Endeavour sailed in light southeasterly winds and clear weather off the east coast of Australia on June 2, 1770, slowly making way to the north. In command was James Cook, a 41-year-old lieutenant acting on secret orders from the Royal Navy to find the vast continent thought to exist in far southern seas. The second Age of Exploration was on, and ships from many nations ranged the oceans. The captains planted flags and claimed new territories.
Cook wasn’t aware of it, but his ship was sailing deep into one of the most beautiful tropical paradises in Australia, a group of 74 islands sheltered behind the Great Barrier Reef that Cook would name the Whitsundays. In Cook’s day, the islands were completely unknown to Europeans until he came upon them, but now they are famous throughout the world as a premier crewed and bareboat charter destination. The Whitsundays are still largely uninhabited and unspoiled, many retaining their natural beauty as part of the Australian national park system. In 1770, though, Cook was engaged in serious business, not a yachting vacation of any sort.
Cook had spent three months at Tahiti the previous year documenting the transit of Venus across the face of the sun. Scientists hoped the observations would provide invaluable data needed to calculate the distance of the earth from the sun. But the mission that prompted Cook’s first voyage was more far-reaching. Among the 94 men and officers aboard the small ship, which was only 106 feet in length, were many scientists. One of them was Sir Joseph Banks, a leading naturalist in England who had been busily collecting specimens of exotic plants. His findings would stun the scientific community.
In July 1769, the work at Tahiti was done, and Cook opened his secret orders. He plotted a course nearly due south, and then turned west, eventually raising New Zealand. He spent weeks charting the coasts of both islands and he was doing the same in Australia, hugging the shore and hoping he had found the southern continent.
At sunset, a series of high large and small islands hove into view. Cook anchored, unsure if a safe passage existed. Early on Sunday morning, Endeavour got under way, sailing northward and finding clear water. Cook wrote: “The whole passage is one Continued safe Harbour, besides a Number of small Bays and Coves on each side.” He also noted that the land “looked green and pleasant.” Cook named the place Whitsundays Passage, “as it was discover’d on the day the Church commemorates that Festival.”
As Cook guided Endeavour north of Whitsundays Passage, the Great Barrier Reef closed in. Tensions aboard rose and on the night of June 11, Endeavour ran hard aground, holing the bow on sharp coral. It took nearly 24 hours of constant work to plug the hole, pump the bilges, and jettison cannons and ballast to lighten the ship and float it free of the reef.
After the damage was repaired, Cook sailed on, carefully threading his way through the Great Barrier Reef, searching for a break in the seemingly endless miles of coral. Finally, in mid-August, he located a pass now known as Cook’s Passage, and made his way to the open sea, eventually charting the entire coast of eastern Australia and claiming it for Britain before reaching Dover, England, in July 1771 as a national hero. In 1779, during his third voyage to the Pacific, Cook was killed in a conflict with Hawaiians, thus ending the career of one of Britain’s most noteworthy mariners.
Editor’s Note: David W. Shaw is the author of seven nonfiction books, including a historical account of Flying Cloud, America’s most famous clipper ship. To find charter boats in the area, view the Whitsundays listings. Photos and map courtesy of Tourism Whitsundays.