Arran man first to see Shackleton’s long lost ship

Robbie at the controls of the AUV. Photograph: Esther Horvath/Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust.

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Robbie describes ‘special moment’ as Endurance came into view

By Hugh Boag

An Arran man has described how he made the historic discovery of Ernest Shackleton’s lost ship Endurance in the icy depths of the Antarctica sea.

Robbie McGunnigle was the first person to see the famous ship in more than 100 years and has described his ‘special moment’ as it came into view.

Robbie, 32, is an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) pilot on the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust expedition to find the ship which sank in 1915 in Antarctica.

After searching for 17 days, he and his team found the vessel four miles south of where it sank and Robbie had the good fortune to be on duty when the discovery was made

Speaking from the South African polar research ship SA Agulhas II, Robbie told the Banner of his historic find.

He said: ‘We had covered around 80 per cent of the search area before a good signature appeared on the side scan sonar. The first moment we saw Endurance was special and felt like a great reward for all our hard work.’

His underwater drones were moved to the stern to bring the golden lettering of the Endurance name into view.

Robbie said: ‘We were overwhelmed with the condition the wood was in and imagined this was how she looked on the day she sank. Seeing the name Endurance and the Polaris Star emblazoned  on the back of the sunken wreck was an exciting moment and one that is very special.’

Born and brought up on Arran, Robbie still lives on the island with partner Caroline Kelso and their year-old son Callum.

The AUV pilot and technician said: ‘I’ll be back on Arran around March 25 and can’t wait to spend some quality time with Caroline and Callum as well as get back on the golf course.’

After leaving school, Robbie studied electronic engineering at Glasgow Nautical College before starting work with the oil survey and renewable firm where he learned his trade.

He first joined the Endurance22 Expedition, as it is called, for pre-preparation work in Sweden and France before re-joining team in South Africa in January. It set out on the successful expedition at the beginning of February.

His mum and dad, Janice and Bert, live in Lamlash and his mum, a former Lamlash Primary School head mistress, says she is ‘very proud’ of his involvement.

The search for Anglo-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ship has been a long one, given the inhospitable terrain in which it sank.

Her resting place is 3,008 metres – 1.9 miles or 9,842 feet – deep in the Weddell Sea, a pocket in the Southern Ocean along the northern coast of Antarctica, south of the Falkland Islands.

The discovery was a collaboration between the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust and History Hit, the content platform co-founded by historian Dan Snow.

Mensun Bound, the mission’s director of exploration, said: ‘This is a milestone in polar history. This is by far the finest wooden shipwreck I have ever seen. It is upright, well proud of the seabed, intact and in a brilliant state of preservation.’

Shackleton had a long time obsession with the South Pole and set off on four expeditions toward the White Continent.

Endurance departed from the UK in 1914 and reached Antarctica’s McMurdo Sound the following year on a journey called the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

However, due to the extreme conditions, the ship got stuck amid thick, impenetrable ice in the Weddell Sea. The 28 men on board, including Shackleton himself, abandoned the Endurance and set up a rudimentary camp on board ice floes that were floating northward.

The team eventually made it to the uninhabited Elephant Island, then some – including Shackleton – volunteered to get in a lifeboat and head toward South Georgia Island, finally crossing it on foot to reach Stromness whaling station, which was then manned by the Norwegians, and organise a rescue of the men left behind on Elephant Island.

Although the expedition was a failure, the team’s survival and eventual rescue months later, without any loss of life, was seen as a triumph of their tenacity and the incredible leadership skills of Shackleton.

Following another expedition later in his life, Shackleton died on South Georgia Island in 1922, aged 47, and is buried there. The expedition team visited his grave.

After being abandoned, Endurance eventually sank into the Weddell Sea, where she has been ever since.

Her resting place is about four miles south of where Captain Frank Worsley, a New Zealander who helmed the ship, had believed it to be.

Director of exploration Bound said that Captain Worsley’s navigational records proved ‘invaluable’ in locating the ship.

As per the guidelines of the Antarctic Treaty – which was signed by 12 countries in 1959 and is the closest thing to a constitution for the southernmost continent – Endurance will not be moved or taken apart.

Instead, she will remain where she is and be studied, mapped and photographed there.




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