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‘It’s not often you make history’

Marine Institute sonar expertise detects Shackleton's lost ship

By Madeline Meadus

“Beautiful image.”

That’s how David Mearns described the sonar image that confirmed the final resting place of Ernest Shackleton’s last expedition ship, Quest.

The search director of the team that located the famed Antarctic explorer’s vessel that sank off the coast of Labrador in 1962 says the image, captured by Marine Institute of Memorial University specialists, was the definitive proof.

“That confirms on sonar alone that this is Quest,” Mr. Mearns said during a news conference at the Marine Institute in St. John’s, N.L., on June 12. “And the reason why we know that is because from that image, we were able to actually measure the precise dimensions of the target and compare those to the known dimensions of the ship — and they’re spot on.”

On June 9, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society of Canada, leading an international team with specialists from Canada, the U.K., Norway and the U.S., found the schooner-rigged vessel that served as Shackleton’s expedition ship six decades after it went missing.  

A sonar image of a shipwreck
Sonar image of Shackleton’s Quest, taken by Sarah Walsh, geomatics specialist at the Marine Institute, Memorial University.
Photo: Royal Canadian Geographical Society

Quest was used during the Shackleton-Rowett expedition of 1921-22; Shackleton died of a heart attack aboard Quest on Jan. 5, 1922, while anchored off the coast of South Georgia in the South Atlantic.

After his death, the Quest was used for Arctic research, and then returned to its original intended use as a sealing and whaling vessel.

Eyes into the deep

Setting sail from St. John’s on the LeeWay Odyssey on June 5, the team discovered Quest five days later on the floor of the Labrador Sea 390 meters down and not far from the community of Battle Harbour. 

Aboard the vessel to provide sonar expertise were Sarah Walsh, geomatics specialist, and Craig Bulger, project engineer, with the Marine Institute’s Centre for Applied Ocean Technology.

They captured the deciding image of the Quest’s hull.


A group of people posing with a flag on a boat
The Royal Geographical Society of Canada expedition team aboard the LeeWay Odyssey. Sarah Walsh is at the far left in the front row; Craig Bulger is at the far right in the back row.
Photo: Jill Heinerth

Ms. Walsh and Mr. Bulger were responsible for operating the sonar. 

“I am so very honoured to have been a part of such a historic finding by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society,” said Ms. Walsh. “The picture of the wreck shown around the world is a target image I took myself from our side scan sonar.” 

Side-can sonar uses a transducer array of sensors to send and receive acoustic pulses that help map the seafloor and detect objects, such as shipwrecks, on the seafloor.

The pulses help to create an image of objects detected. 

“It was a privilege to be part of the team,” said Mr. Bulger. “We overcame numerous challenges and still played a pivotal role in the goal of locating Shackleton’s Quest.” 

Based at The Launch in Holyrood, Mr. Bulger focuses on autonomous surface vehicles, underwater acoustics, embedded system design, remote sensing and digital signal processing.

His work with the Centre for Applied Ocean Technology includes the SmartAtlantic ocean observatory system, the Holyrood subsea observatory and SmartBay Holyrood buoys. 

Ms. Walsh is the lead hydrographer for the Marine Conservation Areas project led by the Centre for Fisheries Ecosystems Research and is leading the Marine Institute’s partnership with the Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project. 

“This has been an exciting project to work on,” said Dr. Paul Brett, vice-president of Memorial University (Marine Institute). “It’s not often you make history.”

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