First Scientific Maritime Voyage Departs

“On this day in 1872, the HMS Challenger embarked from Portsmouth, England, on the world’s first scientific voyage across the world. The Challenger‘s four-year journey would change the course of scientific history.

Scottish zoologist Charles Wyville Thomson, who led the expedition, commissioned the Royal Navy for use of the Challenger, a British Navy corvette, or small warship, that was outfitted with both sails and auxiliary steam power, to stabilise it during sampling. A military vessel, the Challenger had 18 guns, but Thomson had 16 of them removed, replacing them with miles of sampling rope and wire, thermometers, water bottles, and bottom samplers. The ship was also equipped with separate laboratories for natural history and chemistry.

On 21 December 1872, the HMS Challenger, with a crew of 243 commanded by Captain George Nares, set sail from Portsmouth, England, on the first scientific journey of its kind. From England, the Challenger first traveled to the South Atlantic and around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope. It then headed east across the Indian Ocean, crossed the Antarctic Circle, and then proceeded to Australia and New Zealand. After sampling stops, the Challenger headed north to the Hawaiian Islands, and south again around South America via Cape Horn. Here, the Pacific and Atlantic meet, and here the Challenger set sail on the Atlantic once again for England, finally returning on 24 May 1876. The expedition was organised expressly to gather data on ocean temperatures, currents, marine life, and the seafloor. During the 68,890-nautical-mile journey, the scientific crew aboard the Challenger performed 492 deep-sea soundings, 151 open water trawls, and 263 water temperature observations. Among their greatest discoveries was finding one of the deepest parts of the ocean, the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific, where the seafloor reaches a depth of 10.91 kilometres. The expedition also ascertained the first map of the ocean basin, including a rise in the Atlantic now known as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Scientists aboard the ship also mapped out the first systematic plots of ocean temperatures and currents. And thanks to their consistent trawling, netting, and sampling, the Challenger‘s crew discovered about 4,700 new species of marine life.

The findings of the Challenger expedition—which Scottish oceanographer and report supervisor called “”the greatest advance in the knowledge of our planet since the celebrated discoveries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries””—were published in the Report of the Scientific Results of the Exploring Voyage of HMS Challenger during the years 1873-76. Perhaps most importantly, the expedition shed light on an entirely new academic discipline and encouraged future scientists to further probe our ocean’s treasures.”

Credit: Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images
Caption: A portrait of the officers aboard the HMS Challenger.