How Hms Challenger Helped Invent Oceanography

HMS Challenger was the first oceangoing ship to be used specifically for exploration and data collection. It is said that this fantastic mission invented the science of oceanography. It was the first voyage undertaken that attempted to collect such an ambitious array of sheer data, samples, charts and even a new tool at the time: photography.

Launched in 1872 from Portsmouth, England, Challenger was equipped with winches, trawlers, nets and various kinds of “samplers” mechanically operated to obtain specimens. These were hand-deployed at carefully calculated regions and at varying depths of the ocean. The work paid off. In her arduous four-year mission Challenger collected nearly five thousand new species. Scientists aboard also discovered the deepest part of the ocean floor in the area of the Marianas Trench. Today it is called the Challenger Deep. They also discovered the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and collected the first comprehensive data on ocean currents and temperatures.

Aboard the ship were expedition leaders and naturalists; Charles Wyville Thomspon and John Murray. Accompanying them were 220 crewmen and four other scientists. It was not an easy voyage. More than twenty six ship mates had to be left at hospitals at various ports of call. Seven men died and a handful also deserted.  Upon her return to England in 1876, only 144 crew remained.

Other great trials and tribulations were visited upon the ship.The first commander, Captain George Nares was called to duty on another mission.  He was replaced by Captain Frank Thompson.  Other drama included the discovery and rescue of two Prussian whaling vessel sailors marooned on a tiny island in the middle of the South Atlantic where steep and impenetrable shores had prevented their rescue by prior attempts. 

The ship was a converted war ship, a corvette.  She was specially rigged for the dredging and explorations as well as being outfitted with various instruments such as state of the art microscopes and other lab equipment. These were invaluable for the first oceanographic survey of the biology, geology and even chemistry of the world’s oceans. All together, they traversed  almost 70,000 miles, sailing the North and South Atlantic, North and South Pacific and the Indian Oceans. They surveyed, took depth soundings, collected samples and measurements all along the way.  In total, more than 130 sampling dredges were taken, nearly 500 depth soundings and a complete compilation of writing and data that filled more than 30,000 pages in fifty volumes of work.  

The historic trip provided thousands of later scientists with information, much of which is still vital today. The data collected allowed scientists to identify what proved to be the first extraterrestrial samples from sedimentary material determined to be from dust of comets and asteroids. It was the first sea-going expedition to spot an Antarctic iceberg. It was also the first mission to photograph native peoples and lands, as well as terrestrial and marine flora and fauna all over the world. 

Today, many people question the advisability of exploratory missions wherein death and loss are to be expected. But as proved by later ships, among them the Space Shuttle Challenger (aptly named for HMS Challenger), exploration has high costs. Many also feel there are even higher rewards to be gained.  Knowledge and advancement is made from hard work, courage and sometimes ambitious adventures to explore the unknown. In such destinations is also found the enduring inspiration required to keep seeking new frontiers.