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Famous Explorer Ernest Shackleton's Boat Discovered Off Canadian Coast

Famous explorer's Ernest Shackleton's long-lost vessel, the Quest, has been found off the coast of Newfoundland & Labrador.

Shackleton, an Irish-born merchant naval officer and expedition leader, is most famous for four Antarctic expeditions to the South Pole that involved staggering tales of survivalism.

Shackleton and his crew's survival aboard the Endurance during the winter of 1914 is widely regarded as one of the most harrowing tales of survival ever told. After the Endurance was sunk during by sea ice during the harsh winter, Shackleton and members of his crew traveled over 346 miles (557 km) over 497 days to find salvation through some of the harshest conditions on Earth.

Despite surviving one of humanity's most grueling events, Shackleton went on to participate in several other adventures around the globe, including the Shackleton-Rowalt Expedition of 1921-1922 aboard the Quest, a schooner-rigged steamship modified for polar expedition travel. Shackleton died aboard the Quest after suffering a heart attack on January 5th, 1922 while the boat was in harbour in South Georgia -- a small island in the South Atlantic Ocean -- while on holdover for yet another Antarctic expedition. He was only 47.

Despite Shackleton's connection to the Quest and its maritime history, the vessel remained in service for several decades after his death. It served as a commercial seal hunting vessel, known as a "sealer," and was the primary vessel for the British Arctic Air Route Expedition of 1930-1931. During World War II, the wooden-hulled ship was converted once again for service as a minesweeper and light cargo vessel for the British navy. It then returned to her owners' sealing trade in 1946. On May 5th,1962, while on another seal-hunting expedition, Quest was pierced by sea ice and sank off the north coast of Labrador. No one was injured.

Now the Quest has been uncovered once again, leaving maritime historians to fill in the last remaining gaps surrounding Shackleton's exploits and timelines.

"His final voyage kind of ended that Heroic Age of Exploration, of polar exploration, certainly in the south," said shipwreck hunter David Mearns, who directed the search operation, to BBC News.

"Afterwards, it was what you would call the scientific age. In the pantheon of polar ships, Quest is definitely an icon," he told BBC News.

Quest was located on June 9th at the bottom of the Labrador Sea, less than half a kilometre (0.3 miles) off Labrador's north coast and about 2.5 kilometres (1.5 miles) from her last reported position.

The search was carried out by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society aboard the search vessel LeeWay Odyssey, with expedition leader John Geiger, shipwreck hunter David Mearns, and lead research geographer Antoine Normandin leading the team. The explorer's granddaughter, Hon. Alexandra Shackleton, was co-patron of the expedition along with Chief Mi'sel Joe of Miawpukek First Nation.

“Finding Quest is one of the final chapters in the extraordinary story of Sir Ernest Shackleton,” said Geiger, CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, to Canadian Geographic.

“Shackleton was known for his courage and brilliance as a leader in times of crisis. The tragic irony is that his was the only death to take place on any of the ships under his direct command.”

One of the most interesting details about the story is that many of the men who escaped the brutal sinking of the Endurance still signed up for Shackleton's mission aboard the Quest.

Shackleton's original plan for the1921 expedition had been to explore the Arctic north of Alaska but, when the Canadian government withdrew financial support at the last minute, Shackleton and his crew decided to head south for the Antarctic once again.

Their new goal was to map the Antarctic islands, collect specimens, and look for places to install infrastructure to offer future expedition teams access to safety and supplies.

Sadly, Shackleton never made it. A massive heart attack ended his trip in South Georgia -- the last stop before entering Antarctic waters. He was buried on South Georgia at his wife’s request, and even though the expedition continued after six months without their beloved leader the Quest returned to London and was subsequently sold to the Schjelderup family of Norway and put to work as a sealer.

The Royal Canadian Geographical Society had to carry out extensive research to find Quest's resting place. The team gathered information from ships' logs, photographs, and navigation records from the inquiry conducted into her loss. Amazingly, a photo exists of the Quest as it sank.

According to Canadian Geographic, on April 1st, 1962, while stuck in ice in the Labrador Sea, Quest was "crushed with enough force to break deck screws in the engine room and warp cabin doors. A persistent leak that had been present for months grew worse."

The Quest as she sank stern first / Photo Courtesy Tore Topp

The ship tried to carry on, but by the morning of May 5th, water had overwhelmed her engines. The ship's captain, Olav Johannessen, made the call to abandon ship. According to Canadian Geographic, "the crew, some cargo and valuables were evacuated to nearby ships, and at 5:40 p.m., Quest slipped beneath the waves.

In a telegram to the ship’s owners in Norway, Johannessen noted Quest’s final position: 53’10 N, 54’27 W."

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

Quest is in remarkable shape given her history and her manner of sinking. Subsequent passes by an ROV confirmed that her prominent bow and aluminum wheelhouse are still attached. Her foremast is lying perpendicular to the hull, likely torn off as she went down, but the ship still sits upright on the silty ocean floor.

She will be left in place in honour of one of the world's most famous explorers.

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