How an 1870s marine expedition changed oceanography and drove eight sailors insane

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When was the first voyage of the Challenger? No, not the Space Shuttle — the original Challenger, a sea ship that sailed in 1872. The HMS Challenger traversed the world's oceans for four years, drove some of its sailors completely insane, caused about a quarter of the crew to jump ship, and forever changed the face of ocean science.

Is there a way to scroll past the nature channels without seeing one that describes the richness of the ocean and the life that teems in its depth? In the early 1800s, the ocean was something to fish in and to get across. What happened below 1500 feet was of no concern to anyone, although scientists calculated that the pressure, the temperature, and the lack of sunlight meant that no life existed below. The bottom of the ocean was presumed to be as lifeless as the surface of the moon, though it was far less known. In 1872, the HMS Challenger was sent out to circumnavigate the globe, with a crew of around 240 sailors and scientists. When it got back in 1876, it had 144 people aboard, losing people to madness, death, sickness, and sheer desperation to escape the voyage. It also held a wealth of information that launched a new era of exploration, and a new field of science.


The HMS Challenger sounds like a dream assignment to anyone who has ever imagined exploring new territory or making a contribution to science. It was set to go around to the globe, via some of the most beautiful islands in the world, taking reading and collecting life from regions never studied. Then reality set in. The routine of the Challenger was this: the ship would sail to a certain part of the ocean, send down lines to a certain depth, take temperature and pressure readings, send nets or dredgers down, and haul up whatever life they could find. It would do this at several points nearby, should it find anything interesting. Then it would move on and do the same the next day. And the next. For the scientists it was a thrilling, if stressful, time. For the crew it was excruciating. The manual labor was repetitive and backbreaking. To maintain accuracy of readings, the work also had to be extremely precise.


Although ship's records only vaguely references sailors 'going mad,' or leaving the ship at various ports, it's known that at least eight people did go insane during the voyage, and one threw himself into the sea. Others picked the more conventional method of waiting until they got to a likely port and running like hell. Still others died of sickness or simply became sick and were put ashore at the next port and left. (This strategy of simply putting people ashore and letting them hope they could find some other way to get home was pretty common at the time. The ships' logbook mentions finding two brothers, both whalers, who were set on a slip of a beach next to huge unscalable cliffs to hunt seals, and left there by a ship that didn't return for them.)

The HMS Challenger's mission was rough on everyone, and disastrous to some, but something did come out of it: all of oceanography. The voyage invented the science, changing it from something done casually by 'naturalists' and scientifically-minded staff aboard ships to a reason for going to sea in the first place. The voyage brought back 4,700 marine specimens from areas that were considered lifeless. The crew discovered mountains under the sea, which many thought were the lost city of Atlantis. They discovered the Marianas Trench, the lowest spot on Earth. They brought back enough material, overall, for a fifteen-volume text that took nearly two decades to complete. They shifted the idea of exploring the depths from a Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea fiction to scientific possibility. The first few deep sea explorers, who went down to terrifying depths in glorified tin cans, and unmanned divers and everyone who heads down to the depths for science is participating in a science, and a mindset, kicked off by that one, long miserable voyage of discovery.


Via A Short History of Nearly Everything, UCSD, and Dive Discover.

Top Image: NOAA

Photo: 19th Century Science