Born on November 7th, 1728, Captain James Cook was a British naval captain, navigator, and explorer. In 1770, he famously charted New Zealand and the Great Barrier Reef on his ship. He also disproved the existence of Terra Australis, which was believed to be a southern continent.

At 18 years old, Captain Cook became an apprentice in the British merchant navy. By 1758 he had been to Canada as part of his service to the navy, and he was the master of his ship!

Cook studied many subjects, including astronomy, geography, math, and charting. The Royal Navy recognized his skill and knowledge of astronomy, which led to him becoming the leader of an astronomical expedition. He was also promoted to the role of Lieutenant on his First Voyage.

What did Captain Cook discover?

Captain Cook sailed around the world twice during his lifetime! He went on three voyages that uncovered important information about the world.

First Voyage (1768-1771)

In 1766, Cook was hired to travel to the Pacific Ocean to observe and record a transit of Venus across the Sun. This is when the planet Venus passes between the sun and another world. You can see Venus from Earth as a small black dot moving across the sun during a transit! It was thought that measuring and recording this would enable experts to calculate the distance between the sun and the Earth.

Cook began the trip in 1768 and arrived in Tahiti, French Polynesia, in 1769, but his scientific equipment was not precise enough to measure the transit accurately.

The Royal Navy had also given Cook special instructions for this voyage. He was to search for the mythical continent of Terra Australis and, if it was uninhabited, take possession of it in the name of the King of Great Britain. Accordingly, Cook explored the South Pacific with the help of a Tahitian named Tupaia and reached New Zealand.

Cook mapped the entire coastline of New Zealand for the first time, then continued to map and chart the east coast of Australia. Cook and his crew members were the first known Europeans to see Australia in 1770! They landed at Botany Bay and made contact with some Indigenous people.

The Great Barrier Reef was also discovered during this trip, but Cook didn’t find the continent of Terra Australis.

Second Voyage (1772-1775)

For his second voyage, Cook set sail to look for Terra Australis again at the Royal Navy’s request. However, even though Cook was convinced that this mythical continent did not exist, a Scottish geographer named Alexander Dalrymple refused to believe him.

On this trip, Cook traveled through the Pacific Ocean and became the first European to cross the Antarctic Circle on January 17, 1773. He mapped many previously unknown islands and societies in the Pacific and landed at Friendly Island and Easter Island. He also firmly proved that the continent of Terra Australis did not exist.

When he returned to England, Cook was gifted with an honorary retirement from the Royal Navy, but this was not his last trip on the oceans!

Third Voyage (1776-1779)

Cook took to the seas again in search of the Northwest Passage. This supposed shortcut through the Arctic Ocean could connect Europe, Asia, and America. If it were found, it would be easier and faster to travel between the three continents, improving trade.

Cook explored the northern Pacific, mapped extensive parts of America (including the coast of California), and became the first European to visit the Hawaiian islands. As a result, he named the Sandwich Islands after the 4th Earl of Sandwich.

This was Cook’s last voyage – when he landed on Kealakekua Bay on February 14th, 1779, a confrontation with Hawaii Indigenous peoples resulted in his death.

Fun facts about Captain Cook for Children

  • Cook’s most famous ships were named Endeavor, Resolution, and Discovery.
  • In 1762, he married Elizabeth Batts and had six children.
  • He was born in Yorkshire, England.
  • The Royal Society awarded him the Copley Medal in 1776.
  • A goat came along on Cook’s first voyage – this goat is believed to be the first recorded instance of an animal circumnavigating the world!
  • Many cities, towns, counties, and other features in Australia and New Zealand are named after him because of his discoveries there.
  • One of the craters on the moon is called the Cook Crater, named after Cook.
  • The sharp coral in the Great Barrier Reef nearly sunk the HMS Endeavor. It took Cook and his crew two months to fully repair it.
  • Cook narrowly missed discovering Antarctica!
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