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Captain Cook in Google Earth: Cape York to the Indonesian seas

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The channel next to the mainland was blocked by shoals and rocks (22Aug1770)

The channel next to the mainland was blocked by shoals and rocks (22Aug1770)

Even before reaching the western edge of Cape York it was clear that there was a passage to the south-west between the mainland and some islands. Cook instructed the smaller boats to sound the first channel between the mainland and the first island. They found this to be blocked by rocks and shoals, so Cook gave the signal for them to try the next channel. Here they found not less than 5 fathoms and they sailed through to anchor a few miles beyond the entrance to the channel.

Entrance to Endeavour Strait (22Aug1770)

Entrance to Endeavour Strait (22Aug1770)

Cook looked between the mainland to the south-west and Cape Cornwall on Prince of Wales Island:

Between these 2 points we could see  no land, so that we were in great hopes that we had at last found out a passage into the Indian seas; but in order to be better informed I landed with a party of men…upon the island which lies at the south-east point of the passage…after landing I went upon the highest hill which, however was of no great height, yet no less than twice or thrice the height of the ship’s mastheads; but I could see from it no land between south-west and west-south-west…

Possession Island

Possession Island

There is ambiguity on the internet concerning the island on which Cook landed. Look at this snapshot:

Will the real Possession Island please make itself known?

Will the real Possession Island please make itself known?

Wikipedia (places named by James Cook) goes for the island at the north-east end of the passage; surely that can’t be right. There are certainly some errors in Cook’s journal, but would he go to the island that was lower than the one next to it and further away from the direction he wanted to look?

The Google Earth Borders and Labels layer plumps for a patch of very low lying reef; certainly that is wrong.

I  chose for the tour the island that is actually at the south-east end of the entrance to Endeavour Strait and is actually high enough, at 70 metres, to be ‘no less than twice or thrice the height of the ship’s mastheads’.

There was no land to the south-west

There was no land to the south-west

Even from this vantage point Cook was still objective to the point of reticence:

Having satisfied myself of the great probability of a passage thro’ which I intended to go with the ship, and therefore may land no more upon this eastern coast of New Holland…I now once more hoisted English colours, and in the name of His Majesty King George The Third took possession of the whole eastern coast.

we fired 3 volleys of small arms which were answered by the like number from the ship

we fired 3 volleys of small arms which were answered by the like number from the ship

The following day, Endeavour sailed the length of Endeavour Strait and steered north-west for the small island which Cook named Booby Island (no prizes for guessing why). On entering Torres Strait, Cook noticed the swell from the south-west. This convinced him that there was no land in that direction for some distance and therefore:

…we had got to the westward extremity of Carpentaria, or the northern extremity of New Holland, and had now and open sea to the westward; which gave me no small satisfaction, not only because the danger and fatigues of the voyage was drawing near to an end, but by being able to prove that New Holland and New Guinea are two separate lands or islands, which until this day hath been a doubtful point among geographers.


Today, I added this leg of Cook’s exploration of the Australian coast to my Google Earth tour which presents his first voyage round the world. This leg completes my documentation of Cook’s exploration of Australia, from Point Hicks in the south to Cape York in the north.

Along the way Endeavour made an extended visit to Botany Bay, ran aground on a reef, was repaired in Endeavour river, passed outside the reef through Cook’s passage near Lizard Island, only to be nearly smashed to pieces on its outer edge a few days later. The ship was saved by being able to re-enter the reef system through Providential Channel.

Through perseverance and cautious navigation, Endeavour rounded Cape York less than a week later. Cook landed on Possession Island, from the summit of which he began to believe that he had found a passage between New Holland and New Guinea.

Copyright © Colin Hazlehurst, 2012
Images of Earth © Google and others

If you would like to follow Cook’s voyage, you will need to install the latest version of Google Earth on your computer; then go to the Captain Cook blog  and click on the links on the right-hand side of the page, under the ‘Google Earth’ heading. After the animation is loaded in Google Earth, you need to expand an entry in the Table of Contents. You will see a ‘Play’ icon which you double-click to start the animation. Don’t forget to enable your speakers to hear the spoken journal.

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