Lost Antarctic History Found Off Greenland Coast

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The two ships were built eight years apart, initially designed for very different purposes.

The Terra Nova was launched in 1884 for the Dundee sealing and whaling fleet, and spent its early life crunching through ice floes off Newfoundland and Labrador on an annual seal hunt.

The Fram was launched to great fanfare in 1892, designed specifically to become entombed in the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean and so be carried by the drift of currents to the North Pole.

Almost immediately, while the Terra Nova anonymously collected seal pelts, the Fram was set to work on its assigned task, under the captaincy of its designer, Fridjof Nansen. Nansen's expedition lasted for three years, during which time the Fram was intentionally beset in the ice and at the mercy of its movement. The ship did not reach the North Pole, although it carried its crew closer than anyone had achieved to that point.

The Terra Nova was the first of the two vessels to reach the Antarctic, when it was dispatched in 1903 as a relief vessel for the Discovery, the ship of Robert Falcon Scott's National Antarctic Expedition, which had become beset in the ice. Scott must have been taken with the new arrival, because in 1909 he bought it and designated it as the ship for his next Antarctic expedition.

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At last, the little sealing ship was receiving the opportunity its build and craftsmanship merited: It would be carrying the men who, if everything went according to plan, would be the first to reach the South Pole. But, several months after they had set sail in 1910, Scott received word that he, his crew and the Terra Nova would not be alone; heading south behind them was the Fram, under the command of Roald Amundsen, who also sought to be first to the South Pole.

The Terra Nova sat in McMurdo Sound in the Ross Sea; Fram a short way to the east, in the Bay of Whales. Both ships' expeditions reached the Pole, but those from the Fram won the race and returned home safely. Scott and four companions, beaten to their grail, died on the way back to base, and the mood during the Terra Nova's return was somber.

Having been launched in glory, the Fram was ultimately retired in glory, too, being preserved in the Fram Museum in Oslo, where it remains. The Terra Nova returned to its early, unglamorous life, plowing the Canadian sealing fields.

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By 1943 it was being employed to carry supplies to base stations in Greenland – an impressive feat given that the ship was now over 50 years old. It would not survive to be 60: on September 12 1943, it was damaged by ice – ironically, perhaps, given that it had spent a lifetime defying it – and sank off southwestern Greenland. Its crew was rescued, but the Terra Nova disappeared from trace, never to be seen again.

Until now.

Last month, a crew from the Schmidt Ocean Institute was testing echo-sounding equipment when it discovered an unidentified feature during sonar mapping of the sea bed off Greenland. At about 57 meters in length, it matched the length of the Terra Nova. The team dropped a specially-constructed camera package beneath the surface to investigate, and filmed the wooden wreckage of a ship. There was no doubt: It was indeed the Terra Nova.

One hundred years after Scott and his companions died on their return from the South Pole, the Terra Nova has emerged from its anonymous watery grave, reminding the world that, if it had been less celebrated than its purpose-built rival, it had had a lengthy and storied career among the ice floes of both Arctic and Antarctic, and that it was beneath the ice floes that it now lay, in the cold silence.

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IMAGE:

The Norwegian ship Fram, foreground, encounters the British Terra Nova off Antarctic pack ice in 1911. The Fram carried Roald Amundsen, who would reach the South Pole in 1911 a month before Robert F. Scott, in Terra Nova. (Corbis)

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