Season 3 Episode 1 | Searching for Endurance
Alok Jha talks to award-winning history broadcaster and best-selling author Dan Snow about being part of the Endurance22 mission and what it was like to witness the extraordinary moment Ernest Shackleton’s lost ship was found at the bottom of the Weddell Sea.
Dan has made dozens of TV shows for the BBC, Discovery, and other broadcasters and hosts one of the world’s biggest history podcasts, with millions of listeners every month. He is the founder and Creative Director of History Hit TV, an on-demand history channel that’s been described by the Wall Street Journal as ‘Netflix for History.’ With vast numbers of paying subscribers, Dan has proved a pioneer of digital history broadcasting; according to the Times he is now "the Mark Zuckerberg of Spitfires, the Elon Musk of the King Tiger Tank.”
Dan has worked on every continent, from the Yukon gold fields and Maori hill forts to the warzones of Syria and the Congo. When not making history shows, Dan hauls his three children around historical sites, preferably by boat.
Listen now (a full transcript is available below):
Episode 1 Transcript Searching for Endurance: Dan Snow
Alok Jha (0.01): Let me take you on a journey to the coldest place on earth, and its last and greatest wilderness. On a voyage to Antarctica.
Hello and welcome to the third season of A Voyage to Antarctica, brought to you by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. I'm your host, Alok Jha. On the 5th of March, 2022, an astonishing discovery was made at the bottom of the Weddell Sea. Lying at the depth of almost 10,000 feet and in near perfect condition was the wreck of Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance. It had sunk more than 100 years before.
There to witness this extraordinary moment was award-winning history broadcaster and best-selling author, Dan Snow. Dan has made dozens of TV shows for the BBC, Discovery and other broadcasters and hosts one of the world's biggest history podcasts with millions of listeners every month.
He's the founder and creative director of History Hit TV, an on-demand history channel that's been described by the Wall Street Journal as the Netflix for History. With vast numbers of paying subscribers, Dan has proved a pioneer of digital history broadcasting. According to The Times, he's “the Mark Zuckerberg of Spitfires, the Elon Musk of the King Tiger tank”.
Dan has worked on every continent from the Yukon Gold Fields and Maori Hill forts to the war zones of Syria and the Congo. When he's not making history shows, Dan hauls his three children around historical sites, preferably by boat.
Alok Jha (01.58): So for those who maybe are a bit sketchy on the details, just tell us who Ernest Shackleton was and what happened to the Endurance.
Dan Snow (2.08): Ernest Shackleton was an explorer, an adventurer, a showman, a public speaker, a performer, and he wanted to be famous and he wanted to be rich, and he decided the best way to do that was to go and involve himself with high latitude exploration.So go to the Antarctic. It was then the last great unshaded part, undetailed part of the world map.
And there was great excitement at the turn of the century, the first decade or two of the 20th Century. And he wanted to – he was very sad. He almost became the first man to get to the South Pole. He failed by about 90 miles, almost died on that expedition.
Came back and then someone else got to South Pole: Amundson. So he announced that actually getting to the South Pole wasn't kind of a big deal. A big, big excitement was crossing Antarctica, via the South Pole, crossing it from coast to coast. That was in fact the great achievement. So he set out to do that in 1914.
War broke out in Europe. He offered to serve. He had a ship – Endurance – fitted out with an expedition on board. He offered their services to Winston Churchill, First Lord the Admiralty. Churchill said, “no thanks, keep going mate”. And so he headed down to Antarctica. He got to South Georgia, the last outpost of the British Empire of human settlement in Antarctica.
The Norwegian whalers there urged him not to go. It was a very bad ice year. The sea around Antarctica was full of ice, even though it was the summer. He ignored them. He headed into said ice, hit it almost immediately and weaved his way through it for some months, like this was December of 1914, the Antarctic summer,
And then sadly by the beginning of 1915, Autumn, if you like, of 1915, he became entombed in the ice, encased in ice, his ship the Endurance, trapped in ice within sight of the Antarctic mainland. So you could almost get off the ship and walk the Antarctic mainland, but they were trapped there in the ice. So that's late February, 1915. And then they were trapped there for the whole of the Antarctic winter. Complete blackness, minus 30, minus 40 huddled aboard this ship.
But the point about the ice is it moves. It moves about one knot, one mile an hour. So it's moving in this constant gyre, this great circular whirlpool-like formation in the Weddell Sea. The Weddell Sea is a bit of a cul-de-sac. The great Antarctic peninsula sticks up. You may have seen it on maps, that kind of big finger that sticks up towards Chile.
So there the Weddell, you get a kind of circular effect. So it's moving North, away from Antarctica all the time. And eventually though the ship was crushed.
They survived on it for months, and then it is slowly crushed. The hull was shattered and on the 27th of October, I think it was, 1915, they had to get off the ship because it was crunched by the ice and they had to camp on the ice next to it. The ship then sank about a month later.
They all watched it go like the Titanic: stern in the air! And it slid down through the ice and then he survived on the ice and he then kept the rowing boats. He then begins the most extraordinary self rescue mission of all time. Genuinely extraordinary.
As the ice started to break up as it moved into warmer water. By warmer I mean kind of plus one or two degrees centigrade, the ice started to break up. You had to get in the boats and they get out of them again because, you know, there's either too much ice or too much water. And eventually there was enough water they could sail through to the open sea.
They made it to Elephant Island, at the very limits of their endurance: broken, shattered men in these three boats. And then he put – Elephant Island’s this little tiny scrap of land. He then decided he had to, he would have to take one of the boats with the most elite sailors, 800 miles on the most dangerous open boat journey of all time across the South Atlantic, across the so-called roaring forties with its gigantic waves and storm systems and get to South Georgia. Where he'd be able to seek help. He did that somehow: an extraordinary journey, which they survived by the skin of their teeth. Several disastrous instances: hurricane force winds, various other things. They then got South Georgia, but on the wrong side, he had to then conduct the first ever crossing of South Georgia on foot with no specialist clothing or equipment, having just spent the previous months in a small rowing boat. With a man who'd never really done any Alpine work ever before.
Three of them were left under the upturned boat. They were unable to move, they were unable to walk. They're so broken. Two of them in particular. The three fittest ones, Shackleton, then two others hiked over South Georgia and at the very physical limit and extremity, up death and exposure, they arrived in the whaling stations of South Georgia on the other side of the Island.
Then started going back and rescuing various people on the way, Made it back to Britain. Everybody came back in one piece. Sadly, two of them then died in the first World War, extraordinarily. But he arrived back bringing every single man back with him. And as a result, it's been hailed as one of the great heroic adventures of all time.
And it's survived, I think Alok because, It's an adventure - it's an imperial adventure where the opposition were not colonised peoples: were not people who did not have weapons or organisation that allowed them to take on the British. It was an adventure in which the enemy was nature: was the most appalling condition that mankind's ever faced.
And so I think that's why that story endures to this day.
Alok Jha (07.15): Of all of the heroic, daring-do-type stories, you hear about Antarctica, and there are many of incredible hardship and journey and death and suffering. I mean, Shackleton's story and the Endurance is possibly the most crazy and ridiculous in some respects in almost Hollywood-style devastation.
I mean, my first thought of it when you started telling that story was he should have listened to the whalers. He should not have gone into the ice. But that's what heroes and people of that time, I suppose, do, don't they?
What got you interested in the story? I mean, this is a story, you know, century-old and told through the history books. What got you into it?
Dan Snow (07.56): Well, Alok you are first of all completely right. The key thing to think about Shackleton. This is why actually, I think he's a very relatable hero. He needed to be brilliant because he kept getting his men in scrapes, right? It was his fault they were there in the ice. And yes, the Norwegians told him not to go. They were in some ways unprepared for the mission they were set out to do.
Alok Jha (08.11): So he felt responsibility for getting them out again, I guess?
Dan Snow (8.15): Yes, he did. And he should have done, because he got them into that mess and because he's like a shark with his oxygen going over his gills. He'd left debts, he'd left unpaid debts behind: chaos, invoices. It was an absolute shambles of organisation. But he got down to Antarctica, got to South Georgia, and he couldn't turn around. He couldn't say: “you're absolutely right. Let's sail back to Buenos Aires and wait for the next season”. Because he had, you know, debt collectors basically chasing him. Almost literally, he couldn't pay his bills, so he had to go. So yes, it was amazing. But he needed to be amazing to get them out of the extraordinary scrapes that his kind of slap-dash chaotic organisation got them into.
And as a slap-dash chaotic person, I find that very inspiring. I can relate to it
Alok Jha (08.59): I see, so you relate to him and, and you fancy the fact that if you got yourself into some sort of similar scrape, you might be able to push through the ice. And in fact we'll talk about your expedition later.
Dan Snow (09.07) Well Alok you've also very cleverly identified the problem with my theory is that I, you know, I, I identify with his kind of slap dash, chaotic nature , whether I'm, like, as iron hard as him and can do it? Sadly, probably not. So I get all the disadvantages and none of the advantages.
I mean, for me, this is a story that I've known since childhood. I love boats. I love sailing. I come from a very nautical family. And it's one of the kind of, it's one of those touchstones, one of those stories that my grandma would've told me.
And the images, I think the images are very important. I think the lesson of history is if you want people to remember you make sure you get a good photographer. And kids know that. Kids know that, right? You look at Instagram, TikTok, you know it's not – if you don't post it, it hasn't happened. And so I think there are extraordinary adventures and moments in Antarctic history. As you say, this one was brilliantly chronicled. First of all by Shackleton, wrote a ripping yarn when he came back, but also it was brilliantly photographed – and moving pictures of it were extraordinarily. One of the first, I think, observational documentaries of all time really, by the photographer on board who then went on to have a very interesting career taking some of the most iconic pictures of the First World war.
So it has endured and it's been lucky in the people that have chosen to retell it.
Alok Jha (10.13): Yeah. And so you know you're interested. And then when did you get the opportunity to actually get onto an expedition to try and look for the Endurance? Because this is a shipwreck that's been looked for before and it's a dangerous part of the world to go and look for shipwrecks.So what happened? How did you get onto that expedition?
Dan Snow (10.30): It's a miserable part of the world to look for shipwrecks. It's incredibly inhospitable. The Weddell Sea, for reasons I mentioned. The Antarctic has millions of square miles of sea ice around it in the winter. That shrinks to a very small amount of ice, relatively in the Antarctic summer. But nearly all of that ice is found in the Weddell Sea, because of those centrifugal forces that I mentioned before. So you get backup, you get multi-year sea ice, thick, nasty, crusty sea ice three, four metres thick. And so it is a difficult place to look under the water. The surface is less than minus 1.8 degrees centigrade. So that's the point at which saltwater freezes, so the sea bottom's a degree, minus degree, or just hovering below zero. It's a very difficult place But I, you know, obviously it's one of the great shipwrecks, one of the great stories, and people have been desperate to find it.
I got a phone call. Incredibly privileged. I got a phone call standing on a station platform. I'll never forget it, and it's just someone goes “we're thinking of launching the expedition to go and find Endurance. They said actually,you know, do you want to see if the BBC or Discovery Channel wants to come and make a documentary about it?
And I said, hold on a second. Hold on. There's been some changes in the media landscape since you may have last checked in on it. And I talked to them. I sort of enthused massively about podcasts and YouTube and TikTok and all the things that I've been doing that enabled us to actually reach more people than the old-fashioned broadcast and also control the story in a way, to more education, school groups, et cetera. So it was a really exciting project.
Obviously for me, as a lover of history and wanted to go down to Antarctica all my life, and I wanted to take sea voyages across the southern ocean. I mean, that was, you know, in a nice, big, safe ship. That was - it was an extraordinary thing to do. That for me was a highlight as well. So it was a dream come true when that phone call.
Alok Jha (12:08) How long did it take you to decide to say yes on your station platform?
Dan Snow (12:11) Well I said yes immediately, obviously.
Alok Jha (12:12) Oh, you didn't let them finish the sentence?
Dan Snow (12:14): I played hardball. I already played hardball. It's like, well, I'm coming. You don't have to pay me, but I'm coming. So, I've never been a fantastic – maybe like Shackleton, who can say? – I've never been a great business person.
Alok Jha (12:24): Well, I mean, why do you think that looking for this ship, you know, given that we know a lot about the story of Shackleton in books and all of that is so important? Especially when you know, it was actually relatively successful in terms of – the people all came back. It's an incredible story, but why do you think that finding the ship was important in all of that?
Dan Snow (12:43): You know what, I've wrestled with this Alok. Particularly well, Russia invaded Ukraine while we were out there. There was so much suffering, sent gas price through the roof, the cost of living crisis that we're now in the middle of – it became very clear that was gonna afflict everybody. That was gonna be difficult decisions to be made and public services.
And then we are out there like basically blasting money on trying to find a hundred year – a hundred and something year old – shipwreck. And that's something that was very: I wrestle with that all the time. And the only thing I've been able to come up with is that it's like art. Art is pointless, totally pointless, and yet magnificent, you know? And I look at a Turner painting and I see something that doesn't put food in anyone's mouth. I see something, doesn't have a practical purpose: doesn't help me plough a field or cure a disease. And yet it's something that's so magical and it's what we do as humans. We have developed that ability to go beyond the day-to-day subsistence. And it's things like coming together in an international team of scientists and archeologists and seafarers to try and find a shipwreck and broadcast those pictures around the world and bring extraordinary happiness to people's eyes. I can't explain why, but they did. You know, the day we broadcast those extraordinary pictures from the seabed around the world.
I've been doing this for 20 years. I've never had a moment like that. People getting in touch – young people, school kids, teachers, people all over the world saying this has brought some light to the day. Put a smile on their face at the start of the day. And that meant, that's what it is.
On our ship. We had the first ever Zulu Black African ice pilot ever, he was in charge of the expedition: Captain Knowledge Bengu. We had a Russian onboard Russian scientist, we had Germans, we had people from the US, we had people from nearly every continent working together to show what humans can do when they work together, when they use science, when they push the frontiers of what's possible.
Do I think that was worthwhile? Yes, I do. And do I think that those images brought some light into people's lives at particularly a dark time? Yeah, I do. And I think it was worthwhile, and I think we should be allowed to celebrate things like this and celebrate the teams that put those projects together.
Alok Jha (14.41) I totally agree with you actually. And I think that, you know, I don't think anyone listening to this necessarily would think that an expedition like this shouldn't happen at all. I feel like your analogy with art is very apt. It's like high art or culture like opera for example. Again, it's kind of pointless, but it's beautiful and it shows you what humans can do at the extremes of their abilities.
And sometimes in my own work, often people ask me, what's the point of sending a probe into space or a particle physics experiment that costs 3 billion euros or something over 10 years to understand what particles are made of? Why? Why does that matter? And you think, well, it kind of does. Your life's not gonna get better with either of those things, but it shows you absolute ingenuity and physical and mental capabilities of humans, and that's kind of something special, I think, and pushes you forward in your own life. Even if all your life is just picking up the kids and doing very boring things, it makes it slightly better I think.
Dan Snow (15.34) Someone just wrote a note to us and oh, it was a Twitter conversation or something, and someone was like, “I can't believe you're doing this, when all the bad things going on in the world, how can you be doing this?” And someone just wrote back, simply “it's moments like this that allow us to kind of survive the bad things”. You know, our lives are difficult. They're a grind: the kids and putting food on the table and heating our houses.
Maybe it's that Turner painting, maybe it's that opera, listening to that opera, maybe it’s news from Mars. You know, the Mars Rover, I'm obsessed by. And maybe it's news from the seabed that just makes you go, oh, it's not too bad. You know, it's exciting.
Alok Jha (16.04) Yeah, I can't remember which famous scientist – it could have been Feynman, or maybe it was Einstein. The answer that they gave to a question like this, which is, you know, none of this stuff saves the world. It just makes the world worth saving. That's all.
Dan Snow (16.17) That's lovely. It's a lovely way of saying it. Thank you. I'm gonna steal that.
Alok Jha (16.35): Okay, let's take us down on your journey to Antarctica. So take me through how you got there. You said you sailed across the Southern ocean, which I personally, from experience, I know, is one of the worst journeys in the world. And so what was it like? How did you get to Antarctica?
Dan Snow (16.48): Well, that was the exciting thing.
We went in this massive Finnish-built South African icebreaking ship with AAF crew on board, and we went across the Southern Ocean dodging gigantic low pressure systems using the – two members of the South Weather Service that were on board embedded with us, steering us between these gigantic lows, deep depressions. which would've whipped up waves to 30 feet, 40 feet and caused damage on board the ship potentially.
So we jinked across the Southern Ocean in between these systems, but we did catch the edge of some of them, and the waves were gigantic. I mean I've sailed all my life and I've always wanted to see the southern Ocean. Having seen it actually iit blew my mind. I came away with absolutely no idea how Shackleton crossed that in an open boat, absolutely no idea. Like, I can't understand the physics, the mechanics by which that boat survived in those seas and the conditions that they had. So that was an extraordinary experience.
And we were on a gigantic steel icebreaker, you know, state of the art. So for me, that was a really special and an interesting part of the journey in its own right. Then you come to the ice, you see this jagged frontier of ice grey, low-lying ice on the horizon. And then you get into it and then the boat, the ship turns into a land mammal. It starts lifting up and crunching through the ice, starts icebreaking. It's like a skidoo. You are on solid material most of the time rather than being at sea. It's very weird. So all of that combined to make it a fascinating expedition.
And then of course there's the various celestial phenomena down there. We saw a lot. Remarkable sort of sunsets and halos and sun – well, my grandpa used to call them sun dogs. Parhelians, you know, where you, where you can seem to see more than one sun in the sky at one time, cos of all the ice crystals in the sky.
And wonderful wildlife there. The ship would always: we'd ice break and then we'd leave the engines very slowly ticking over to create an open pool of water to put energy through the water, stop it freezing up behind us and we'd drop the drone through that hole in the ice. And that meant it was a vital place where whales would come up and breathe and mammals, sea mammals come up and breathe. So we'd end up with lots of penguins and whales. Lots of whales would use that hole. And, and, obviously, seals: one or two leopard seals – incredibly powerful animals. And then lots of other seals well, so, you know, always something to look at.
Alok Jha (18.58) Tell me how the search for the Endurance actually worked. What kinds of information did you have about the last coordinates of the ship and how did that guide you? What kind of technology did you use to try and find the location?
Dan Snow (19.10) Well, it turns out that the hero of the piece is a man who was technically the captain of Endurance. He was sort of Shackleton’s sidekick. Call Frank Worsely. He was a New Zealander who was an incredibly tough fellow, sort of ragged upbringing in New Zealand and sailed the world's oceans – volunteered for the expedition. We knew he was a remarkable navigator because he used a sextant almanack with positions of various planets and sun at various times of year, various times of the day.
And he had that inside his clothes, trying to keep it dry, and he used the sextant and then the tables to work out where he was on the face of planet Earth. You know, GPS, but do it yourself GPS. And he wrote down where he thought Endurance had sunk. He then kept a note of the conditions at the time and, and by judging – because of course it's not sunny, it is very cloudy, often in Antarctica. So you're having to do that by dead reckoning, by guessing how far and fast you are drifting on the ice. And in between your ability to take sightings from the sun or some celestial object. He then successfully navigated them to Elephant Island and then to South Georgia.
Had he missed any of those, they would've died immediately.Had he missed South Georgia, they'd have sailed off into South Atlantic with nothing before Africa, thousands of miles away, and they would've died long before. So he's an astonishing navigator, but we didn't know how astonishing until we found the shipwreck about four miles away from the place where he thought it might be.
So we searched a search area of 15 miles by – a sort of box, and we didn't find it for two weeks. We'd searched most of the area before stumbling across the place where Endurance lay.
Alok Jha (20.43) So just in terms of the riskiness of this operation, we've heard the story of Shackleton. You've told us how awful that was and how the weather, the conditions they faced and the danger and so on.Were you worried at any point during the expedition or even before about weather conditions? The fact is that in Antarctica you might have a plan to do something, but it's completely dependent on whether there's a blizzard that day or whether the ice has moved around or not. I mean, what kind of control did you have of the day-to-day operations?
Dan Snow (21.10) Yes, I think it's very important to say that we were exceptionally lucky. Part of the reality of climate change, of course, is there's less sea ice in the Weddell sea. There's some warmer winters. As you know, the poles seem to be experiencing more dramatic temperature adjustment than actually even the rest of the world. So sea ice there has been diminishing for the last few years in the Weddell. So that was lucky.
We were able to get to the search box in the big icebreaker and launch the vehicle, the underwater drone off the back of the ship. There was a plan that – we had helicopters on board, and we would go and make a camp on the sea ice and allow the drift of the sea ice. We'd bore a hole through the ice, build a rig. Lower the drones through the sea ice and hope the sea ice then drifted over convenient parts through the search area. In retrospect, that was a mad plan. It would've, you know, given how up against it we were, even when we could move the ship to where exactly where we wanted it. The idea that we just relied on the ice flows to kind of hopefully go in the right direction. That would've been desperate. I think.
Luckily the ice was thin enough that we could break our way in the ship's capable of breaking ice, up to maybe two metres, about a metre, metre and a half ice, no problem.
So we were able to break our way. So when the archeologists would be like, right, let's look at the western edge of the search box, we were able to just go there, relocate, and then put the drone down in the water. There were huge icebergs, you know, bits that had carved off the continental shelf of the great continental sort of ice mass. Those are big, thick, huge, you'd think called them icebergs. Now you have to move out the way of those pretty rapidly when they, when they get pushed past. So there were all sorts of dangerous things like that. If the temperature drops dramatically. Obviously the days were shortening. We were there in the Antarctic autumn.
We would risk getting frozen in. We were frozen in for 24 hours. We had to. You know, rev, the engines, we had to do all the tricks. We had to move the ballast around, try and crack the seal of ice around the hull. In the end, we managed to do that. So threatening us all the time was this – we may have to at any stage, we had to bolt, we had to leave. The cold air coming in, we'd have to go, and that's what was terrifying.
My horror was that having discovered it, we would have to leave before we were able to go and properly photograph it, so we'd come back with a kind of weird echo sounding going “we found Endurance!” but without any images of it because, you know, that was a, you know, two or three day process.That was my horror, but thankfully that didn't happen.
Alok Jha (23.20) Were there points where you thought you had, you know, you had flashbacks of what Shackleton might have been going through? I mean, were there points where, you know, it just, it was just going terribly?
Dan Snow (23.28): Yes. Yes it is. I mean, the equipment failure was a big problem. We were stressing things to the limit, the, the drones, the sub: drones were Sabertooth Dones were operating at the very limit, past their envelope really, they were not designed to go that deep in, in that coldness of water or be serviced and recharged in minus 20 up on the deck: icicles formed the second that they lifted outta the water, and so that was a struggle.
The winches, the fibre optic cable: they're not designed to be tethered to a fibre optic cable. Constantly, you know, kilometres of fibre optic cable that would break in parts. We have to chop new lengths of it and then re-spool it. The winches that were responsible for kind of winching that fibre optic cable in and out the water, they would break in the low air temperature. So it was tough. And then we did get frozen in briefly, and you are just stuck in the ice until it chooses to release you. So it – there were, look, I would never suggest that I have got a sense of what Shackleton endured, because actually my periods of time spent on the ice were – outside, I'd lose the use of my fingers within minutes, and I had modern clothing. I don't understand how they survived. I literally don't understand how they survived. But you get a little sense, a little hint of the conditions they faced.
Alok Jha (24.40): Yeah. So you, of course, we know the end of this story, which is that your expedition did find the Endurance, you did photograph it, and the photographs went around the world.
But take me back to that moment on the ship when you first saw the pictures, just what was that day like? What happened, what was going on in your brain, in your heart when you saw those pictures?
Dan Snow (24.58) There was enormous relief I think weirdly, initially, the expedition hadn't been a disaster – a washout. Being an idiot, I'd sort of drummed up rather a lot of enthusiasm on various podcasts and news broadcasts and things around the world. I suddenly –
Alok Jha (25.10): So you had to deliver?
Dan Snow (25.12) Well, I suddenly could have, and I didn't think – I'm an idiot. So I'd sort of suddenly thought, hang on a minute. When we get back to Cape Town, everyone's gonna say, Hey, what happened? And I'm gonna be – I'm gonna be the guy going, um, nothing. So that was kind of personally, there was a sense of relief. But actually the biggest sense of relief was the crew had worked really hard.
The nature of embedding as you know, as an outsider, when you embed with a team be on a battlefield or an emergency service, you end up forming very close bonds with them, and I realised these people – working around the clock, 24 hour shifts in sub-zero conditions, I felt enormously proud and happy for them that they had done this thing that they'd set out to do.
So I think it was kind of relief and happiness for the team members. Then there – that was the first grainy images, shot on a, on a nose-mounted camera. We then lifted the drone up immediately to recharge it. This was when I was terrified because we identified it on the sonar. We got a very grainy image of a wooden bulkhead. So clearly a wooden planking and some rivets, and we knew it was that. However, we then immediately – up, recharged the battery, changed the payload, put a side scan, multi-beam sonar on it and a 4K camera, and that's when we are gonna get the good stuff. So there was this terrifying sort of eight hours while the Swedish engineers are like, “oh, the drone's broken”. And you're like, well, what do you mean it's broken? Oh no. And then, and then of course they fix it ‘cause they're just legends. And then, but you recharge. And then the sort of endless boat sort of “sorry, hang on a sec. The engine's not working” and then the ice were in the wrong place for the dive.
Then finally you get back, I mean, like, that was the longest sort of 12 hours of my life. Then by about sort of three, four in the morning we were diving on it and the drone was in remote operated mode rather than autonomous mode. And we were able to go right up close to the wreck and look at it and move around, fly over it, fly over it and and around it. And that's when I saw things like the bow, I saw the stern I saw, but you know, you're kind of –
Alok Jha (26.55): You were getting live pictures, were you at this time?
Dan Snow (26.59): We're getting live pictures because it is tethered with this fibre optic cable, Yeah, so you're getting pretty much live pictures and there were gaps of astonishment tears. In the very small control booth where we're all standing there at four in the morning. It was a very, very, very special moment. One of the great moments of my life really and career. I'll never experience probably anything like that again. But, and at that stage we felt like – felt like we five in that little cabin we were in on a secret that the rest of the world were about to find out – millions of people were gonna interact with what was happening there. But we were there at the beginning and that's something I suppose lots of people – and scientists and artists and actors and politicians probably are quite familiar with. But I wasn't that familiar with it. And it was really exciting. It was a very intoxicating moment. We few, we happy few. We were in there and, and we realised we were part of something really special and within two days they were gonna be broadcast all over the world.
But for the meantime, it was just our little secret.
Camilla Nichol (27.47) Hello, I'm Camilla Nichol, Chief Executive of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. We work to preserve and protect Antarctica's unique heritage: from the historic huts of early pioneers to the amazing discoveries in climate science. Our mission is to inspire current and future generations to discover, value and protect this precious wilderness.
Every year, our specialist conservation teams head south to Antarctica to conserve and protect our historic huts. With your generosity, we can preserve these amazing sites and bring to life the many fascinating stories they have to tell. Find out how you can help save Antarctica, protect our planet, and even adopt a penguin at ukaht.org or search for the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust.
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Alok Jha (29.10): For the people who don't know, who've not seen the pictures, I mean, obviously the pictures went around the world, but there might be some who haven't seen them. Would you just describe some of the images and – one thing that struck me when I saw them – was just how well-preserved the Endurance was, I mean, this is a shipwreck that's been underwater for best parts of a century, and you could see the name on the back of the bow and everything. Just describe the pictures for us.
Dan Snow (29.35): Yeah, so the, the ones that are particularly engaging are the, the brass lettering on the stern ‘Endurance’. And it just – bright as day, the camera's able to capture that sitting proud of the seabed. The seabed’s very flat, so nothing to get in the way. Then you see basically a ship. I mean, it's a coherent shipwreck. It has integrity. The hull is pretty much as you'd expect a hull to look with wooden planking on the side, the glint of its rivets.
There are a few sea creatures: crustaceans and things – which caused great excitement to marine biologists – on the wreck. But on the whole, it's clean of maritime detritus that you'd expect, concretion. The water's very, very cold. So it is ideal conditions for preservation. If you think about the great Swedish shipwrecks, like the Vasa in The Baltic is the other place we tend to find these wooden ships preserved for centuries. So that's a similar sort of thing really.
And you have personal effects. You have items of clothing, the ship's bell, the ship's steering wheel, navigational instruments, lying, strewn around the decks. The mask came down before it sank as the ship was crushed. It put pressure on the rigging and the rope would've snapped and the mast came crashing down.
But the mast elements of those mast and rigging are still attached to the ship. Maybe that they acted like a parachute when it was sinking, and it may be that they helped to stop it smash into pieces when it hit the seabed, for example, it may have sort of glided down slightly slower.
And then you come round the bows and the sharp pointy bit, the front of the boat, the front of the ship. And again, it's a classic bow section of a wooden ship. Lovely angles and curves – right at the tip of the bow where it would've knocked aside waves and sea ice. And so it is a, well, it's a wonderful sight and we've released a few images. Disney and National Geographic own all the rest of them at the moment, and there'll be a documentary coming out soon. But there is also gonna be a – well we have the option of creating a perfect 3D rendering of it so people can conceivably put a headset on and walk around it.
Alok Jha (31:26): That's amazing. And of course, at the time, back in March when the rest of the world saw these pictures that you're describing – and I encourage everyone to go and just have a look at these pictures because they will shock you as to how well preserved the ship is. It's almost like it's been sitting there waiting to be found. I know it's easier said than done, but anyway, it's an incredible set of pictures.
And at the time you, you did a lot of social media – Twitter threads and all sorts of videos and everything – to try and get people into the story. Mainstream media of course covered it as well. What impact do you think that had on people's interest and ability to sort of engage with what was going on and and your own interests as a historian as well, to sort of get people interested in this thing?
Dan Snow (32.06) I find all that stuff a great blessing for me, the excitement of this expedition was the fact that we would be really ambitious in our kind of social media and our sort of outreach strategy.
And in the same way that Shackelton took Frank Hurley, the Australian photographer, on that expedition in order to drum up interest, you know, it was nakedly commercial. And you know, it was designed to tell people around the world what he'd done in the same way that previous explorers had taken great artists or literary folk with them.
And so, We wanted to make as much noise as possible about this. We wanted to talk about the science, the engineering, the climate change aspects, and then the wreck – the history and the marine archeology. And so it was amazing. We were doing TikToks - I don’t know if anyone’s ever done a TikTok live from Antarctica before, but we did one live. We did endless Instagramming and Facebooking, and all the rest of it. And produced YouTube, and as you say, podcasts. We did every single thing that you can do on the social medias, basically, talking about our experiences, talking about the ice scientists. By the way, the whole ship had a large scientific component on board who were studying the ice as we were looking for the ship.
And so we wanted to talk about the contemporary expedition, the real time expedition, but also tell everyone about Antarctic exploration, about Shackleton, about all that kind of stuff. And the great thing about like you and me talking now, the great thing about that, in the old days you had one shot. You were doing a documentary for the BBC or CNN, and you would have an hour and you had to put everything you want to put in that hour and everything else just like it never happened. You just chop it away and it will exist only in the minds of those present. Now we wanted to do stuff about the science and about the engineering and about the marine biology. So we did it all and we blasted out on all the different platforms and had hundreds of millions of interactions. And that in a way was, that was the dream as well, really.
Alok Jha (33.51): What kinds of reactions did you get from members of the public who, who maybe didn't know much about the story, but were amazed by the pictures? Did you have any particularly notable interactions or any thoughts about it?
Dan Snow (34.02) If you're asking whether Elon Musk retweeted us, then the answer is yes. The answer is yes, I'm afraid. Yeah, no, just old-fashioned media. So print media, news media from around the world, which maybe you'd expect. We were able to, you know, trended number one globally on Twitter or you know, there was a mission accomplished. We tried to get the world talking about Shackleton and marine archeology and expeditions to the Antarctic and, and I think we succeeded.
Alok Jha (34.27) Yeah, I think a successful shipwreck discovery will always do that. And I think this is one of the big ones, wasn't it? After the Titanic, this is probably one of the most important shipwrecks of all time, right? And so it's interesting that it gets people's interest as well.
Dan Snow (34.41) I think it was one of the top shipwrecks that one would wish to find. I think this is very much up there. And the fact that it was the most inaccessible because it's beneath a shield of sea ice, made the challenge all the greater.
Alok Jha (34.53): Now let's talk about the future of the wreck and what happens to it now. I mean, the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust has been commissioned to try and devise some sort of conservation management plan for the Endurance, so that it's protected, you know, towards the future. What are the risks to the ship now that it has been found? What can one do to make sure that it's preserved for future generations?
Dan Snow (35.15): Well, the ship is in one of the best places that could be in the world in terms of preservation. It's in sub zero water buried deep down, where it won't be disturbed by drag nets, fishing nets, or anchoring or recreational activity. It is obviously very, very slowly decomposing and it won't be there in a thousand years time, but at the moment it's protected by treaty and it's, and obviously we – agreement – and we went down there, not to touch anything, remove anything quite rightly. And so I think it'll stay on the seabed, the latitude and longitude have been logged with the authorities. If some billionaire wished to go down and look at it in his mini sub, I suppose he or she is able to do that. But it has several layers of protection now on it, quite rightly, and I think – I was actually doing a podcast the other day with the people who brought up the Vasa, which is probably the greatest shipwreck ever recovered from the seabed, just outside Stockholm actually just, it sank within a few metres of its harbour in Stockholm on its maiden voyage. And they say if they knew the expense and the difficulty now that they have had to go to, to preserve it, they wouldn't have raised here in the 1970s, which I thought was a very extraordinary thing to say given how popular and remarkable it is. So there's no suggestion that we could raise, nor should we, I think raise Endurance.
Alok Jha (36.24): And I guess, as you say, there'll be more science conducted in terms of trying to understand what's down there and how it sank and all of those things as well. And you said that it's gonna be a 3D model one day. Is that happening? Is that something that people can strap on their VR goggles one day and see?
Dan Snow (36.37) We have the capability, we have the technology, we have the raw materials, do that. Whether it gets paid for in launch, I don't know yet, but I hope it does because we have a millimetre perfect 3D scan of that ship on the seabed.
Alok Jha (36.47) In terms of historical encounters for you where does this sit? You kind of alluded to how important it is for you, the expedition, and I suppose, because you went to find it with your colleagues on that ship, just give us a sense of how important this is in terms of the historical encounters for you.
Dan Snow (37.03) Well, for me, I think, when I was a kid, when I was a kid, I dreamt about going on an expedition. Just that word: ‘expedition’. I dreamt about going on an expedition with scientists and sailors and people of different skill sets and people bringing different, you know, weather meteorologists and engineers. And I dreamt about going on an adventure with them and discovering something. And then I had to pinch myself because there I was, age 43 doing exactly that. And I kept thinking to myself, I think the seven year old Dan would've gone: “all right. old man, you turned out okay”. And I think that is basically how I felt.
I love history. I find it very easy to engage with historical stories and characters. I know that other people find it less easy and for them to do it, they like to have some perhaps physical remnant, something tangible, a great image of the past. And so to be able to be part of providing that to the rest of the world, to be able to sort of help fill in a little gap that existed and fire people's imaginations was just the most enormous privilege.
Was it the best thing I've ever done? I don't know. I mean, I'm very lucky, I've met the most extraordinary people. I've met veterans of World War I and World War II; I've met women who survived unimaginable horrors in the Congolese Civil War and are now activists and oral historians, archivists who'd collect the stories of other women who people affected by war crimes. I've met people that knew Anne Frank in hiding in Holland. So sometimes those interactions are, you know, impossible to beat. But this was up there. This was one of those moments. And lots of people have said, “well, that's the highlight, your career mate”. And I'm like, well, I, maybe it is? I kind of, I hope not. I, I'll be proud if it is, but I hope there's something left in the years that are left to me to match those levels of excitement.
Alok Jha (38.48) What did this expedition teach you about Antarctica? That kind of very far away, still very inaccessible continent.
Dan Snow (38.57) It taught me how incredibly special it is to have a big continent purely given over to science and a bit of high-end tourism, but effectively given over to conservation and science, and actually we are an appalling species who trash this planet and destroyed much of the ecosystems that we've come across. And I think Antarctica is, obviously, was hostile, inhospitable, logistically difficult to start mining coal and all those things. So I don't think it was pretty altruistic. But for whatever reason, we have managed to basically designate this big chunk of the earth as a place of research, of study, of low-impact tourism. And I think that is really a huge achievement and very special.
And the life in Antarctica is profound and diverse and beautiful, and the sea is full. We saw huge numbers of whales, seals, vast penguins, beautiful seabirds. They're discovering new things all the time. They've discovered a gigantic fishery of krill down there very, very recently indeed, and of course then – you know where this is going. It also taught me that there are changes afoot: there are changes, man made changes that are going on. Heating, climate breakdown, and that's affecting Antarctica, arguably more than other parts of the world. So that's what that taught me. We are incredibly lucky to have that place.
Well, what else it taught me is my goodness, humans exist in that Goldilocks zone. Human life there is impossible. It's impossible to sustain. We can't live there. You know, you and me wandering around naked in that landscape would be dead within seconds. So that makes me think about our universe and our Galaxy, if there are places that inhospitable on this planet alone, how hard is it to sustain life? You know what a miracle that was, that the conditions, the precise distance from the sun, the exact atmospheric makeup that allowed – the kind of temperate window that life jumped through – on this planet. And that it's not – other planets like Mars you need to go to, to find places that's impossible to sustain life. It's right here on our own planet. You know, there's plenty of places, but the Antarctic looming large where life can't survive. Sorry, some life can survive, of course, but not our intelligent ape life. And that I found sort of astonishing to think about. And I think that it just gave, again, just gave me a wonderful sense of the wilderness and the size and the scale of this planet, and we need to do what we can to protect it, folks.
Alok Jha (41.21): Just two more questions to finish. If you could take just one object to Antarctica with you. Say you're going again on another, another expedition. If you could take one object, what would the object be?
Dan Snow (41.31) Well a good book. Gotta take a book. Lots of sitting around. I was lucky. I really made a decision – I thought it's a great opportunity. I'm not, I don’t have to look after my kids. I'm not at home. I don’t have to do the DIY, whatever it might be. So I took loads of books. I tried to read as much as I've read, I think since the invention of the internet. And I read loads and loads of classic paperbacks I've never read, and I had a really wonderful, very special time doing that. So I would take a book, I'd take a big old book and because you can spend a lot of time in your tent or in your cabin just cuddled up, waiting for the light to rise or waiting for the bad weather to pass. And so, yeah, I’d take a book.
Alok Jha (42.04) And it would be a book, not a Kindle or an e-book or something?
Dan Snow (42.08) It was nice to have pages. It was nice to, you know, it was nice to be able to feel the texture.
Alok Jha (42.13) Definitely. And just the final question, which we're asking all our guests: why does Antarctica matter to you?
Dan Snow (42.20) It matters to me, because it's not like anywhere else on earth. The flora, the fauna, the landscape, the sea, it’s not like anywhere I’ve been. And in a world where many things are becoming homogenised, because of concrete, because of communications, because of deforestation, because of land moving, drainage. In a world where we are creating identical landscapes, Antarctica will always be out there, its own unique self.
Alok Jha (42.49): Dan Snow, thank you very much for your time.
Dan Snow (42.53) Well, thank you.
Alok Jha (43.00) Thank you very much for listening. A Voyage to Antarctica is brought to you by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, and made possible by support from Hurtigruten Expeditions. To find out more about our guests and how you can support the trust, please head to our website, www.ukaht.org, or to our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages.
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Next time I'll be talking to Mya-Rose Craig, aka Bird Girl, a 20 year old British Bangladeshi birder, race activist and environmentalist campaigning for equal access to nature, to stop climate change and biodiversity loss, and to ensure global climate justice, all of which she believes a closely interlinked.
This podcast is part of the Trust’s Antarctica In Sight Programme, supported by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and charitable gifts and donations.
A Voyage to Antarctica was presented by me, Alok Jha. Music is by Alec Hewes, and editing by James Stickland. The show is produced by Jessica Norman.
See you next time.