Turks & Caicos: Endymion Rock

turksendymion093Survey Location: Endymion Rock, Turks & Caicos

Dates: November 28 – December 13, 2007

Principal Investigator
Dr. Donald Keith
Lead Archaeologist, Ships of Discovery

In Collaboration With
Ships of Discovery
Turks & Caicos Museum
Turks & Caicos Dept. of Environment and Coastal Resources

Historical Background
The Turks Island Passage has been well-traveled since Columbus and is one of the main avenues for ships of all nationalities moving between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. At the southern end of the passage lies Endymion Rock, a shallow reef named for HMS Endymion, a British Fifth Rate that wrecked there in 1790. It has long been rumored that other shipwrecks lie in the vicinity.

Expedition Summary
The Waitt Institute partnered with Ships of Discovery and the Turks and Caicos National Museum for this exploratory survey of the Endymion Rock area.  Leading the expedition as Principal Investigator was Dr. Donald H. Keith, a nautical archaeologist and trustee of the Turks and Caicos National Museum.

The goal of this two-week expedition was to document the current state of the H.M.S Endymion, as well as search the site for other shipwrecks. The Waitt Institute team performed a side-scan sonar and magnetometer survey of a 12 square kilometer area around and beyond the reef in an effort to locate any lost ships from the 1700’s or any other time period. The research team also dived the site to survey and closely document the Endymion, as well as any other shipwrecks discovered at the site. A further goal of this expedition was to create documentation of the current state of the site for future comparison, while also providing deeper insight into the history of the region. The possibility for discovery of unknown wrecks was also high.

Expedition Team Members

Donald Keith/Principal Investigator
Lead Archaeologist, Ships of Discovery

Dominique Rissolo/Expedition Coordinator
Executive Director, Waitt Institute

Joe Lepore/Dive Safety Officer, Surveyor
Dive Safety Officer, Waitt Institute

Michael Dessner/Logistics Coordinator, Surveyor
Director of Operations, Waitt Institute

Jeff Morris/Director of Survey Operations
Director, Azulmar Research, LLC

Mike Cameron/Sonar Technician, Surveyor
Director and Chief Pilot, Dark Matter, LLC

Steve Bilicki/Surveyor
Maritime Archaeologist, Azulmar Research, LLC

Lance Milbrand/Videographer
Director, Milbrand Cinema

From the Expedition Leader — Dr. Donald Keith

On August 24, 1790, the British 44-gun 5th Rate, HMS Endymion, was approaching the southern entrance to the Turks Islands Pass when she struck a previously uncharted coral pinnacle. The ship shuttered to a stop, fatally wounded but impaled on the pinnacle and unable to sink. The officers and crew of Endymion fought to save their ship, cutting away the masts and rigging and trying to locate and patch the breech in their hull, but to no avail. Three days after striking, Endymion slipped off and disappeared beneath the waves, a moment captured in a sketch showing her going down by the head and the last of the crew escaping down a rope dangling from the stern to one of Endymion’s boats.

Fast forward 217 years… In October of 2007, Dr. Dominique Rissolo, the Waitt Institute’s Executive Director, contacted Ships of Discovery to ask for our help finding a place where the Institute could perform a shakedown cruise to test the equipment installed on their research vessel, preferably on a shipwreck site. I suggested a survey around Endymion Rock. With deep water to the East and West and HMS Endymion and another, more recent unidentified “Companion Wreck” clustered in shallow water, Endymion Rock could give the Waitt Institute team a chance to test their deep- and shallow-water towing abilities as well as to work out procedures.

But the clincher for the idea was the fact that the Turks and Caicos Islands have a National Museum well-stocked with the tools of the underwater archaeologist, which could provide logistics and communications support.

The survey objectives were simple: deep and shallow water instrument surveys followed by anomaly investigations using the Waitt Institute’s ROV in deep water and SCUBA in shallow water, then accumulating as much documentation on Endymion and the Companion Wreck as possible. When no deep-water targets were detected, we focused most of our efforts on the two shipwrecks at Endymion Rock. Having already surveyed Endymion briefly 7 years earlier, I had a short list of features to look for, principally documenting the main battery and determining the wreck’s orientation. Other areas to look for were the shot magazine, small arms locker, galley, and chain pump.

With respect to the main battery, one of the questions we had was: where are all the cannon? Endymion should have had a main battery of 44 long guns in addition to a number of carronades, yet the most we counted was 22 long guns and 2 carronades. Had some of the cannons been salvaged? Was there another part of the wreck site that we had not seen?

For clarity, I superimposed silhouettes over the three12-ft anchors and 22 cannons in the photo mosaic from our survey in 2000. The anchors make it clear that Endymion’s bow faced left. The Waitt Institute survey turned up 6 more cannons and left us with the impression that all the guns are still there on the site, but many of them are invisible, buried underneath other cannons and wreck debris.

Having given the “Companion Wreck” short shrift during our earlier survey, we were determined to try to identify it. The site is an undersea junkyard with debris spread out over hundreds of feet of the seabed. The trick would be to find something truly diagnostic. The four anchors were our first dating clue: they told us that the Companion Wreck went down some time after the introduction of the stockless anchor in the 1880’s.

Combing the site for clues, we discovered that our ROV pilot and underwater robot designer, Mike Cameron, had a hitherto unrealized ability not only to recognize objects of potential diagnostic significance amid all the wreckage, but also to measure and draw them underwater. His drawings enabled us to match them with illustrations of a similar shaft, hub, and propeller found in a 19th century source.

This group of about 40 or 50 images captures most of the Companion Wreck site. The ship’s bow came to rest at the upper left, as evidenced by heaps of anchor chain. The stern lay toward the lower right of the mosaic where we found the engine, or engines, a broken propeller blade, a propeller shaft, and propeller shaft strut. In between lay a large riveted iron compartment so similar to ones found in deeper water hundreds of meters to the West that we believe they are also part of the Companion Wreck.

No one realized that the research vessel’s Chief Engineer, New Zealander Peter Dorrington, is something of an amateur marine propulsion historian—until he visited the site and, with a glance at the engines told us that they are very early diesels, probably built between 1910 and 1920. In one fell stroke he narrowed down our search for the Companion Wreck’s identity from the entire age of steam to a single decade!

An entry in the Northern Shipwrecks Database appears to be the missing link needed to identify the Companion Wreck as the gas-screw auxillary five-masted schooner General Pershing, a wooden hull vessel built 1918 in Olympia, Washington state, and lost on “Endamion” shoal July 11, 1921. This brief newspaper account appears to confirm that General Pershing sank on Endymion Reef near Turks Island. Curiously, the tonnage is only about three quarters of what is listed in the Northern Shipwrecks database. Equally puzzling is the reference to a cargo of coal—only tiny fragments were found at the site. How could hundreds of tons of coal disappear? Was it all salvaged somehow shortly after sinking?

The Waitt Institute for Discovery’s Endymion Rock Survey of 2007 was primarily a shakedown and training cruise with limited archaeological aspirations. As such it was a complete success. Not only did we succeed in identifying the “companion wreck,” and determining that all of Endymion’s cannons are probably present, but we also laid to rest the persistent rumor that there are other shipwrecks within the Protected Area designated by the Turks and Caicos Islands government around Endymion Rock. But where the expedition succeeded spectacularly was with respect to the cooperation that took place between individuals and entities, and the opportunities that were presented to learn from each other. Carefully coordinated cooperative efforts based on partnerships like this can make marine archaeological efforts such as this less difficult and expensive.