Ernest Shackleton’s last ship, Quest, found in Labrador Sea

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Author: Mark ‘Crowley’ Russell

side scan sonar image of quest shipwreck lying on the sea floor
A side-scan sonar image shows the wreck of Quest lying upright and intact on the seabed at a depth of 390 metres (Photo: Canadian Geographic)

The Royal Canadian Geographical Society has found the wreck of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Quest, the ship on which the famed Antarctic explorer died

The wreck of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Quest, the ship on board which the Antarctic explorer died, has been located by a team led by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS).

Built in Risør, Norway in 1917 as a wooden-hulled sealer originally named Foca 1, the schooner-rigged vessel served as Sir Ernest Shackleton’s last expedition ship on the Shackleton-Rowett expedition of 1921/2. Shackleton died on board on 5 January 1922, aged 47.

Following his death Quest was acquired by a Norwegian company and served in a number of expeditions before being refitted and returning to work as a sealing ship, until she sank due to ice damage in May 1962.

The RCGS Shackleton Quest Expedition, comprised of oceanographers, historians and divers from Canada, the United Kingdom, Norway and the United States, discovered Quest at a depth of 390m off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador five days into the expedition in the North West Atlantic. The shipwreck was located using sonar equipment operated by experts from Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Marine Institute.

Quest sinking off the Labrador coast in 1962
Quest sinking on 5 May 1962 (Photo: RCGS)

‘Finding Quest is one of the final chapters in the extraordinary story of Sir Ernest Shackleton,’ said Expedition Leader John Geiger, CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. ‘Shackleton was known for his courage and brilliance as a leader in crisis. The tragic irony is that his was the only death to take place on any of the ships under his direct command.’

Search Director David Mearns said the discovery was the result of painstaking work by the team, who researched historic logs and maps, and cross-referenced the historical data with modern technology to determine where the ship may have been located based on currents, weather conditions and other factors.

Mearns said that the data from the high-resolution side scan sonar imagery corresponded exactly with the known dimensions and structural features of Quest, and the location of the intact ship was consistent with events at the time of the sinking.

Shackleton died onboard Quest in 1922 off the island of South Georgia in the South Atlantic, on his fourth journey to the Antarctic. The Anglo-Irish explorer had captured the world’s attention seven years previously, following an epic story of endeavour as he and a crew of 27 other men survived 18 months stranded in the Antarctic after their ship, Endurance, became trapped in pack ice and sank in 1915. The discovery of Quest comes just two years after the wreck of Endurance was located, 3km deep in the Antarctic’s Weddell Sea.

Map of Quests's final voyage
A map showing Quest’s final voyage and the search area in the Labrador Sea. The wreck was found 2.5km from Quest’s last reported position. (Map: Chris Brackley/Can Geo)

Shackleton’s granddaughter, and expedition co-patron, Alexandra Shackleton, said it was her ‘dream’ to find Quest, which has fittingly been realised in the year marking the 150th anniversary of Shackleton’s birth. ‘My grandfather had purchased Quest with the intention of leading a Canadian Arctic expedition,’ said Ms Shackleton. ‘It is perhaps fitting that the ship should have ended its storied service in Canadian waters. I have long hoped for this day and am grateful to those who made this incredible discovery.’

Traditional Chief Mi’sel Joe of the Miawpukek First Nation, also a co-patron of the expedition, said he was ‘so happy’ that the wreck had been found. ‘Quest sank in the waters off of Mi’kmaq, Innu and Inuit territories in 1962, while on a sealing expedition,’ he said. ‘I was happy to share local knowledge with the captain and crew of the search vessel ahead of time to find Quest, and honoured that Miawpukek Horizon Marine assisted in planning the expedition. Having our presence and involvement in this expedition demonstrates the respect that RCGS has for our peoples and our territories.’

The expedition team included Jan Chojecki, grandson of John Quiller Rowett, who financed Shackleton’s final journey to the Antarctic. Also on board was Norwegian Tore Topp whose family owned Quest from 1923 to 1962.

picture of the shackleton quest expedition team
The 2024 Shackleton Quest Expedition team poses with the flag of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society on the deck of LeeWay Odyssey the morning after the find. Standing, left to right: Geir Kløver, Derek Lee, Jan Chojecki, John Geiger, Tore Topp, Katherine Smalley, Mark Pathy, Craig Bulger. Kneeling, left to right: Sarah Walsh, Martin Brooks, Antoine Normandin, David Mearns, Jill Heinerth, Alexandra Pope. (Photo: Jill Heinerth/Can Geo)

‘Quest was built in Norway, and after Shackleton’s death, the ship reverted to Norwegian ownership. It continued to make history long after Shackleton, including exploratory work and dramatic rescue missions in the high Arctic. Its work as a sealer was also often high stakes,’ said Geir Klover, Director of the Fram Museum.

Martin Brooks, CEO of British expedition and apparel company Shackleton, added: ‘The finding of Quest is an important new chapter in the story of Ernest Shackleton and polar history; an iconic vessel, she marked the end of the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration. It is an honour to have supported this historic discovery.’

‘This has been an exciting project to work on,’ said Dr. Paul Brett, Vice President of the Marine Institute at Memorial University. ‘It’s not often that you make history. As President of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society Board of Governors, I would like to extend my congratulations to the 2024 Shackleton Quest Expedition for their outstanding demonstration of teamwork and resilience in locating the wreck of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s last ship.

‘This is an important discovery not only for Canadians but for people all around the world who have been inspired by Shackleton’s example of humanity and endurance.’

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