A sonar image of the Quest on Sunday was the first sign of the vessel since it sank in 1962. SUPPLIED

A master shipwreck hunter directed an international team that located Quest intact on Atlantic seabed.

The wreck of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s last ship – on which the renowned polar explorer suddenly died during his final Antarctic voyage – has been discovered off the coast of Labrador.

Quest was discovered intact on Sunday on the seabed by an international search team, including seasoned shipwreck hunter, David Mearns.

After pinpointing Quest’s likely final location using historical maps, logs, records and photographs, the searchers found the vessel after five days at sea. It had sunk in the Labrador Sea during a sealing expedition in 1962.

The Anglo-Irish explorer’s granddaughter, Alexandra Shackleton, as well as his fans, have for years been dreaming of finding Quest, said John Geiger, who led the team that found the wreck. Shackleton died in his cabin of a heart attack at the age of 47 in 1922, while the ship was anchored off the South Atlantic island of South Georgia, where his grave still lies.

Mr. Geiger, chief executive of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, was the first to spot the opaque image of the sunken ship when it was picked up by sonar being towed behind their research boat.

“I was just by happy coincidence the first to see it. The team, including David [Mearns], had been up for 36 hours. It was just this incredible moment,” he told The Globe and Mail from the exploration vessel.

“There was this sort of flat sea floor, kind of relatively featureless, and then suddenly, at the top of the screen, as the sonar is moving along, you started to see a shape form, and it was clearly a ship. It was intact. It was sitting on the sea floor. I sort of jumped up and said, ‘What’s that? That’s it!’”

Shackleton’s last voyage aboard Quest left London in 1921 amid great fanfare and was seen off by King George V with crowds lining the Thames.

The explorer has been feted by generations, not just for fearlessly battling the elements, but for his leadership skills. He led three British expeditions to Antarctica and had hoped to explore the Canadian Arctic and even to move to Canada.

In his most famous Antarctic expedition, his ship, Endurance, became trapped in pack ice and then sank in the Weddell Sea in 1915. He survived for months with his entire crew of 28 – which included a stowaway – by eating penguins, seals and seaweed when the ship’s stores ran out.

Shackleton undertook his last expedition after a planned voyage to the Beaufort Sea in the Canadian Arctic was cancelled, after the Canadian government unexpectedly pulled its funding.

He had already purchased Quest, a small Norwegian sealing vessel with sails and auxiliary engine power, for the Canadian voyage.

Ernest Shackleton waving goodbye as he embarks on the Shackleton-Rault Expedition to the Antarctic, September, 1921. TOPICAL PRESS AGENCY/GETTY IMAGES

Instead, he sailed south on a mapping voyage to the Antarctic in what became the Shackleton–Rowett Expedition. It was financed by John Quiller Rowett, a British businessman who had been a schoolfriend of Shackleton at Dulwich College. Rowett’s grandson, Jan Chojecki, was among those on the expedition to locate the wreck of Quest this week.

Ms. Shackleton, the explorer’s granddaughter and co-patron of the expedition to find Quest, was informed of the discovery by Mr. Geiger by video link. She said in a statement: “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 ship was found at a depth of 390 metres, with its oak hull apparently intact. When the vessel started sinking, the Norwegian sealing crew escaped. They photographed it going down and recorded the location, which helped the searchers find it.

The discovery of the shipwreck, in the 150th year after Shackleton’s birth, was made by a team from Canada, Britain, Norway and the United States, including historians, oceanographers, divers and sonar experts from Memorial University’s Marine Institute.

Craig Bulger, with the Fisheries and Marine Institute at the Memorial University of Newfoundland (left) and search director David Mearns of Blue Water Recoveries Ltd. prepare to launch the side-scan sonar tow to search for Quest. JILL HEINERTH/SUPPLIED

Mr. Geiger said the team watching the sonar got excited every time they saw a stone on the seabed, but Mr. Mearns, whose previous discoveries include the wrecks of the Royal Navy flagship HMS Hood and the German battleship Bismarck, which sunk after a brutal 1941 engagement, told them, “You’ll know it when you see it. You’ll know immediately it’s Quest, that it’s a wreck.”

Mr. Geiger said the shadow of the ship – which lost a mast – was immediately evident from the sonar imagery.

“You could get a sense of the shape of the vessel, and very consistent with the pictures of Quest,” he said.

Antoine Normandin, the lead researcher, said the ship is “standing upright on the ocean floor.”

“We can see the cabin and the wheelhouse, and we can see the deck as well.”

The sinking of the Quest, photographed from another sealing vessel, in 1962. SUPPLIED

Mr. Mearns, an expert in sonar imagery, said the wreck had an “acoustic shadow,” which showed that it was man-made. He said after Shackleton’s death, when Quest was used for sealing operations, it was converted, including with added tanks to store blubber, but the shape of the ship was essentially the same.

It took several passes with the sonar to reinforce the initial findings, with “multiple hours of telling the sonar to get four different images of it that are conclusive,” he said.

“She is intact. Data from high-resolution side-scan sonar imagery corresponds exactly with the known dimensions and structural features of this special ship,” he said.

The next phase of the expedition will include sending robotic submarines with cameras to get visual images of the shipwreck as early as this summer, if funding can be found.

After Shackleton’s death, Quest took part in a number of dramatic rescues, including of explorers.

When the renowned Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s plane crashed in 1928 while on a rescue mission in the Arctic, Quest was deployed, unsuccessfully, by the Norwegian government to try and locate him.

Quest was commandeered as a patrol boat with the Royal Canadian Navy off Canada’s Atlantic coast during the Second World War, later reverting to its role as a Norwegian sealer.

“Quest was built in Norway, and after Shackleton’s death, the ship reverted to Norwegian ownership,” said Geir Klover, director of Norway’s Fram Museum, who took part in the expedition. “It continued to make history long after Shackleton, including exploratory work and dramatic rescue missions in the high Arctic.”

The monument to Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton on the main island of South Georgia. He died of a heart attack and was buried there in 1922, having returned to the spot on the ‘Quest’, six years after his famous Antarctic expedition. HULTON ARCHIVE / GETTY IMAGES

The Globe and Mail, June 12, 2024