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USF grad David Mearns discovers Shackleton shipwreck

Cora Quantum (AI)



The Quest was discovered 1,280 feet below the Atlantic surface, after sonar was used to search a 24-square-nautical-mile area. Image: Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

Renowned shipwreck hunter David Mearns has made a significant discovery in the Antarctic: The wreck of legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton‘s last ship, the Quest. Originally a Norwegian vessel named Foca I, the Quest was purchased and refitted by Shackleton for his final expedition in 1922. The ship played a crucial role in Shackleton’s enduring legacy as an explorer, despite his death aboard the vessel that year at age 47.

The expedition continued under the command of Frank Wild after Shackleton’s passing. The Quest ultimately sank 40 years later in 1962, after hitting ice off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Mearns has a distinguished career in maritime exploration, with numerous high-profile shipwreck discoveries to his name, including the wrecks of HMS Hood and the Australian warship HMAS Sydney. He graduated with a Masters degree in Marine Geology from the University of South Florida in 1986. After graduating, he founded Blue Water Recoveries, Limited which researches and locates historic wrecks around the world.  

Mearns’ connection to USF continued as he was awarded a Distinguished Alumni Award in 2011 and a Global Leadership Award in 2019.

He recorded an SPx episode when in town to receive his last award. You can listen to that episode here

At a recent press conference, Mearns provided a detailed account of how the discovery was made. He stated, “The wreck was found by a sidescan sonar,” which displays the wreck as bright yellow against the brown seabed. “This is energy from the sonar actually reflecting off the hull as it sits above the seabed, and behind it is the acoustic shadow.”

David Mearns.

Mearns described the condition and position of the wreck: “The lower part is the bow, and the bow is actually slightly raised above the seabed. The aft section is the stern. The ship would have come down in reverse, and that’s why it’s in that position. It’s upright lying on its keel, slightly canted over to port. But as you can see, the wreck is largely intact.”

The search for the Quest involved meticulous planning and scientific analysis. “We were looking, searching an area that was approximately 24 square nautical miles – that’s eight nautical miles by three nautical miles,” Mearns explained. “The search box was determined based on an analysis of the uncertainty of the navigation position where the ship was lost.”

With the immense cost of keeping the search ship and team at sea, Mearns spends a lot of up-front time doing research to minimize sea time. In this case that work paid off. as the discovery took only about 17 hours after overcoming some initial technical challenges.

The Quest’s wreck site is expected to be studied further to better understand the ship’s condition and the circumstances surrounding its sinking. Artifacts recovered from the site may offer additional information about Shackleton’s final voyage and the challenges faced by his crew. Mearns expressed anticipation for the next phase of the expedition, which aims to photograph and document the shipwreck and artifacts in an archaeologically sensitive manner.

David Mearns’ discovery of the Quest is a significant milestone in maritime archaeology and exploration history. It not only honors the legacy of Sir Ernest Shackleton, but highlights the importance of continued exploration and study of our planet’s uncharted waters.


1 Comment

1 Comment

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    Tommy Bohanny

    June 30, 2024at8:47 pm

    Trying to contact David Mearns for small expitidition to locate a shipwreck from 16-1700 in the Marshall Islands

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