How the SA Agulhas icebreaker helped to find Shackleton’s lost ship – Prof Annie Bekker

Written on 03/14/2022
Linda van Tilburg

The expedition was made possible by SA Agulhas II, which set off from Cape Town in early February, with the Endurance22 Expedition team on board.

The discovery of the wreck of the Endurance, the ship of the explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton that sank in the icy waters of the Weddell Sea in 1915, is a major milestone in the history of exploration. It was crushed by ice and sank to 10, 000 feet below sea level and lay there unseen but not forgotten. And if you haven’t seen the video of the ship that had been found, it is definitely worth a viewing. The expedition was made possible by a South African ice breaker, the SA Agulhas II, which set off from Cape Town in early February with the Endurance22 Expedition team on board. The SA Agulhas is managed by African Marine Solutions, (AMSOL) on behalf of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, (DFFE). Also on board is Professor Annie Bekker from Stellenbosch University. BizNews tracked her down on the day that the crew were on their way to the burial place of Shackleton at South Georgia, and she managed through written questions and voice notes to tell us about South Africa’s involvement in the expedition. – Linda van Tilburg

SA Agulhas II, 10 years in the making

I am professor at the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering at Stellenbosch University. My involvement in the Endurance 22 expedition is that I’m a researcher, and actually, for the past 10 years, myself and my group and collaborators at Aalto University in Finland have been studying the full-scale responses of the SA Agulhas II ship. So, this is how the ship is vibrating, how it bends, how it shakes and how its structure interacts with the environment. So, for us it is very interesting to join an expedition where the vessel is really used in potentially challenging ice conditions and of course, also traversing this the Southern Ocean and to really get an idea of the limit loads or the highest loads that the vessel might see in her lifetime. In other words, in parallel with the great search that was taking place, there was also a full science team. We looked at the vessel responses and other researchers were investigating things like the sea ice, the weather and also really assisting them, the ship with navigating through the local ice conditions. So, our team was not explicitly involved in finding or searching for the wreck.

How did South Africa become involved?

Since the SA Agulhas was contracted along with the crew from AMSOL for this charter, South Africa has been involved from the onset. In our science team, we are five South Africans. It is myself, and two other engineers from Stellenbosch University. They are James-John Matthee and Ben Steyn, and then also from the South African Weather Service, we have Carla Ramjukadh and Marc de Vos who were working with us. The other South Africans involved, include South African helicopter pilots from Ultimate HELI and then also people from White Desert who typically do tourism and logistics in Antarctica. So, they were also with us and supporting the expedition.

So, what was it like to be part of this historic moment? Well, about 10 years ago in March, this was when the SA Agulhas II, was just about to be completed with her build, and she was undergoing her first sea trials and ice trials in the Baltic Sea in Finland; it was the first time that I became involved with the vessel. I flew over to Finland to take some engineering measurements on the ship when she entered the ice for the first time and to be on board now 10 years later, 10 years of research later and to be here at this particular moment, also in the vessel’s history is quite indescribable. And I think for South Africa and for the ship, we couldn’t have asked for anything greater.

SA Agulhas
Photos: Legacy of South Africa, Annie Bekker, James-John Matthee

The wreck is an amazing survival story for the crew

So, with this footage that we’ve now been able to see the 4K images that were taken by the Saab Sabertooth AUV flying around the wreck site, first thing, of course, that strikes you, is the lettering of Endurance, the bronze lettering and the five-pointed star, which takes my breath away to realise that this is really the wreck. It’s not some other shipwreck, so it’s confirmed 100%. Before the wreck was found, [exploration director] [Exibition Director] Menson Bound described to us what the wreck hunt would entail. They were actually expecting that the wreck would be in quite a pristine state. And the other thing that is very striking is that there are no human artefacts really lying around. You could see a few plates, a boot and also perhaps a can that looks like lanolin, which they used to oil the deck, but not much of it. And what I think about when I see that is just the amazing survival story that we’re looking at, that everything that vessel had to offer was taken and used to try and help the 28 men on board to survive so that they would not share her fate. And quite amazing to think that she’s been lying there resting on the seafloor for the past 100 years.

It would be very important to say that the SA Agulhas is owned by the South African Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, and that the crew that mans the vessel are from AMSOL, African Marine Solutions, and that the captain of the ship is Knowledge Bengu, who has been instrumental in piloting the vessel and making a success of this search along with his crew.

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