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The Silent Landscape
Chapter Seven. The Library of Time
Tristan da Cunha, South Atlantic Ocean, 37o03'S, 12o 18'W to Simonstown, South Africa 34o12'S, 18o 26'E


“On 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.

During 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…”

On 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 else.”

To their amazement they also found the two Germans...

After 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.

There she would stay for six weeks' reprovisioning and refitting for the hardest leg of her long journey, south to the Great Ice Barrier.

En 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...

The 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.

By 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.

It 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 this issue.

Little did they know that these sediments would hold the key to unlocking the history of the Earth's climate in the next century...

...but 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.

Now click here to enter Chapter 8. The Grim Latitudes...



Richard Corfield 2003 in association with pedalo.co.uk