x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Technology brings unmysterious end to an ocean mystery

The SS Terra Nova, the ship used by Scott of the Antarctic on his fateful expedition, was lost off the coast of southern Greenland in 1943 – until now.

Earlier this year The Review ran a cover story on the final days of Capt Robert Falcon Scott, the British explorer who lost the race to become the first man to reach the South Pole in 1911 (he was famously beaten by his Norwegian rival Roald Amundsen) but later won a nation's admiration for his epic failure.

Historical judgement has vacillated on Scott in the century since his death in March 1912: some view him as the ultimate heroic Englishman, steadfast and stoic to the last even in the face of insurmountable odds and worsening weather conditions. Others see him simply as a reckless and incompetent leader, whose expedition spiralled out of control.

One recent suggestion even asserted that Scott shot Edgar Evans - a member of the so-called "final five" who made their way to the Pole and whose body has never been found - when he became incapacitated on the return journey in February 1912.

Much mystery continues to surround Scott's mission, although thankfully at least one of the puzzles that enveloped the trip and its aftermath - namely the fate of the ship that bore Scott and his compatriots to the southern hemisphere and later made the sombre return journey back to Britain's shores - has recently been laid to rest.

Scott's ship SS Terra Nova departed for the South Atlantic in June 1910 and would not return from the Antarctic until January 1913, two months after Scott's body (together with the frozen remains of Edward "Bill" Wilson and Henry "Birdie" Bowers) had been found. Sold back to its original owners, Terra Nova would remain in service for another 30 years before it sank off southern Greenland in September 1943 after striking an iceberg.

For 69 years since then, the Terra Nova has resisted attempts to be found, and while its story probably does not rank with that of the USS Cyclops - the US navy ship that vanished without trace in March 1918 in the so-called Bermuda Triangle - it occupies, at the very least, a significant corner of the Scott tale.

Terra Nova was found by the Schmidt Ocean Institute during strategic testing of its new flagship, RV Falkor, and its echo-sound equipment. This was no chance discovery.

The organisation, which devotes itself to deep sea exploration, says the "approximate estimated position of the wreck was used as the central point for the test survey" and that "an area roughly five nautical miles around the position was selected for the survey". The 57m profile of Terra Nova was discovered during 12 hours of intensive equipment testing, although its precise location will not be released, says the Institute, "to protect the site … from unwanted attention".

Written in the precise language of a science paper, the Institute's report rather flattens the drama and the endeavour of Falkor's crew first seeking and then finding their prize. It is, nevertheless, remarkable news, almost perfectly timed given that this year clangs with centenary commemorations of Scott's final mission.

One now assumes that the seabed of southern Greenland will remain the last resting place of the ship whose name means "new earth". Neither its presumed deep-lying position nor its condition lend itself to raising the Terra Nova. One also imagines that Scott himself might have approved of a scientific exploration - his own polar institute at the University of Cambridge continues to prosper in the modern era - discovering this significant find, rather than some plunder-for-profit salvage expert. And finally, one wonders, if the USS Cyclops will be the next to catch the Falkor's all-seeing eye? Now that would be some find.