A Royal Canadian Geographical Society-led expedition has discovered the wreck of the famed exploration vessel Quest in the Labrador Sea. Celebrated polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton died aboard Quest in 1922 while en route to Antarctica, marking the end of what some historians call the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration. The wreck lies upright and intact on the seabed in 390 metres of water northwest of St. John’s and east of Battle Harbour, Labrador.

Quest was damaged by ice while on a seal hunt off the Labrador coast in the traditional waters of the Mi’kmaq, Innu and Inuit, and sank on May 5, 1962. The vessel’s ultimate resting place is poignant given that Shackleton originally intended to use Quest for a Canadian Arctic expedition before the government of then-Prime Minister Arthur Meighen pulled the plug. Forced to change plans at the eleventh hour, Shackleton then headed south to Antarctica. The find creates a tangible link between Canada and a towering figure in polar exploration.

“Finding Quest is one of the final chapters in the extraordinary story of Sir Ernest Shackleton,” says expedition leader John Geiger, CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. “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.”

Geiger led an international team of experts, including world-renowned shipwreck hunter David Mearns. Expedition members aboard the search vessel LeeWay Odyssey hailed from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Norway and included oceanographers and historians, as well as people with close familial ties to Quest.

The find was the result of months of painstaking research and analysis by Mearns and lead researcher Antoine Normandin. They consulted ships’ logs, newspaper clippings and legal documents, cross-referencing them with historic weather and ice data to determine with a high degree of accuracy Quest’s final resting place on the seabed.

“I can definitively confirm that we have found the wreck of Quest,” says 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.”

Among the first people to receive word of the find was the Hon. Alexandra Shackleton, granddaughter of the great explorer and co-patron of the search. Although she never knew her grandfather, Shackleton has worked hard to make sure his legacy endures, earlier this year unveiling a memorial plaque inside Westminster Abbey in London on the 150th anniversary of Shackleton’s birth. To also find Quest in the same year is a thrill, she says.

In a statement provided ahead of a June 12 press conference announcing the find to the world, expedition co-patron Chief Mi’sel Joe of Miawpukek First Nation congratulated the team on the find. The Society worked with Joe and Miawpukek Horizon Maritime Services Ltd. to conduct the search in a way that would respect the peoples of the lands and waters in which Quest worked for much of her life.

A storied ship

The Shackleton-Rowett Expedition left London, England, on Sept. 17, 1921, with Shackleton telling the Evening Standard this trip was to be his “swan song.” That statement was prophetic: in the early hours of Jan. 5, 1922, while Quest was anchored at Grytviken Harbour on South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic, Shackleton died in his cabin of a massive heart attack, aged 47. He was buried on South Georgia at his wife’s request. The expedition continued, but the heart had gone out of it, and after six months, Quest returned to London, where she was subsequently sold to the Schjelderup family of Norway and put to work as a sealer.

That might have been the last the world heard of Quest, but fate had other plans. She appears again and again in the annals of early 20th century polar exploration history, either hosting or crossing paths with a who’s-who of the field (see sidebar below). At the outset of the Second World War, she was requisitioned by the Royal Canadian Navy to ferry coal from Sydney, N.S. to Halifax. Later that year, she was refitted as a minesweeper, but plans changed and she spent the rest of the war working as a water supply boat in England.

By the 1960s, Quest was showing her age. On April 1, 1962, while stuck in the ice of the Labrador Sea, she 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.

On the morning of May 5, water overwhelmed Quest’s engines and her captain, Olav Johannessen, made the call to abandon ship. 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.

Finding Quest

Those coordinates were key to finding the wreck, but it was not a matter of simply sailing out to Quest’s last reported position. Mearns and Normandin set out to investigate the full context for Captain Johannessen’s report, including where, when and how the final position was taken, the weather and ice conditions in the area at the time, and the speed and direction of the prevailing current — all factors that could have influenced where Quest came to rest on the seabed.

Foggy conditions on the night of the sinking, corroborated both by photographs and historical weather data from Environment Canada and the North American Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, would have made it extremely difficult to take an accurate position using celestial navigation. A clue might reside in the ship’s logs from one of Quest’s rescuers, and it just so happened that the Norwegian national archives had retained two logs from Kvitfjell, which picked up some of Quest’s crew — including one from the year of the sinking. A hopeful Normandin flew to Tromsø.

“The archives are only open one day a week. I was there at 9 a.m. and got the logs. I was very excited. I opened the log — it was mislabelled. It was actually from 1963. Completely useless for us.”

At that point, says Normandin, “a lot of swearing in French” ensued, but he decided to peruse the log anyway, to see how often Kvitfjell’s crew were taking celestial fixes. As he flipped through the log, he noticed that they were taking positions at all hours of the day and night. Beside each entry was written: “Loran.” That detail would prove to be the key to Quest’s finding.

LORAN, short for long range navigation, was developed in the United States during the Second World War to help convoys navigate the Atlantic Ocean and was made widely available for commercial shipping in the 1950s. Ships could roughly determine their position by calculating the time difference between radio pulses emitted simultaneously from a series of stations on shore. Although primitive compared to the Global Positioning System introduced in the mid-80s, LORAN was generally accurate to within one nautical mile.

Discovering that the Norwegian rescue ship had a LORAN set, Normandin now felt confident that other ships out that night had the same technology onboard, so it was likely Quest’s final position had been taken with some degree of accuracy. He hypothesized that once Captain Johannessen got off the sinking Quest, he would have waited until she went under before taking a LORAN reading from the ship he was on prior to sending the telegram. Based on this assumption, Mearns drew up a search box covering 24 square nautical miles, criss-crossed by lines to be scanned with the towfish sonar system. If Normandin was right, they stood a very good chance of finding Quest within the first 11 lines.

A race against time

In an eerie parallel to the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition, which was plagued by mechanical issues as it made its way south, things quickly started to go wrong onboard the search vessel LeeWay Odyssey. An initial calibration test of the sonar beacon failed, then problems were discovered with the hydraulics in the tow winch, requiring an unscheduled stop in St. Anthony, N.L., for repair. By the time the team reached the search area, they had just 24 hours to complete as much of the box as possible.

The search officially began in the wee hours of Sunday, June 9. Quest was spotted almost 18 hours later, at 7:41 p.m. Newfoundland time, on the sixth of 17 lines, about 2.5 kilometres from her last reported position. Geiger was in the dry lab watching the sonar images scroll in from the virtually featureless sea floor, when suddenly a jarring anomaly, about the size of a grain of rice with a shadow like a spear, appeared at the very nadir of the image. “What’s that?” he shouted. “That’s it!”

Normandin, who had been watching a monitor in the mess, sprinted to the lab to confer with Geiger and the sonar technician, then rushed to wake Mearns.

“I almost fell on the staircase twice, and I just burst into the room and said ‘David, David, you’ve got to come up right now. I think we’ve got it!’”

Subsequent passes to either side of the target revealed features that exactly matched the plans for Quest stuck to the wall of the lab: her prominent bow; her aluminum wheelhouse, still attached; her foremast lying perpendicular to the hull, likely ripped off by the force of the water moving through the rigging as she sank to the bottom.

The next step will be to return to the site with an ROV (remotely operated vehicle) to survey the wreck, hopefully finding her name still arcing gracefully across the front of the wheelhouse.

For Mearns, once the towfish was actually in the water and returning data, it was never a question of if the wreck would be found, but when.

“I said, ‘The only way we fail here is if we leave here,’ and in a way, that’s a lesson that’s reinforced by Shackleton’s experience. He had patience when it was needed, he acted decisively but not rashly, and that’s what we had to do here. Work the plan; patience would pay out, and it did.”