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The Silent Landscape


In the early spring of 1990 I flew all the way around the world.

“There's nothing remarkable about that,” I hear you say, “in this day and age lots of people fly around the world.” True enough, but what made my trip remarkable was that it took me two months despite being carried by jet airliners almost all the way. In this age of high technology, my trip took almost as long as Phileas Fogg's in Jules Verne's epic Around the World in Eighty Days, and he had been borne by ship, train, balloon, and camel. The reason for the long delay in my returning to Britain was that I had spent two months at sea in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. I joined the JOIDES (Joint Oceanographic Institutes for Deep Earth Sampling) Resolution, the drilling ship of the Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) in Guam and then set out on a two-month journey of undersea scientific discovery. Our brief was to drill into the seabed in the vicinity of the Caroline Islands, penetrating the submerged yet massive topographic high known as the Ontong Java Plateau, an area larger than New York State.

For two months I labored at a microscope, identifying tiny fossils retrieved by the drill cores from the ocean floor 2 miles beneath us, working 12-hour shifts, 7 days a week, for 63 days without respite. It was hard work, I was seasick and there was no privacy. Also there was the dispiriting knowledge that once the ship left port there was no way off save in the event of a life-threatening emergency, in which case the million-dollar drill string would be abandoned like a discarded syringe and the ship would sail under full power for the nearest point a helicopter could reach us. All the time the ship was at sea, it cost the worldwide consortium that ran the ODP $2,000 an hour just to keep it operating, so you can understand that they would not abandon their scientific objectives without good reason. Knowing that I was effectively a prisoner aboard a mobile drilling rig, literally on the other side of the world from friends and family, I count among the hardest things I have had to endure in my entire life.

When I got off the ship I remember quite clearly kneeling down on the quayside among the massive containers in the container port at Agana in Guam, and kissing the hot concrete in the tropical sun. I felt the freedom of the condemned man released, the sun shone brighter than I had ever seen it, the vegetation looked greener than I had thought possible, and the ground felt so good; so reassuringly firm and solid. I was never so pleased to be off a ship in my life and within 48 hours I was home again, safe and sound in Oxford. Yet that voyage of the ODP, like almost all its voyages—and those of its predecessor the Deep Sea Drilling Project (DSDP)—was hugely successful, adding immeasurably to our knowledge of the way the deep ocean and the seafloor operates. From the voyages of the ODP and the DSDP we now know about the intricacies of seafloor formation, the way that the deepwater in the ocean circulates and controls the world's weather and climate, the location of vital energy reserves as well as the places where new forms of life—and new medicines—are to be found.

My discomfort had actually contributed some good, added some tiny morsel to the sum total in the human knowledge database. In the intervening years I have become proud of what I endured and achieved. Yet with that pride has come the knowledge that my 63 days at sea were as nothing compared to the hardships endured by the marine scientists of another age. Darwin's voyage aboard Beagle lasted five years after all, and Huxley's aboard Rattlesnake not much less. Yet there is another voyage of the nineteenth century—indeed it was the last such voyage of the Victorian era—that is not so well known, and it single-handedly founded the sciences that we today know as oceanography and marine geology.

That was the voyage of HMS Challenger.

The Challenger expedition was a scientific circumnavigation of the world that lasted almost four years and traversed 69,000 miles. Challenger left Portsmouth, England, in December 1872 and returned in May 1876, having traveled as far as the Great Ice Barrier of Antarctica, visiting Nova Scotia, the Caribbean, and South Africa in the process, before pushing on into the Pacific, visiting Indonesia and passing not far from the Caroline Islands where I would one day undergo my own personal and scientific voyage of discovery. From the southwestern Pacific, Challenger headed north to Hawaii, then south again before passing back into the Atlantic through the narrow straits at Tierra del Fuego. The homeward stretch took her up through the Atlantic, into the Channel and then, finally, home again. In the course of its epic 69,000 mile voyage fully a quarter of Challenger's crew complement of 269 deserted, distressed by confinement in a ship that was only 200 feet long and 40 feet wide and demoralized by the endless repetitive grind of dredging the seabed and retrieving what looked to the untutored eye like lumps of mud.

Despite the stresses and strains of Challenger's epic voyage, the result was a resounding success. The scientific report eventually ran to 50 volumes and took 20 years to complete. A copy of it is deposited in the Bodleian library of the University of Oxford and it was a chance encounter with it in the stack room there that first gave me the idea for this book. But perhaps even more fascinating than the official 50-volume report are the diaries kept by members of Challenger's crew. It is from these particularly that I have drawn the narrative of The Silent Landscape. Several crewmen and scientists wrote movingly about their experiences aboard Challenger during those four years: the terrestrial naturalist Henry Moseley, whose interest in the lands they visited and vexation with the boredom of continual dredging was so obvious that he relegated discussion of the dredging to a single chapter at the end of his book; Engineering Sub-Lieutenant William J. Spry, whose detailed observations of land, wind, and sea breathe life into Moseley's scientific narratives; Navigating Sub-Lieutenant Herbert Swire, whose irreverent take on the life of the upper decks pricked the pomposity of the scientists; Lord George Campbell, whose own diaries illuminate life at sea from the perspective of a member of the British aristocracy; and finally, and perhaps most extraordinarily of all, the only surviving account (indeed perhaps the only account ever written) of life below decks: the diary of Joseph Matkin, ship's steward's assistant. Only Matkin wrote about the downside of life aboard Challenger, the tensions that were the plight of so many men in close proximity and the effort it took to stay interested and alert for four long years in a science that only a handful on board were educated enough to understand. These accounts, together with the Challenger's 50-volume report, form the narrative backbone of The Silent Landscape.

But I could not be satisfied with writing only a historical account of the Challenger expedition, because if there is one lesson that science teaches us, it is that it stands still for nobody. It moves forward inexorably and with increasing rapidity. So The Silent Landscape is also the science of the Challenger expedition updated, focusing not just on what the expedition did find but what it would have found if it had on board someone with a knowledge of early twenty-first-century biology, physics, and chemistry. And that person, suitably helped with up-to-date accounts of modern oceanographic and marine science, will, I hope, be you.

So prepare to join Henry Moseley, William Spry, Herbert Swire, Joseph Matkin and the others on board HMS Challenger on their epochal journey around the world. Only you have the 20:20 scientific hindsight to fully appreciate what they found.

Have a good trip.

Richard Corfield

Oxford, 2003

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Richard Corfield 2003 in association with pedalo.co.uk