very frustrating as we had build in redundancy for the sonar.”

Find out more about the encountered challenges: 

The team prepares to launch the side-scan sonar tow fish.

“The winch to lower the tow fish and the sonar has failed. We can’t fix it on board and have to head back to Saint Anthony and fix it there,” Normandin pointed out. The unexpected hold-up of the expedition resulted in an approximate expedition delay of 24 hours – a stressful scenario for the researchers.

 

“I’m uncertain about our chances of finding it. On the one hand, I feel really excited. We’re finally getting to the point where we’ll be deploying the tow fish and the sonar. We’ll hopefully know fairly quickly if the coordinates of the time of sinking were accurate,” said Geiger.

On day 4 of the expedition, the tow fish was launched into the sea, with only hours left for searching the area before having to abandon the search:

With only hours to spare, the team finally had a breakthrough. The discovery of the shipwreck took place five days into the expedition in the North West Atlantic. “It was a good two days sail from St. John’s. The find was made within the search box we had drawn up. That was based on a positional fix given by the captain of Quest after she was lost, however we reviewed current ice and weather information in building the search box. The ship was found at 390 metres depth,” commented Geiger on the exciting find.

“I can definitively confirm that we have found the wreck of the Quest. She is intact. Data from high resolution side scan sonar imagery corresponds exactly with the known dimensions and structural features of this special ship. It is also consistent with events at the time of the sinking,” said Mearns.

Geiger added: “It was an enormous sense of relief. After in total 2 days of delays, followed by 17 hours of smooth, utterly uninteresting seabed, I was starting to wonder if I had made a mistake. Then I remembered something Shackleton wrote in South: ‘Patience, patience, patience’.”

 

A sonar image of the wreck.
David Mearns, John Geiger, and Antoine Normandin (from left to right)

Martin Brooks, CEO of British expedition and apparel company Shackleton, added: “The finding of Quest is an important new chapter in the story of Ernest Shackleton and polar history; an iconic vessel, she marked the end of the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration. It is an honour to have supported this historic discovery.”

Ms. Shackleton pointed out that, “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. I have long hoped for this day and am grateful to those who made this incredible discovery.”

 

Photographs by Jill Heinerth & Rosemary Thompson
Videos by Royal Canadian Geographical Society

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