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Wreck of Captain Scott's ship discovered off Greenland

CommunityJames Hipkiss

Content and images have been reproduced with the kind permission of the Schmidt Ocean Institute. Last month, during routine functional performance testing of the echosounders on the Schmidt Ocean Institutes flagship R/V Falkor the wreck of the S.S. Terra Nova was discovered, a whaling and polar exploration ship that sunk off the southern coast of Greenland in September, 1943, after being damaged by ice.

The Terra Nova (Latin for Newfoundland) was built in 1884 for the Dundee whaling and sealing fleet. She worked for 10 years in the annual seal fishery in the Labrador Sea, proving her worth for many years before she was called upon for expedition work. In 1909 she was bought for the sum of 12,500 from her owners by Captain R.F. Scott RN, as an expedition ship for the British Antarctic Expedition 1910. Reinforced from bow to stern with seven feet of oak to protect against the Antarctic ice pack, she sailed from Cardiff Docks on 15 June 1910 under overall command of now-Captain Scott, who described her as a wonderfully fine ice ship.... As she bumped the floes with mighty shocks, crushing and grinding a way through some, twisting and turning to avoid others, she seemed like a living thing fighting a great fight. Although the twenty-four officers and scientific staff made valuable observations in biology, geology, glaciology, meteorology, and geophysics along the coast of Victoria Land and on the Ross Ice Shelf, Scott's last expedition is best remembered for the death of Scott and four companions.

After wintering at Cape Evans on Ross Island, Scott, Henry Bowers, Edgar Evans, Lawrence Oates, and Edward Wilson set out on a race to be the first men at the South Pole. Starting with tractors and Mongolian ponies, the final 800 miles (1,300 km) had to be covered by man-hauling alone. Reaching the South Pole on January 17, 1912, they found that Roald Amundsen's expedition (based on the polar ship Fram) had beaten them by thirty-four days. Worse was to come, as all five men died on the return journey. Tent, bodies, and journals were found the following summer. With all the topographical considerations and with the secondary possibility of using a wreck as a calibration reference for the sonar equipment, the Schmidt Ocean Institute had prioritised this location as the optimal spot for this round of tests. Approximate estimated position of the wreck was used as the central point for the test survey.

An area roughly five nautical miles around this position was selected for the survey to encompass various features, shallows and slopes necessary to evaluate the sonar performance. As anticipated, numerous iceberg strikes and gouges were observed on the seabed along with striking features not listed on the existing nautical charts. On the first line of the calibration survey, on-board survey expert Jonathan Beaudoin from the University of New Hampshire had noted a feature on the seabed which remained initially unidentified. Upon completion of the main calibration exercise, SOI technician Leighton Rolley and Jonathan reviewed each of the many potential targets identified during the 12 hours of surveying, and the target was noted as a strong candidate for further investigation. Multibeam data expert Jean Marie analyzed the feature in more detail, finding its length (57m) to match the reported length of the Terra Nova. Encouraged by the similarity in length, the acoustic survey team post-processed the collected multi-beam data to verify the observed feature.

A shorter survey from several angles reaffirmed the possibility that the team had found a wreck. During the earlier stages of the transatlantic cruise, the Schmidt Ocean Institute marine technicians had an opportunity to develop a weighted camera package to film the plankton net trawls conducted by scientists aboard R/V Falkor from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. This footage was designed for community outreach work to show how these nets capture plankton which our scientists then study. The Camera was lowered down to the wreck site to take these photographs and verify the identity of the lost ship. The discovery of the lost S.S. Terra Nova, one of the most famous polar exploration vessels, was an exciting achievement in addition to serving to successfully verify the performance and operational condition of the Schmidt Ocean Institute's R/V Falkor multibeam echo sounders.

The discovery was made possible thanks to the collaborative and exhaustive efforts of all those on-board. Schmidt Ocean Institute offers its profound thanks to the sonar experts and scientific representatives from the University of New Hampshire, Ifremer, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for their excellent support throughout this cruise. S.S. Terra Nova was discovered during the testing of R/V Falkor scientific multi-beam echo sounders. The permit for the instrument testing off the southern coast of Greenland was issued to the Schmidt Ocean Institute by the United States Department of State.

When the permit was issued, the U.S. Department of State requested that the Schmidt Ocean Institute does not release information about any possible wreck discoveries that may occur as a result of the sonar testing unless authorised to do so by the U.S. government. In compliance with this requirement, upon the discovery of the wreck, Schmidt Ocean Institute first informed the U.S. Department of State. Following consultations with the appropriate authorities in the United Kingdom and Denmark governments, the U.S. Department of State authorised the Schmidt Ocean Institute to release the information about this discovery, as long as the exact location or depth of the wreck are not disclosed to protect the site of obvious historical significance from unwanted attention.