Seven. The Library of Time
da Cunha, South Atlantic Ocean, 37o03'S, 12o
18'W to Simonstown, South Africa 34o12'S, 18o
the morning of the 15th,” wrote William Spry, “land was
in sight, a little speck, at first rising up dark and rugged
out of the sea, growing larger and larger as we neared,
terminating at length in a huge conical peak some 8000 feet
in height, covered in snow.” It was mid-October of 1873
and Challenger had arrived at Tristan da Cunha in the South
Atlantic. Some 1,500 miles west of the Cape of Good Hope
and more than 2,000 miles from the coast of South America,
Tristan da Cunha's claim to fame is its being one of the
most isolated islands in the world. It is the largest in
a group of five; the others being Nightingale, Middle, Stoltenhoff,
and the aptly named Inaccessible Island. Tristan's lonely
aspect is compounded by its location in some of the roughest
waters of the world, the Roaring Forties, and is surrounded
by sheer 300- 600-meter-high cliffs.
their visit the crew heard a story concerning two Germans
who had arrived at the nearby Inaccessible Island some two
years before to hunt for seal fur and oil. Contact with
Tristan was established early on but nothing was heard from
them for some time, and the islanders, it seemed, were concerned
about them. This concern seemed to be typical of the Tristaners
and several of the officers noted with approval the islanders'
humanity. Wyville Thomson even went so far as to write,
“The character of the inhabitants stands deservedly high;
they had invariably assisted, to the best of their ability,
all shipwrecked persons…”
October 16, 1873, Challenger set sail to the west in search
of Inaccessible Island, the crew dredging and sounding as
usual and finding that the sea between the two islands was
shallow. On Inaccessible they found themselves besieged
by penguins that attacked tar, officer, and Scientific alike
with sharp-beaked enthusiasm. “The yelling of the birds
is overpowering,” wrote Moseley, “I can call it nothing
their amazement they also found the two Germans...
a brief visit to the nearby Nightingale Island on October
18, 1873, Challenger set sail for Simonstown at the Cape
of Good Hope, arriving there on 28th October.
she would stay for six weeks' reprovisioning and refitting
for the hardest leg of her long journey, south to the Great
route, she would discover one of nature's best kept secrets,
although it would take an argument between two of Challenger's
most famous scientists to unveil it...
Library of Time
Wyville Thomson firmly believed
that the oozes that they had been retrieving were native
to the ocean floor. John Murray was equally certain that
the oozes were formed at or near the ocean surface and
that the white carpets of ooze on the seabed were merely
the detritus left behind after shell-secreting animals
died and their shells fell through the abyss.
the time Challenger started her transit to the
Great Southern Ice Barrier, Murray had gathered abundant
evidence that the components of the oozes lived at or
near the surface. Indeed, even the scientifically illiterate
George Campbell had noticed that, and had written “We
have found all the globigerinae and foraminiferae, which
science (young as yet in these matters) said lived at,
and only at, the bottom, alive at small depths below the
surface and sometimes on the surface.” There could be
no doubt that this conclusion was the correct one and
Wyville Thomson had to acknowledge that he was wrong and
his junior colleague was right.
was a bitter pill to swallow, because he, together with
William Carpenter, his estranged scientific partner back
home, had nailed their scientific colors to the mast on
did they know that these sediments would hold the key
to unlocking the history of the Earth's climate in the
Charles Wyville Thomson and John Murray were blissfully
unaware that their beloved deep ocean sediments would
become so important, and cause so many headaches, in the
future. It was enough for them to know at last where these
sediments came from—the surface of the ocean.
Now all aboard had other preoccupations because they knew
that the next leg of their epic journey would be by far
the hardest. Ahead of them lay the bleak and little-known
islands of Crozet and Kerguelen, inhabited only by penguins
and whalers, the whalers often fugitives from justice,
and beyond that, the edge of the Victorian scientific
world, the Great Ice Barrier of the Antarctic.
click here to enter Chapter 8. The Grim Latitudes...