Tonight’s federal budget will include more than A$800 million over ten years to provide a ‘clear marker’ of Australia’s ‘science leadership’ in Antarctica.

The funds will go to drones and helicopters amid growing (if somewhat exaggerated) concerns over Chinese activity in the region.

Read more: A krill tank, climate research and geopolitics: how Australia’s $800m Antarctic funding will be spent

But political assets in the polar region include more than expensive state-of-the-art toys. Earlier this month, one of the most famous shipwrecks in history, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance, was discovered in the Weddell Sea, a part of Antarctica claimed by several nations.


There is a huge excitement around the discovery of Endurance.

Sir Ernest Shackleton.
Wikimedia Commons

The wreck provides a physical link to a great human survival story, as it was the ship used on the British explorer’s 1914-1916 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

It got stuck in the ice and eventually sank. Remarkably, none of the men died during the ordeal, despite having to camp on the ice for months during an austral winter.

But now that the Endurance has been found, who owns it and who should take care of it?

The Antarctic Treaty

Antarctica is governed differently from other parts of the world. The Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959, with its first provision stating that “Antarctica shall be used only for peaceful purposes”. It also provides for free and cooperative scientific research on and around the frozen continent.

Read more: Finding Shackleton’s ship: Why our fascination with Antarctica lives on

At the time of signing, seven countries – Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the UK – had territorial claims in the region. But under the treaty, no country can assert (or deny) a claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica.

Despite this strong legal foundation, cultural heritage offers nations – in this case Britain – the opportunity to affirm their past presence, as well as their future presence in the region.

Historic sites in Antarctica

Antarctica is governed by annual meetings attended by treaty signatories. At these meetings, countries may designate historical remains as official historic sites or monuments.

At the 2019 meeting, the UK successfully proposed the Endurance wreck as an official historic site, despite not knowing its location or condition at the time. After learning of NGO plans to search for the wreckage, the UK said it wanted to “confirm the vessel’s protection status in the event that it is located”.

The status of “historic site” protects:

all objects contained or formerly contained in the ship, which may be on the seabed in or near the wreck within a radius of 150 meters.

Who is responsible for the sunken ship?

The Endurance22 expedition, supported by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust, located the wreck in remarkable condition just over three weeks ago. This expedition had set itself the task of searching for and surveying the wreckage.

Since 2019, the UK has effectively appointed itself as steward of the site – which includes personal property within and any artefacts lying on the seabed nearby. The UK also said the wreckage should not be moved or disturbed and only photographed under strict heritage guidelines.

This is also in line with comments from Shackleton’s granddaughter, Alexandra Shackleton, who says there should be no ‘digging’ and that ‘whatever there is will stay there’.

A view of the stern of the Endurance wreck.
A view from the stern of the wreck of the Endurance.
Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust/National Geographic/AP/AAP

These preventative measures are somewhat controversial as the seabed on which the Endurance sits is a disputed area between the UK and Argentina.

Although, by definition, a seabed is not within the claimed territory, it lies beneath the waters belonging to the claimed territory – meaning that the wreck could be interpreted by the wider international community as lying outside of the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom.

It should also be noted that the heritage trust in charge of the expedition is from a hotly contested territory between the two countries – the Falkland Islands / Islas Malvinas.

Other Complications

Another challenge is posed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This stipulates that archaeological and historical objects found at sea must be protected.

Read more: The Endurance wreck is a bridge to a bygone era and a reminder of Antarctica’s uncertain future

The vessel used to search for the wreckage was provided by South Africa, while funding was provided mainly by British private and commercial sources. South Africa has signed the convention, while the UK has agreed to abide by its rules but is not a signatory.

This has created unease within the expert community, who understand that although the wreckage is currently not easily accessible (for one, it is more than 3 kilometers below the surface), with technological developments, this situation could change.

What happens now?

Ultimately, the management of the site will set a precedent for the treatment of underwater cultural heritage in the region more broadly.

The big question policymakers and diplomats now face is whether a line will be drawn when it comes to getting undiscovered shipwrecks internationally recognized as heritage sites.

The Endurance stuck in the Weddell Sea.
Antarctic photographer Frank Hurley captured the Endurance stuck in the Weddell Sea.
Frank Hurley/Wikimedia Commons

Two other sites will probably test this question: the San Telmo and the SS Hampson. Spain has proposed the San Telmo – a Spanish Navy ship that sank in the Drake Passage in 1819, supposedly carrying the first “humans to live and die” in Antarctica – as an official historic site during the 2021 meeting.

The SS Hampson is believed to be the unidentified wooden tall ship that was wrecked at Hampson Cove, Elephant Island. The UK is again the manager of the site, having established official heritage status for the cove in 1998.

Like the recent discoveries of other wrecks, the Erebus and the Terror in the High Arctic, these sunken ships represent more than just deteriorating artifacts.

They provide a way for countries to demonstrate their historical occupation of a region where traditional displays of territorial sovereignty are prohibited.