Three divers at HMS Pandora shipwreck site

HMS Pandora

HMS Pandora was the Royal Navy warship dispatched to the South Pacific in pursuit of the infamous HMS Bounty mutineers. The mutiny on the Bounty remains one of the best-known stories in the history of seafaring. To understand the story of HMS Pandora, we must start with the story of HMS Bounty.

Mutiny on HMS Bounty

Bounty had been sent to Tahiti on a special mission to collect breadfruit plants, and nurse them until they were resilient enough to transport across the sea to the West Indies.

The crew lived on Tahiti for several months while the breadfruit seedlings grew. During this time, they became a part of the Tahitian community, some even married into local families. In April 1789, 25 men mutinied when it came time to leave Tahiti and take the breadfruit plants to in the British West Indies.

The leader of the mutiny was Fletcher Christian, the Bounty's acting lieutenant who felt slighted by his commander, Captain William Bligh, and, in an outburst of rage and frustration, incited several members of his watch to take the ship and cast adrift 19 of their shipmates, including Bligh.

Four months later, following an unsuccessful attempt to establish a settlement on Tubuai, one of the Austral Islands, the Bounty's mutinous crew fell out with each other. Sixteen mutineers elected to return to Tahiti in September 1789, after which Fletcher Christian sailed off with HMS Bounty to an unknown destination with eight others and their Polynesian entourage. In the meantime, Bligh managed to return to England, where he reported the mutiny and the loss of his ship to the Lords of the Admiralty.

HMS Pandora is dispatched, and the sequel to the Bounty mutiny begins…

Discover Pandora’s Story.

Visit the HMS Pandora Gallery exhibition at the Queensland Museum Tropics to discover more about the incredible story of HMS Pandora and its search for the Bounty.

Pandora's story

The story of Pandora begins when news of the mutiny of the Bounty is delivered to the Admiralty in England. Upon the report being made, the Royal Navy frigate HMS Pandora was dispatched in November 1790 to reclaim the Bounty and its 25 ‘pirate’ crew.

Preparing Pandora
Captain Edward Edwards was entrusted with the mission to find the ship and capture the mutinied crew. On the South Pacific voyage, Pandora was carrying a special armament of guns and carronades, and was laden with provisions for the additional officers, midshipmen and seamen, as well as stores and fittings to crew, refit, and supply Bounty, should it be recaptured.

With 135 men on board, Pandora left Portsmouth on 7 November 1790, and sailed around Cape Horn, via Tenerife and Rio de Janeiro, arriving at Matavai Bay, Tahiti on 23 March 1791.

The search for the Bounty
Within hours of the ship's arrival at Matavai Bay, five of the mutineers came on-board voluntarily. The mutineers informed Pandora’s crew that the day before Pandora arrived, some mutineers had sailed off in a self-made boat, but with little provisions on board and were likely to soon return.

Proving accurate, by 9 April 1791, nine more “pirates” were found, brought on-board and taken prisoner. Two other mutineers died during a feud before Pandora’s arrival.

The remaining nine fugitives, including Fletcher Christian, had left Tahiti in Bounty in September 1789, and had not been seen or heard of since.

Fourteen captives were secured in what was dubbed ‘Pandora's Box’ – a cramped prison cell on Pandora's quarterdeck.

Captain Edwards searched for Bounty in the South Pacific for nearly four months, venturing to Society Islands, the Cook, Union and Samoan islands, and Tonga, but never located the ship or its pirate crew.

The mutineers had found refuge on uncharted, uninhabited Pitcairn Island, which lay well to the east of the South Pacific area being searched by the Pandora. No trace of them would be detected until 1808, when the American sealer, Topaz happened on Pitcairn and found the mutineers' descendants. By then, only one mutineer, John Adams, was still alive.

The mutineer crew had burnt the ship at sea, and the Bounty was destroyed.

Woman with boy and girl walking in front of HMS Pandora display

The museum's Pandora exhibition shares the incredible story of the infamous ship. Image: Queensland Museum.

The sinking of Pandora
On 25 August 1791, Pandora encountered the first islands (Mer Island) and reefs of the Great Barrier Reef. Staying safe in open Coral Sea waters by night, and venturing back towards the reefs by day, they eventually spotted a large opening.

In this dubious position, at the edge of the reef, with fading afternoon light likely making it difficult to see reefs beneath, a strong tidal current pushing the frigate further to the entrance, and later with a flooding tide, Pandora struck the reef around 7:20 pm.

Aided by the rising tide, the crew managed to re-float the vessel after several hours aground, and came to anchor at about midnight, but the hull was damaged and leaking badly.

Three prisoners were let out of "Pandora’s box" to assist at the pumps, and by all accounts, the crew performed splendidly – pumping water, making repairs, fothering (covering with sails) the hull or heaving guns overboard to lighten the ship.

During the night one of the pumps broke down and the crew could not keep ahead of the water flowing in. At dawn, it was clear that nothing more could be done, and orders were given to abandon ship and to release the remaining prisoners.

Survival at sea
Eighty-nine crew and ten prisoners survived the sinking. Four prisoners and 31 of Pandora’s crew perished.

The 99 survivors made for a tiny sand cay about 4 km away in just four open boats and very little provisions. They called this tiny island “Escape Cay” – it is one of four existing cays in the area now called Pandora's Entrance.

The survivors spent two nights on Escape Cay, before setting out for Timor-Kupang, the closest European settlement in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). They arrived in Timor after an arduous 18-day, 2200 km voyage through the Great Barrier Reef, Torres Strait and across the Arafura Sea.

Prosecuting the ‘Pirates’
Arriving in England in June 1792, the 10 surviving mutineers were sent to Portsmouth to stand trial, the charge was mutiny. Four mutineers were found not guilty and immediately released, as William Bligh had vouched for their innocence. Six prisoners were found guilty and sentenced to death, however, only three were actually executed. Upon appeal, one was acquitted on a legal technicality and two received a Royal pardon.

Discover what happened to Pandora

Visit the incredible collection of artefacts from HMS Pandora at the Queensland Museum Tropics.

Archaeology of the shipwreck

Laying undetected for almost 200 years, today, the Pandora wreck site is one of the most significant shipwrecks in the Southern Hemisphere.

Site location
Pandora is located within Pandora Entrance, approximately 5 km north-west of Moulter Cay towards the northern reaches of the Great Barrier Reef - approximately 140 km east of Cape York, on the edge of the Coral Sea. The site is a remote and challenging environment. Pandora sits on a sandy sea floor in 30m of water, behind a coral outcrop often with strong currents sweeping across the site.

An archaeologists dream: a well-preserved shipwreck.
After sinking, the substantially intact hull settled into the sea floor, on its starboard side before eventually being buried. As layers of sediment accumulated within and around the hull, the exposed upper levels of the vessel collapsed and disintegrated due to environmental impacts (wave motion, currents, bacteria and wood boring worms).

Objects have tumbled out of the wreck and deposited on the seafloor nearby. Some objects were then buried; others may have been swept some distance from the wrecked hull or become trapped under the stern before its final collapse. The most recognisable and visible features of the wreck include several large iron objects on the seafloor. For example, an anchor and the vessel's galley (Brodie) stove.

Protection of the site
Given the sites significance it is protected under Australian legislation. An area with a radius of 500 metres, centred at the intersection of latitude 11°22'40"S and longitude 143°59'35"E is declared a protected zone under the Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018. A permit is required to enter this protected zone and to dive on the wreck. Permits can be applied for via the Department of Environment and Science (Queensland Government). The protected zone is regularly patrolled by aerial surveillance craft. Penalties apply for entering the zone without a permit.

Research vessel out at sea

Research vessel during the 1984 expedition to Pandora wreck site. Image: Queensland Museum.


Unlike the majority of historic ships wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef, Pandora is unique. Most vessels wreck on the reef top and are drastically impacted by the dynamic marine environment of the reef. Instead, Pandora hit the reef, but was refloated before sinking, largely intact and settling into the seabed.

To date, there have been nine archaeological expeditions to Pandora between 1979 and 1999, with more than 7,500 artefacts excavated from the site and housed in the Queensland Museum Tropics.

Archaeological excavation of Pandora provided us with vital insight into aspects like:

  • Daily life on board, such as diet, recreation, hygiene and medicine — telling us about life on board an 18th century naval frigate, and allows us to make wider inferences about society and life in general during the period
  • Cultural background of many of the crew, because many artefacts can be attributed to individuals on-board
  • Knowledge of maritime technology from the vessel itself
  • The extent of exchanges between Pandora’s crew and Pacific Islanders whom they encountered on their voyage
  • Eighteenth century customs in the Royal Navy and maritime exploration of the Pacific.
divers at HMS Pandora shipwreck site

Divers setting up the grid for recording. Anchor in the foreground. Image: Queensland Museum.

Pandora’s archaeology expedition timelines

  • 1980’s: Stage 1 – Exploratory Expeditions of Pandora
  • 1996 – 1998: Stage 2 – Excavation of the ship’s stern area
  • 1999: Stage 2 – Begin excavation of the ship’s bow area
  • 2000: Stage 2 – Continue excavation of bow and preliminary exploration of ship’s midsection. Note: This season was proposed only. 

Due to the remote and challenging location of Pandora, expedition teams have always included people with a mix of experience, qualifications, skills and talents. For example, in 1998 and 1999, the expedition teams comprised 40-45 people with a team of diving archaeologists, assisting divers, conservator, photographer, video camera operator, dive supervisors, and medical doctor with experience in hyperbaric medicine.


A number of specialist processes and techniques are used to manage and conserve, both the wreck site and objects excavated from it. Experienced archaeologists working on Pandora are trained to safely handle and pack recovered artefacts, and transfer the objects from the sea bed to the deck of the work vessel. 

Conserving Pandora’s objects
Archaeologists on Pandora worked closely with conservators on all objects from the site. Artefact conservation preserves material objects, enabling them to be safely studied, displayed or stored without further deterioration or losing its valuable information. It is important to note that objects made from different materials require different conservation techniques.

Artefacts recovered at some depth within the sediment from the Pandora site form a symmetry with the environment and are no longer rapidly deteriorating. Exposing the object to different environmental factors can cause it to ‘shock’ and accelerate the process of deterioration. Conservator's focus on minimising deterioration during excavation so that further conservation treatment of the artefacts is successful.

Conservation begins on the sea floor with the pre-disturbance survey to evaluate the site, assisting archaeologists to understand which objects are most feasible to recover, particularly in the case of cast iron objects such as cannons or stoves.

Archaeologists looking at large oil jar on boat deck

Archaeologists inspecting a large oil jar after lifting to the surface during the 1984 expedition. Image: Queensland Museum, Patrick Baker.

Once an artefact is brought to the surface, it is quickly put through initial registration - photographed and sketched with site specific information recorded. The object is kept wet to minimise deterioration that can occur with rapid and uncontrolled drying. The object’s material type is then identified in the conversation area, where it is stabilised and safely packed for the return voyage to the museum.

The Pandora Collection

Throughout the archaeological investigations of Pandora between 1983-1999, more than 7,500 artefacts were recovered from the wreck. From large artefacts, like the cannon, to small artefacts like a fob watch, they help archaeologists piece together Pandora’s unique story.

Key artefacts of the Pandora Collection
The vast Pandora Collection at Queensland Museum Tropics paints an intricate story of life aboard the 18th century British Navy War Ship.

Organic objects, many found within the hull of the ship can be associated with either the function of the ship or personal possessions of the crew. Food condiments, wine, essences, spruce beer, coconuts, wood, ethnographic artefacts, leather, rope, cork, teeth, ivory and bone have all been recovered from the wreck.

Buttons, a watch, an ink well, drinking glasses, dinner plates, shells, poi pounders, stone adze heads and intaglio seals and other inorganic objects have all been recovered, and reflect life on-board, and provide information about some of the landfalls the ship made.

Lead objects from Pandora include musket shot and various types of weights. Significant quantities of copper and copper alloy objects have been recovered also and include ship parts, furniture and fittings, weapons, tools, instruments, domestic equipment, utensils, clothing, and accessories.

Agate intaglio seal

Agate intaglio seal found on the wreck of the Pandora. Image Queensland Museum, Gary Cranitch.

Precious metals
A recovered pocket watch is believed to have belonged to ship surgeon, Dr George Hamilton, was found in association with medical equipment. The watch was treated by conservators from the Western Australian Maritime Museum and a watchmaker in Fremantle, Western Australia.

Some parts, such as steel screws and the spring, had completely corroded and were replaced, otherwise the watch is more or less original condition.

Navigational equipment
The sextant was found during the 1999 expedition of the wreck. This navigational instrument is a composite object primarily made of brass (a mixture of copper and zinc), with glass optical components.

Composite objects
During the 1999 expedition, an earthenware ceramic olive oil jar was recovered. This was the fourth oil jar recovered from Pandora. This jar, however, was quite different from its three predecessors. After the olive oil had been consumed, this jar was reused to store objects such as tacks, roves, nails, rivets and hammer heads. An artefact with parts made from a number of material types is termed a "composite object". In this case the "object" was made up of ceramic, leather, fibre, wood, iron, copper and stone.

Glass and ceramic objects
Glass bottles with stoppers, ceramic pots, plates and bowls also form the Pandora collection. These artefacts also undergo specific treatment processes suitable for their material matter and storing them in environmentally stable conditions can prevent further degradation.

Collection on ceramic jars

A selection of ceramics from the Pandora. Image: Queensland Museum, Jon Carpenter.

For more images from the Pandora collection, view our online photo gallery. 

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