A ragtag team of modern-day explorers have cemented their place in history, discovering what is believed to be the world’s first verifiable artefact from the HMS Beagle.
The famous British naval vessel is best known for transporting Charles Darwin on a global expedition that led to his ground-breaking theories on evolution and natural selection.
It also played a pivotal role in Australian history when, from 1837-1843, its crew circumnavigated the country, giving many of our towns and ports their English names.
But despite an illustrious history and a fervent fan base, the ship has achieved almost enigmatic status, not only because its final resting place is not clear, but because no artefact has ever been found — until now.
Expedition leader John Canaris last month led a team of nine — including Dunsborough marine ecologist and Busselton Jetty board member Chris Lane, of O2 Marine — to the Northern Territory, where they spent a week searching for two anchors that were lost while the vessel was mapping the wild Victoria River.
That voyage was to be the Beagle’s third — and last — before it was refitted as a static coastguard ship off the coast of England.
Its fate is not clear but historians believe it was likely sold for scraps.
There have been countless efforts to track down parts of the ship, but all have failed.
Three attempts have specifically been made to recover the anchors over the years, some led by wealthy businessmen and billionaire investors.
But Mr Canaris, whose family has strong ties to the NT, was not put off by the failures.
Instead, he pored over the expeditions, learned from their mistakes and assembled his “ragtag A-team” of explorers for a journey to the Top End to have a crack.
With ancient maps and high-tech equipment, the crew spent a week at sea going over the areas they believed the anchors were.
But with the river’s wild conditions, search efforts were limited to just a few hours each day.
“It’s a dangerous, huge thing, one or 2km wide in some points, extreme currents, tough conditions — I’ve never seen anything like it,” Mr Canaris said.
“And it’s practically uncharted; the charts that we were using were based on what the Beagle took in 1839.”
Mr Lane, who headed up surveying, said almost the entire crew were eagerly piled into the survey boat in the expedition’s early days, but as the trip neared the end and there had been no eureka moment, most had gravitated back to the mother ship.
By the time the discovery was made, it was just Mr Lane and the boat skipper.
“We didn’t want to raise the alarm on the mother ship straight away … so we spent the next two hours verifying it, but I knew straight away,” Mr Lane said.
“We put the Dom (Perignon) on ice as soon as we spotted it.
“It was a big celebration after that.”
Just one anchor was found but the crew have now gathered enough knowledge to confidently go back and search for the other.
Mr Canaris described the find as like being transported back in time.
“It was an incredible feeling … and a really important discovery,” he said.
“These anchors are the last remaining pieces of this ship, which makes them among the most important maritime artefacts in the world.”
The team, which included Ben and Margot Wall, Dave Turner, Claudio Deldeo, James Wheeler, Clayton Cross and Tommy Lawrence, will return to the NT next year to recover the anchor and search for the other.
They are in talks with historical societies, including the HMS Beagle Trust in London, about how best to preserve and display the findings.