As It Happens

Voracious shipworms threaten what's believed to be the wreck of the Endeavour

After almost 250 years at the bottom of the sea, the remains of the ship believed to be Captain James Cook's Endeavour may be at risk. Marine biologist Reuben Shipway spoke to As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner.

Efforts to preserve the historic structure in race against 'termites of the sea,' says marine biologist

Shot of worms and holes in a piece of wood.
Shipworms, also known as 'termites of the sea,' were discovered to be consuming the wreck of the ship believed to be the Endeavour. (Reuben Shipway/Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project)

Story Transcript

After nearly 250 years at the bottom of the sea, the remains of the ship believed to be Capt. James Cook's Endeavour may be at risk of destruction. 

A marine biologist who has seen the wreck firsthand says it is riddled with shipworms and gribbles — also known as "termites of the sea" — that are making a meal of it.

"The shipworms eat the inside of the wood and the gribbles eat the outside surface of the wood, and together, both of them will basically consume a piece of wood very, very quickly," Reuben Shipway told As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner. 

Shipworms are wood-eating clams that can grow to about 1.5 metres in length, according to Shipway, while gribbles are a small wood-eating crustacean, about the size of an ant. 

WATCH | See what Shipway saw when he dove to the shipwreck off Rhode Island: 

Endeavour's history

Cook, a British explorer, sailed the South Pacific on the Endeavour between 1768 and 1771. He became the first European to chart Australia's east coast and claimed the land for Great Britain.

The vessel was later part of a fleet of 13 ships the British deliberately sunk during the Revolutionary War in 1778 off the coast of the U.S.

In February, the Australian National Maritime Museum announced that the wreck off Rhode Island in the U.S. had been positively identified as the Endeavour. 

Still, questions linger about whether it really is the Endeavour — and now any work to confirm it might be threatened by the voracious insects.

Decaying wood and shipworms.
Shipworms can grow to about 1.5 metres in length, while gribbles are about the size of an ant. (Reuben Shipway/Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project)

Shipway, a lecturer at the University of Plymouth, was able to identify the species of shipworm during a dive to the Endeavour site earlier this month. 

And the damage they've caused is already considerable, he says. Only about 15 per cent of the ship's original wooden structure remains. Thankfully, some of it remains buried under sediment. 

"If the entire wreck was uncovered, they would eat the whole thing," he said. "That's the reason why most wooden shipwrecks don't exist anymore… they've been eaten by these animals."

He said sediment can shift, leaving the wood exposed. 

"When that happens, these animals can basically colonize the wood and then they can do their damage." 

And they work fast. In warm waters, shipworms can consume a wreck in about two years, said Shipway. In cooler waters, it takes about four. 

A medium wide shot of a scientist in a lab with a piece of equipment over his shoulder.
Marine Biologist Reuben Shipway dove to the site earlier this month and identified the species of shipworms. (Reuben Shipway/Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project)

A fairly simple solution, he said, is to keep the wreck covered. 

"But it requires constant monitoring. And you need to make sure that, you know, all the local fishermen know not to dredge over the area, and you need to check it after storms… to make sure the sediments haven't shifted. So it's a fairly easy fix."

But also an expensive one.

Shipway says if such an important part of history were on land, it would get all the funding necessary to protect and preserve it.

"But because this is under water, it's kind of out of sight, out of mind," said Shipway. "In general, marine archeology just does not get the same backing, despite the fact that it's so important."

Shipworms on a piece of wood against a measuring tape.
The shipworms can consume an entire wreck in about 2 to 4 years, depending on the temperature of the water. (Reuben Shipway/Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project)

He would like to see the governments of the U.K., Australia and the U.S. work together to make sure what he calls "one of the most important maritime, archeological and cultural heritage sites in the world" is salvaged.

"This was one of the world's first scientific voyages," he said. "It was something that, you know, united three different continents, played a really important role in the battle for American independence. 

"And if we can't preserve something like that, what can we actually preserve?"

Written by Stephanie Hogan, with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Chris Trowbridge. 

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