Shipworms Are Eating a Wreck That Could Be Captain Cook’s ‘Endeavour’

Marine biologist Reuben Shipway is sounding the alarm about the so-called termites of the sea

James Cook in front of ships
James Cook, who began his famous voyage on the Endeavor in 1768 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Australian archaeologists made headlines earlier this year when they announced that a sunken ship off the coast of Rhode Island was the famed H.M.B. Endeavor, captained by James Cook on his 1768 expedition to the South Pacific.

The identification announcement was controversial, with American archaeologists calling it “premature.” Now, however, though the identity of the ship remains in dispute, a scientist says the vessel is facing a more pressing issue: shipworms.

Reuben Shipway, a marine biologist at the University of Plymouth in England, says shipworms—also known as the termites of the sea—are destroying the historic underwater vessel, reports the Boston Globe’s Brian Amaral.

Shipway specializes in wood-eating marine invertebrates, and when he heard about the vessel identification quarrel, he reached out to staff at the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project to offer his expertise. Earlier this month, Shipway dove down to the shipwreck known as RI 2394 resting on the seafloor of Newport Harbor and took a look around.

What he saw didn’t surprise him, but it did create a sense of urgency: Between 85 and 90 percent of the vessel was missing.

He brought samples to the surface, then analyzed them under a microscope. Shipway determined a species of naval shipworm called Teredo navalis was likely responsible for eating away the interior of the historic vessel. He found wood in the shipworms’ stomachs and larvae under their gills, which indicated that the mollusks were breeding.

Shipway also determined that gribbles, a different species of underwater pest, were eating away the outside of the ship.

Shipworm sample
Shipworm sample from RI 2394 Courtesy of the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project

Much of the ship’s remaining wood is buried under sediment, which keeps it safe from shipworms and gribbles. But storms and currents could push the sediment aside, exposing what little remains.

“One of the most important wrecks in human history is being destroyed right underneath our noses,” Shipway tells the Boston Globe.

Still, scientists are unsure what, if anything, can be done to save the crumbling ship from its marine assailants. Bringing the vessel to land would be costly and potentially damaging, per the Boston Globe. Shipworms play an important role in the underwater ecosystem, so getting rid of them isn’t feasible.

“[S]ubmerging more of the wreck could offer a short-term solution,” says Shipway in a statement. “That would only last until the region was hit by a storm and the sediments shifted, however, but it could give those seeking to preserve it time to develop a long-term plan.”

In the meantime, archaeologists do plan to return some sediment they collected for analysis, placing it on uncovered parts of the vessel.

Reuben Shipway
Reuben Shipway Courtesy of the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project

The Endeavor, wherever it now rests, made its most iconic voyage in August 1768. Cook, a British naval officer and cartographer, and a crew of more than 90 men sailed south toward the Pacific Ocean to observe the passing of Venus so that scientists might be able to calculate the distance from the Earth to the sun. The voyage also had another, secret goal: to locate a mysterious, undiscovered “southern land” called Terra Australis Incognita.

Cook and his men indeed reached Australia, claiming the eastern part of the continent for Britain. The explorers also charted New Zealand and collected thousands of plants before returning home in July 1771.

After that, the Endeavor became the Lord Sandwich and served as a British transport ship during the Revolutionary War. Historians believe the British sunk Lord Sandwich and several other ships in Newport Harbor in August 1778 to prevent their capture during the Battle of Rhode Island.

“The Endeavour was used for one of the world’s earliest scientific voyages, and is responsible for amassing information that has shaped human history,” says Shipway in the statement. “If this wreck was on land, more would be done to preserve it, but because it is underwater I believe there is a real danger of it being out of sight and out of mind.”