History of the Challenger Expedition

The expedition by the HMS Challenger between the years of 1872 and 1876 is one of the most important scientific voyages to have ever taken place. The voyage was essentially the first focused on the widespread and thorough exploration of the ocean and the species of creatures that live both within it and upon the numerous islands at which the vessel stopped to explore. The voyage of the Challenger paved the way for modern oceanography and produced a wealth of information about the ocean and the life that inhabits it.

The HMS Challenger was originally a British naval vessel, so before the voyage could begin the ship was refitted to allow room for laboratories and storage space for the vast amount of scientific equipment that would be required. Of her original 17 guns 15 of them were removed for this purpose; additionally, her capabilities as both a sailing vessel as well as having an auxiliary steam engine onboard made her ideal for the task that lay before her crew. Onboard the ship when she departed were 20 officers, including her first captain, George Nares, five scientists, one artist, and over 200 crew.

After the refitting of the ship was complete, the voyage began in 1872 and their first studies were conducted across the Atlantic Ocean. They sailed the Atlantic after departing England, conducting various types of research all along the way while heading south, eventually crossing the Antarctic Circle. Two of the scientists aboard were naturalists John Murray and Charles Wyville Thompson, who had previously dredged the ocean bottom looking for sea life. The steam engine of the Challenger was used for this purpose and proved to be invaluable for the deep dredging they were achieving.

Along with scientists John Buchanan, Henry Nottidge Moseley and Rudolf von Willemoes-Suhm, Murray and Wyville immediately began to discover many new types of life forms that had never been seen before by man and quite possibly never would have, due to the extreme depths at which they lived. By the conclusion of the expedition they had discovered and documented over 4,700 new species of animals that lived both in the furthest depths of the oceans and upon the many islands that they visited along the way.

On their voyage to circumnavigate the globe they took 362 measurements of the ocean’s depths as well as measuring the temperature of the water and the direction of the ocean currents. Yet another of the incredible discoveries made during the Challenger expedition was the Marianas Trench, the deepest point of the Pacific Ocean. They point where they took their measurement has since been named “Challenger Deep.”  Upon reaching Hong Kong in 1874, Captain George Nares left the expedition to join another voyage and was replaced by Captain Frank Thomson. Captain Nares was not the first to depart, however, and throughout the course of the voyage the amount of crew onboard had been reduced due to death, illness and willing departures.

Following their departure from Hong Kong, the vessel sailed through rough seas but by January of 1876 had reached the tip of South America, and shortly thereafter, the Falkland Islands, where they briefly took to port. The HMS Challenger then traveled north and arrived at Spithead, Hampshire, in England on May 24,1876, with a remaining crew of 144 men. With them they carried a wealth of information that would take over 20 years to compile and publish.

All in all they returned having documented 4,700 new species of life forms, discovered both the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the Marianas Trench and tracked the flow of the currents that guide the behavior of the ocean. The 50-volume collection of their scientific studies is comprised of 30,000 pages and was a major contribution to all scientific fields of the time.