Deep below the earth’s great oceans lies an alien world that we have only just begun to explore. The quest to know more about this secret domain began in earnest in 1872 when HMS Challenger set sail from Portsmouth on the first ever sea voyage devoted exclusively to science. Her scientists and crew sailed from the endangered coral reefs of the Caribbean to the trackless depths beneath the western Pacific, braving stifling heat and stupefying cold, on an expedition that remains perhaps the greatest oceanographic mission of all time.
As far as epic voyages go HMS Challenger is up there with the greatest, easily as monumental in impact as the more famous HMS Beagle’s, taking four years to travel 68,900 miles from England to Brazil and South Africa. Before taking in Antarctica and returning home by way of Australia, Hong Kong and Hawaii all on a vessel measuring 200 by 40 foot. It’s little wonder 269 of the crew deserted.
This, the last great voyage of the Victorian age and is brought to life through generous helpings of the crew’s diaries which are used to humanise the scientific endeavours and keep the tone light enough to encourage the reader’s inquisitiveness before giving out some fascinating scientific histories.
whilst focussing on life on the ship its dual existence being both a rollercoaster of monotony and of astonishment, the author uses the many discoveries as a springboard to educate the reader not only on how it enhanced our understanding of the seas but also how the geology of our ancient planet was formed. The Challenger expedition found the deepest part of the sea, The Mariana Trench in the Pacific, numerous new species of plants and animals helping to confirm Darwin’s theories, the idea for plate tectonics and of course kept alive the tradition of looking down on people and places from all other nations as inferior.
The book is a celebration of human ingenuity and curiosity and of those people that are willing to attempt such things, who wish to know, to learn, to pour forth the secrets and wonders of the secret ocean depths, these men were true pioneers tackling a prodigious task and their findings revolutionised science and oceanography to new depths. Reading through these adventures is almost reminiscent of those ‘boy’s own’ adventure books from back in the day with storms, strange creatures, diseases and the odd exotic maiden thrown in.
It was the first great voyage of scientific exploration, sent out for no other purpose than the acquisition of knowledge. It was a milestone in the history of humanity, when the importance of learning for its own sake was perceived, not just by a small intellectual elite but by ordinary people as well.
Challenger’s legacy goes beyond what its crew found and the platform it gave us to understand, its name reverberates around us today, not only naming many boats on ocean-going expeditions but also the ill faced space shuttle Challenger and interestingly the inspiration for the name of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger, the link being that he studied the voyage’s chief scientist Wyville Thomson at Edinburgh university.
The world seems a small place these days, yet spending time with this book, I came to appreciate not only the size of our planet but also the exertions that explorers go to, to understand the world around us. There is plenty of fascinating detail to be found that is both relevant and enthralling. A ship seeking knowledge for the betterment of understanding is always going to be seen as a noble cause but the sheer amount of data – handled with intelligence – that was discovered (and narrowly missed in some cases) is not only the cause for celebration but also the betterment of education.