Ernest Shackleton: Britain's father of Antarctic exploration

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Ernest Shackleton was a renowned explorer, best-known for his three Antarctic expeditions. However, one of these voyages resulted in one of the most famous shipwrecks in history. The Endurance sank in 1915 after becoming trapped in an ice floe off the coast of Antarctica. All of the crew survived. Scientists have been searching for the shipwreck for decades but the Endurance remained elusive. Then, on 9th March 2022, it was announced the boat had finally been located. Despite spending 107 years in the icy waters, 3,000m below the surface, the Endurance was found largely intact with one expert calling it the "finest wooden shipwreck [he has] ever seen".

The son of Anglo-Irish farmer and Irish mother, Ernest Shackleton was urged by his father to follow him into medicine. Instead, he went to sea aged 16, on the ‘Hoghton Tower’, headed for a trip around Cape Horn.

A great success on the ocean, he had climbed to the rank of First Mate by 1896, and by age 24 was certified a Master.

In 1900, he was assigned to a troop-transporting ship serving the Boer War. On this ship, he met Cedric Longstaff, an army officer whose father was a benefactor of the National Antarctic Expedition.

Upon his return to England, he made contact with Longstaff’s father, and was assigned to the Expedition by 1901.

As part of Antarctic team led by Robert Scott on the Discovery, Shackleton managed to get within 400 miles of the South Pole.

A replica of the James Caird
A replica of the life boat the James Caird  that Shackleton sailed from Elephant Island in Antarctica to South Georgia Island after the loss of the Endurance | Shutterstock

Becoming a journalist upon his return to England, he also became secretary to the Scottish Geographical Society in 1904. In 1905, Shackleton made an unsuccessful bid for Parliament.

By now obsessed with reaching the South Pole, he set out in 1907 from New Zealand on the Nimrod. Arriving at McMurdo Sound in early 1908, and facing blizzards and poor weather Shackleton’s team reached within 97 miles of the Pole.

Shackleton was in fact beaten to his goal by Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, who reached the Pole in 1911.

With a new goal, the cross-navigation of the polar cap, he set off on the Endurance in 1914. Ill-fated, the ship sunk after striking ice, leaving Shackleton and his men fighting for their lives in a lifeboat.

They survived and returned to Britain in 1916, to an initially lukewarm reception.

Shackleton attempted one more trip south in 1921 aboard the Quest, but died of a heart attack in January 1922, right at the beginning of the expedition. Only decades later were his contributions to Polar exploration fully appreciated.