Tag Archives: Challenger expedition

The Challenger Expedition; 1872-1876

12 Sep

George Nares (by now Vice Admiral ), was chosen as commander of the Challenger Expedition because of his long experience of navigation and his scientific approach to surveying and exploration. His ship’s complement was two hundred – his officers were all naval surveyors, in addition, there was a team of civilian scientists, led by Charles Wyville[i] Thomson, the Scottish natural historian and marine zoologist..

Nares was not with Challenger for her entire tour –  he ceased his command in November 1874, when thevesselreached Hong Kong, having received orders to leave his ship in order to take command of a similar, but more arduous expedition – The British Arctic Expedition – an expedition that attempted to reach the North Pole.  Nares’ successor as Captain on Challenger was Frank Tourle Thomson.

His successful leadership was due to his wide experience in navigation and his calm and sure approach  – potential fallouts between scientists and naval officers were avoided.  Charles Wyville Thomson as chief scientist, had control of the scientific programme, but Nares was in overall command, setting what was possible with regard to scientific operations, whilst  always having due regard for the  safety and security of the ship and its personnel.  This was a model that was not always followed– when Sir Clements Markham organized the Discovery Expedition in the late 1900s; there was a vitriolic conflict between the scientists of the Royal Society and representatives of the Royal Geographic Society as to who should be in command. The Royal Society wanted to be in total control, a proposal vehemently  opposed  by the Royal Geographic Society which would never allow naval personnel to be directed by scientists.

Many people have never heard of the Challenger Expedition but modern oceanography undoubtedly began here. Until this expedition, knowledge of the world was limited to its coastlines and shallow depths.  Oceans were thought to be deep in parts, but almost nothing was known of the submarine landscapes or submarine life. Challenger was the first ship ever that was organized specifically to gather information on ocean temperatures, sea water chemistry, currents, marine life, and the geology of the seabed.  Apart from Charles Wyville Thompson, the famous naturalist John Murray, the father of modern oceanography, was on board. Discoveries were made that revolutionized oceanography.(When Challenger was safely back in England  John Murray, wrote that the expedition was “the greatest advance in the knowledge of our planet since the celebrated discoveries of the 15th and 16th Centuries”), 

                       The crew of Challenger

 Challenger was probably the first official expedition to carry a

                      photographer as well as an artist

With Nares in command, Challenger set sail on  Saturday 7 December 1872. The voyage involved numerous port stops – too many to list, but in summary Nares first headed for Lisbon and the Canary Islands then crossed the Atlantic arriving at the Virgin Islands in February 1873. He made a tour of islands  (Bermuda, The Azores), before arriving in South America Bahia (now Salvador), in September 1873

                         MAP OF VOYAGE – Nares left in 1874

In December 1873 he set a S/E track, visiting Tristan da Cunha before reaching the Cape of Good Hope. He visited the Kerguelen Islands and from there sailed directly south crossing the 60° S, parallel (i.e. approaching the Antarctic) and by 1874, Challenger was actually in the vicinity of the Antarctic Circle (66°S),- see map –  here the scenery changed dramatically – it was was immensely new and exciting. Documents from this time show the interest and enthusiasm shown by the crew as they marveled at pack ice, ice bergs, whales and strange varieties of birds.

Nares did not explore Antarctica.  He turned N/E  and after a  very rough crossing of the Southern Ocean reached Australia, calling at Melbourne and Sydney in March 1874. This was followed in June by a visit to New Zealand.  He sailed between the North and South Islands and then, in the Pacific Ocean, he sailed north to Fiji and Tonga along longitude 180° where surveying continued in July and August. From September till November Challenger sailed due west, passing above the tip of Queensland and calling at New Guinea and the Philippines before reaching Hong Kong in November 1874.

The voyage resulted eventually in the haul of nearly 5,000 specimens, many from the time of Nares captaincy.   The yield demonstrated, for the first time, the richness of marine life on the sea bed:  “Stations” were made (a difficult navigation procedure, controlled by the captain, during which the ship had to be to be stationary for hours, so as to obtain specimens at known intervals from the sea- bed  to the sea surface).  Findings from the thousands of specimens these stations’ yielded provided  completely new information about the oceans when they were analyzed in the ship’s on-board laboratory, for example: depth of the ocean, marine chemistry, creatures of the deep – sea snails from the Azores; squid from waters around Japan, shark teeth, crabs, sea pigs, snakes, eels). Air tight bottles, and little boxes were used  to keep specimens of butterflies and insects, mosses and plants, Meteorological records were regularly made, the surface current was measured.

By the end of the tour (and two years after Nares had left Challenger ), fifty volumes (nearly three thousand pages), were needed to record the scientific findings. the photographs (including images of native people) and the paintings. These were records that Nares had facilitated and contributed to, so ably.

The measure of Nares successful leadership was recognized. His wide experience of difficult and varied conditions made him the preferred commander to lead the British Arctic Expedition an expedition that aimed to reach the Arctic Pole and he was recalled to fulfill this important role.

To be continued by telling the story of this venture.

[1] Sir Charles Wyville Thomson, (1830 –1882)  Scottish natural historian and marine zoologist. Knighted for his work on the Challenge