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A R.I. wreck that may be Captain Cook’s Endeavour is being eaten by ‘shipworms’

Sometimes called termites of the ocean, the worm-like mollusk is attacking the ship’s exposed wood.

Reuben Shipway, a UK-based researcher and lecturer, split open a piece of wood from the dive site at what might be Captain Cook's HMB Endeavour. He found a "labyrinth of shipworm tunnels." The tissue connecting the two halves of wood is a shipworm.Reuben Shipway © RIMAP 2022

PROVIDENCE — Reuben Shipway saw it pretty much as soon as he got down to the murky bottom of Newport Harbor on Aug. 7: a piece of wood from what may be Captain James Cook’s famed HMB Endeavour.

But he saw something else, too: telltale signs of damage from an aggressive species of worm-like mollusk called the shipworm. They’d torn through the middle, carving what looked like honeycombs out of the wood. For Shipway, a lecturer in marine biology at the University of Plymouth in England and an expert in shipworms, it wasn’t exactly surprising. Shipworms are sometimes called the termites of the ocean.

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It was, though, a warning sign. And a call to action to preserve the site.

“It means one of the most important wrecks in human history is being destroyed right underneath our noses,” Shipway said in a Zoom interview. “This is a vessel that connects the UK to Australia, and to America, because it also played a really important role in the battle for American independence. It’s our shared cultural heritage. And it’s being destroyed.”

Shipway’s journey from Plymouth, England to the waters of Rhode Island began earlier this year, after he saw the news coverage of the dispute over whether the shipwreck in Newport Harbor really is Cook’s Endeavour.

UK-based researcher and lecturer Reuben Shipway.Reuben Shipway

By way of background: The Australian National Maritime Museum said in February that a shipwreck site north of Goat Island known as RI 2394, long suspected as being Cook’s Endeavour, was indeed the famed ship that helped lead to England’s colonization of Australia. After Cook’s voyage, Endeavour — renamed the Lord Sandwich — served as British transport and prison ship during the Revolutionary War. But in August 1778, the Brits scuttled her and 12 other ships in and around Newport Harbor to block a French fleet arriving to help American rebels. The Australians said they were confident they knew where she was.

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That would have been momentous enough, but what kicked the story into overdrive was what happened next: A Rhode Island expert named D.K. Abbass, whose organization collaborated with the museum for years, forcefully pushed back. Abbass said the wreck may be Endeavour, but it also might not be. More to the point, it wasn’t the Australians’ call to make, Abbass and her defenders say: She’s been working on the shipwrecks for longer than anyone, even before anyone knew that Endeavour might be in Rhode Island.

Watching the resulting dispute from England, Shipway, whose research focuses on wood-eating marine invertebrates, decided to reach out to Abbass. From there, a collaboration began.

On Sunday, Shipway made it to Rhode Island, all the way to Endeavour’s — maybe — resting place. (Abbass’s Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project has a permit to be there, Abbass emphasized, mindful of concerns that anyone might go down there and disturb the site.) Shipway spent the day Wednesday looking at shipworm samples under a microscope at Harvard University. He saw larvae on their gills — that meant they were breeding. The science and the biology that Shipway specializes in can help inform what should happen to preserve the wreck, and others like it. (Shipway is from the United Kingdom but spent a few years in Massachusetts, including time at Northeastern and the University of Massachusetts.)

Shipway sent his broad overview to Abbass: The exposed pieces of wood on the harbor floor are being eaten from within by a species known as teredo navalis, or naval shipworm. That damage is ongoing, Shipway said. The shipworms’ guts are full of wood.

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There’s also damage happening from the outside. Shipway found evidence that a crustacean species called gribbles had eaten at the wood from the outside, a sort of two-pronged attack that will, in time, eat anything that’s exposed to water until it’s gone.

About 10 to 15 percent of the ship that may be Endeavour is estimated to remain. And, indeed, the other 85 to 90 percent of it that’s gone might have fallen victim to shipworms, which may have eaten it or weakened it so much that it got scattered and lost forever. The shipwreck at RI 2394 is safe from shipworms and gribbles so long as it’s buried under sediment, and most of it is — but it takes just one storm to uncover even more of it, and over time the natural ebb and flow of sediments could mean that the shipwreck has some future theoretical vanishing point, Shipway said.

A replica of the ship the Endeavour is at anchor in Botany Bay, Sydney.Mark Baker/Associated Press

Anyone who cares about Endeavour and other shipwrecks needs to come up with resources and funding for Abbass to protect this and other sites, because even if it’s out of sight, it shouldn’t be out of mind, Shipway said.

Abbass — known for her relentless pursuit of the truth or her harmful stubbornness and insularity, depending on whether you like her or not — said they’ve long known the site was being eaten away. It’s a common story when you put wood in water. But based on Shipway’s presentation, they’ll be able to take more informed steps to combat it. For instance, they took up what’s called dredge spoil from RI 2394 for study. They have to eventually return it to the site. And they plan to put it back on the parts of the wreck that are uncovered now.

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“His advice was really helpful for the preservation of the site,” Abbass said.

Abbass, meanwhile, is planning for a report potentially sometime later this month about field work on what may be Endeavour, but time will tell whether she’ll ever be satisfied enough to make a definitive call on whether or not RI 2394 is Endeavour. When pressed on it, she tends to note that the focus on Endeavour obscures other important shipwrecks. The Lord Sandwich ex Endeavour — LSexE, pronounced “El sexy,” as RIMAP cheekily notes — is just one of 13 ships that the British intentionally sank. They’re all important, Abbass emphasizes.

Shipway’s work raises another question: Can it help determine whether the shipwreck is Endeavour? If he’d found some exotic species of sea-dwelling invertebrate in the wreck, it might have suggested a ship that had spent time in, say, the Pacific. They haven’t found anything like that yet, although that would have been pretty surprising.

So how would Rhode Island go further to protect the site? Some shipwrecks have been raised and brought to land, Shipway noted, and created vast opportunities for cultural heritage, like the Mary Rose in England. It also would cost a lot to do that, and there’s little funding for this work as it is. You could also bury it further, preventing the shipworms from doing their destruction, but you’d also have to monitor and manage it continuously, Shipway said. What’s not on the table, Shipway said, is getting rid of shipworms, which, while they menace everything from piers to historic shipwrecks, play an important role in the ecosystem.

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Abbass has strong feelings about this, too: nobody has the money to bring the ship up, and that could harm what remains, Abbass said. She said her organization is doing the work of preserving the site and preventing further damage, and that it would be insulting to suggest otherwise. And, she cautioned, just because it’s damaged doesn’t mean people can go down there and take pieces of it for themselves.

In any event: There’s a bit of a coincidence in this story. Shipway is now based at a university in Plymouth, England. That happens to be where Endeavour set out on Cook’s historic voyage more than 250 years ago. It was indeed an endeavor, and it may have ended up at the bottom of Newport Harbor. But maybe not forever.

“It was a journey into the unknown,” Shipway said of Cook’s voyage. “And that should be something that unites all of us and gives us all hope that even though we face uncertainty in the future, our ingenuity will lead us to success. If we want to explore other planets, if we want to deal with the problems of the future, whether it’s climate change or future pandemic, I think it’s important to preserve monumental feats of human ingenuity from history.”



Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him @bamaral44.