200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 45: “Three Heavy Fish ”

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photo of Cook's cannon being hoisted onto a boat
One of the Endeavour cannons being hoisted onto the aft deck of the salvage boat:(Photography courtesy of James C. Tyler.)

Three Heavy Fish


Explorers based in Hope Island, Australia, near the Great Barrier Reef sent this cryptic telegram to two Australian officials on the night of January 12, 1969. That same night, Australian Governor General Richard Casey and Academy President H. Radclyffe Roberts received phone calls with identical information. The “tons sinkers” referred to the ballasts from an old sailing ship, and the “three heavy fish” were three 18th-century ship cannons. An Academy expedition had discovered the location where Captain James Cook’s H.M.B. Endeavour ran aground on the Reef in 1770. In a desperate effort to free the ship, Cook’s crew threw the ship’s cannons and ballasts overboard to lighten the load.

The 1969 expedition achieved its two goals: to survey and collect marine fish, and to discover the site where Cook ran aground and recover artifacts that remained. The salvage party included Virgil Kauffman, Alfred L. Wolf, Kenneth Myers, and Griscom Bettle. Kauffman and Wolf, both avid divers and active Academy supporters, provided most of the expedition’s financial backing. Myers operated the magnetometer that revealed the presence of the cast iron cannons, while Bettle assisted in diving operations. The scientists who collected several barrels of fishes, which represented more than 200 species, included James C. Tyler from the Academy’s Ichthyology Department and C. Lavett Smith from the American Museum of Natural History.

Crews recovered all six cannons, numerous ballasts, and the ship’s anchor. Five of the cannons were put on display in museums located in Australia, New Zealand, and England. You can see the sixth right here at the Academy!

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