Underwater jigsaw puzzle of Captain Cook's ship Endeavour

Story highlights

  • The search for Captain Cook's Endeavour centers on two square miles in Newport
  • Cook helped shape the map of the world on board the vessel from 1770
  • For years, its whereabouts remained but it is now thought it was scuttled in 1778
  • It is part of a total of 13 18th Century ships under water in Newport Harbour

(CNN)This is no treasure hunt for a casket of gold at the bottom of the ocean.

Instead, it's like looking for a needle in a haystack, with this search potentially for no more than a few partly rotten timber frames on Newport Harbor's sea floor.
    For years, the whereabouts of one of the most famous ships in nautical history -- HMS Endeavour -- has remained a mystery.
      "I don't like to call it treasure as there's no gold or silver," Dr Kathy Abbass, the executive director of Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project, a not-for-profit organization set up in 1992 set up to study the area's maritime history, told CNN. "But it's an intellectual treasure."
      The Endeavour is now believed to have been intentionally sunk -- in a new life and under a new name -- during the American Revolution in 1778.
      Endeavour is endemic to every Australian and New Zealand child's education with a rich British and American history to boot.
        It was the boat on which Captain James Cook achieved the first recorded contact with the east coast of Australia, Hawaii, and the first circumnavigation of New Zealand.
        Cook also provided the first accurate map of the Pacific and is believed to have shaped the world map more than any other explorer in history.
        So how exactly did the British Royal Navy vessel get from exploring undiscovered far flung lands to lying in waters off the east coast of the United States, sharing the ocean floor with torpedoes and other 18th Century vessels?
        A visit by Abbass to the Public Records' Office, now The National Archives, in London uncovered the fact that Endeavour had been sold into private hands and was known as the Lord Sandwich by the time of its demise.
        "Lord Sandwich was the first lord of the admiralty at the time so the name makes sense -- a nod by its private owner," she says. "We know from its size, dimension and these records that the Sandwich was the Endeavour."
        In its new guise, it was used to house Patriot prisoners before it was one of 13 ships scuttled in a bid to stop a French invasion at Rhode Island.
        "The American army was assembled on the mainland and the French sent a fleet to help," she continues. "There's speculation that had the French fleet succeeded on that day, the revolution would have ended in Rhode Island rather than linger on for five more years.
        "The British knew they were at great risk so they ordered 13 ships out to be scuttled in a line to blockade the city. They were sunk in fairly shallow waters. The French realized they couldn't get close to the city and had to stay away but they still cannoned the city."
        It is a far cry from its previous existence, arriving in Botany Bay (part of the greater metropolis that is Sydney now) in 1770.
        It was a voyage on which it first came close to its demise by running aground on Australia's Great Barrier Reef, a section later renamed Endeavour Reef, which Cook navigated in the dark and from which he escaped by ditching weapons on board to lighten the load of the vessel.
        It is now believed to rest alongside 12 other vessels in a two-square-mile area where that conjoined scuttling took place eight years later.
        Nine of the ships have already been located -- the most recent just last month -- and there is every chance that Endeavour could already be among those nine, although reaching that conclusion is a slow and pain-staking process.
        Simple math would suggest