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Royal Canadian Geographical Society finds wreck of Shackleton’s last ship, Quest

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The Shackleton Quest Expedition, led by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS), has discovered the historic wreck of Quest, lying at a depth of 390m off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The schooner-rigged vessel served as Sir Ernest Shackleton’s last expedition ship on the Shackleton-Rowett expedition of 1921/2. He died on board on 5 January 1922, aged 47.

The discovery of the shipwreck, in the 150th year after Shackleton’s birth, took place five days into the expedition in the North West Atlantic using sonar equipment operated by experts from Memorial University’s Marine Institute, a leader in ocean research.

Quest
Quest in the Thames, arriving in London prior to the departure of the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition.

Expedition Leader John Geiger headed an international team of experts, including Search Director, the world-renowned shipwreck hunter David Mearns. Participants were drawn from Canada, the United Kingdom, Norway and the United States and included oceanographers, historians and divers.

“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 which included Antoine Normandin as his assistant and lead researcher. They 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.

Quest
Antoine Normandin, David Mearns and Tore Topp examine sonar imagery of the wreck on Mearns’ phone.

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

Shackleton, the Anglo-Irish explorer, died aboard Quest in 1922 off the island of South Georgia in the South Atlantic, on his fourth journey to the Antarctic. Just seven years before, he had captured the attention of the world when he enabled the survival of all 27 members of his crew after their ship, the Endurance, was trapped and sunk by sea ice during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

The discovery of Quest represents the last major part of the jigsaw in assembling Shackleton’s physical legacy. His granddaughter, and expedition co-patron, Hon. Alexandra Shackleton, said it was her ‘dream’ to find Quest. Now, that dream has been realized fittingly in the year marking the 150th anniversary of Shackleton’s birth.

Joining Alexandra Shackleton as co-patron of the expedition was Traditional Chief Mi’sel Joe of the Miawpukek First Nation. “Quest sank in the traditional waters of the Mi’kmaq, Innu and Inuit in 1962, while on a sealing expedition,” said Chief Joe.

“I was happy to share local knowledge with the captain and crew of the search vessel to find Quest. Our team at Miawpukek Horizon Marine assisted in planning the expedition. Having our presence and involvement in this expedition means a great deal to our people.”

Quest
Quest slipped beneath the surface at 5.40pm on 5 May 1962.

Ms. Shackleton pointed out that, “My grandfather, Sir Ernest Shackleton, had purchased Quest with the intention of leading a Canadian Arctic expedition. 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.”

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

“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.

Quest
A map showing Quest’s final voyage and the search area in the Labrador Sea. The wreck was found just 2.5km from Quest’s last reported position.

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.”

Added Hon. Lois Mitchell, “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. Well done!”

More about Quest

The Shackleton Rowett Expedition of 1922 on board Quest is acknowledged to be the final chapter in the so-called Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration (1880-1922) which saw polar titans Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen lead pioneering expeditions to the frozen continent in the name of science and discovery. The death of Shackleton on 5 January 1922 is often cited by historians as the dividing line between the ‘Heroic’ and ‘Mechanical’ ages of exploration.

Quest was originally built in Risør, Norway in 1917 as the wooden-hulled sealer Foca 1. She was renamed Quest by Lady Emily Shackleton. Shackleton died of a heart attack aboard Quest on 5 January 1922, while the ship was anchored off Grytviken, South Georgia. Shackleton was enroute towards Antarctica on the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition.

He had been forced to abandon earlier plans to use Quest on a Canadian Arctic expedition after the Canadian government of Arthur Meighen withdrew its support. A British philanthropist, John Quiller Rowett, stepped into fund the Antarctic expedition.

Rowett’s grandson, Jan Chojecki, was also part of the Shackleton Quest expedition team. Jan is the author of The Quest Chronicle, published in 2022, the first book centred on the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition in almost a century.

Quest
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.

When Shackleton died, he was 47 years old and in the early stages of a journey to explore several islands and uncharted areas of the sub-Antarctic region.

After his death, Quest was acquired by a Norwegian company, and was involved in a series of important expeditions, including the 1930-31 British Arctic Air Route Expedition led by British explorer Gino Watkins, who himself tragically died aged 25 while exploring Greenland.

Quest was also used in Arctic rescues and served in the Royal Canadian Navy during World War Two, before resuming work as a sealing ship.

On 5 May 1962, Quest was damaged by ice and sank off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. All the Norwegian crew survived.

Geiger said a team effort made the discovery of the wreck possible, and thanked donors including Katherine Smalley and Derek Lee, Mark Pathy, and the Catherine and Fredrik Eaton Charitable Foundation, whose support of the Shackleton Quest Expedition was critical. Additional support was provided by the Fram Museum, Oslo, and UK-based expedition-grade apparel company, Shackleton.

Photo credit: Can Geo / Jill Heinerth / Chris Brackley / Tore Topp

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Mark Evans
Scuba Diver's Editorial Director Mark Evans has been in the diving industry for nearly 25 years, and has been diving since he was just 12 years old. nearly 40-odd years later and he is still addicted to the underwater world.
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