Quick update on the HMS Challenger Project and useful resources

Hello all!

Firstly – sorry it has been so long since I have written a post. It has been manic here! Whilst I am trying to get through a lot of data work and disappearing off to Ireland and Cardiff (for the second time), Holly has been starting to write some website content and disappearing to Manchester (also for the second time) to take some more images of their Challenger material. The website is nearly here! Fingers crossed it should go live by the end of the month (but don’t take my word for it!).

For those interested in reading more about the Challenger expedition here are some resources you could use to help you:

The Challenger reports online

This website has been tremendously useful. It contains pretty much all of the Challenger reports, including the narratives. Brilliant for double checking specimen labels.

Informative books

    • The Silent Landscape: In the Wake of HMS Challenger 1872-1876 by Richard Corfield.
The Silent Landscape In the Wake of HMS Challenger 1872-1876 by Richard Corfield

The Silent Landscape In the Wake of HMS Challenger 1872-1876 by Richard Corfield

This book has been great to read up on the voyage – easy, informative read that takes you right the way through the voyage.

    • At Sea With the Scientifics, The Challenger Letters of Joseph Matkin by Philip Rehbock.
At Sea with the Scientifics by Philip Rehbock

At Sea with the Scientifics by Philip Rehbock

This book gives you the voyage from a different perspective. This book is full of letters written by Joseph Matkin, the ship’s steward assistant. He takes us on his own Challenger journey.

    • Notes by a Naturalist on HMS Challenger by H N Moseley.
Notes by a naturalist on HMS Challenger by HN Moseley

Notes by a naturalist on HMS Challenger by HN Moseley

This book is different yet again. Moseley was one of the scientists on board. Rather than concentrating on what was dredged and trawled at sea, Moseley concentrates on the actual land areas the ship anchored at. He talks about subjects such as the landscape, botany, the people they meet and the culture.

These are definitely some of the best resources on a variety of subjects to do with the HMS Challenger voyage.

Going back to talking about the project, I  (Heather) will spend my last day at RAMM next Friday so it is time to say goodbye. It’s been an amazing year and I don’t want to leave! I will be staying in Exeter though – going to study an MSc in Zooarchaeology. So you never know, I could be back to write again! (Don’t worry though, a post will go out when the Challenger site goes live!)

Bye everyone!

The doom and gloom of the HMS Challenger voyage…

The HMS Challenger voyage was massive. A four year long trip around the world is not going to go without ups and downs. Here are some of the sad and unfortunate deaths of the crew as the years went by.

18th November 1872 – Challenger at Sheerness, Kent

Let’s start right at the beginning. HMS Challenger started off in Sheerness to be refitted before going to Portsmouth. One dark night whilst still at Sheerness, a young man called Tom Tubbs was wandering up the ship’s gangway in the dark before tripping and drowning in the dock. Despite best efforts by shipmates and the police, poor Tom could not be saved. Could this have been a warning that the voyage would not go as smoothly as imagined?

25th March 1873 – Station 24a – Challenger between St Thomas and Bermuda

Early morning at 6.15am the ship got ready to sound and dredge. At 11.10am a dredge was put over but little did they know that when hauling in the dredge one of the hooks holding an iron block to the deck would break, sending the block flying and striking a young sailor, William Stokes, to his death. And it wouldn’t be much longer until tragedy struck yet again.

4th April 1873 – Challenger at Bermuda

Once the crew reached Bermuda they came across a beautiful picturesque harbour at Grassy Bay, not far from the capital of Bermuda. The atmosphere between the crew had just started to change for the better and so it must have been horrific for Richard Wyatt, the ship’s writer, to hear the dying gasps of the ship’s schoolmaster and find him dead due to a stroke. He was put to rest at a nearby cemetery in Bermuda.

28th June 1874 – Challenger on route to New Zealand

The next death recorded was some time after Bermuda. On route to New Zealand, nearly at the harbour, Edward Winton was out to do a sounding when the sounding cable got caught. He went to free it from the anchor when a huge wave of water struck the ship, knocking poor Edward into the sea, never to be found.

13th September 1875 – Challenger on route to Tahiti

Dr Rudolph von Willemoes Suhm, born September 11th 1847, joined the Challenger at the age of 25 as a naturalist. Moseley was very fond of him – learning a lot from his knowledge and proud of his enthusiasm for zoology. Sadly, Suhm got erysipelas, a bacterial infection that attacks the skin and died at the age of 28. It was a sad time for all.

23rd January 1876 – Challenger at the Falklands

Nearing the end of their journey, despite being very happy to be on the Falklands and drinking to celebrate, a young sailor fell overboard. This young man was popular amongst all and was planned to be married when the voyage was over.

So there we have it – and there were probably far more deaths that aren’t recorded as well as illnesses and disease that riddled some of the crew. There are also some stories in the diaries that give us an insight into the world of the locals too. In Fiji, when highly regarded visitors went to see the great chief, the visitor had to bring human flesh, usually of a prisoner, just for fun. If there were no prisoners the visitor had to go out and find others to kill for the chief – usually a lone girl or woman. Horrible to believe how some people used to live!

Project update

Regarding the Challenger project, I had a successful Scotland visit – seeing the Hunterian in Glasgow and the collection centre at NMS, taking lots of photographs for the database. Great fun and such a lovely bunch of people! Holly has also had a great trip to Manchester. Just another few months before the database goes live! To help us with this, we welcome our new volunteer, Peter, to the Challenger team! Here he talks a little bit about himself and his interests in the project:

“I am a history student at the University of Exeter. This project is interesting to me because, as a student, I very much appreciate it when online archives I use in my research are well organised and easy to access. This will be a great insight into how the archiving process works. As a tech enthusiast I am always interested to see my degree and my interests used together to help our knowledge of the past. Now that my exams are done I look forward to getting involved behind the scenes at this great museum!”

April’s Anemones

April’s anemones!

Sea anenomes are in the phylum cnidaria, like jellyfish. Sea anemones attach themselves to rocks with their adhesive foot, attacking prey as they go past with their stinging tentacles. Their tentacles have cells that contain toxins that, when touched, shoot out venom that paralyse the prey. The anemone then uses its tentacles to bring the prey into its mouth.

With over 1000 species of sea anemone, they range from 1/2 inch across to 6ft!  They can be found all over the oceans.

On the HMS Challenger expedition, several species of sea anemone were dredged and trawled. Take a look at some of the plates found in the reports below..


Plate 1 from the Challenger Actiniaria report. Showing genera such as Porponia, Cercus and Paractis.


Plate 2 from the Challenger Actiniaria report. Showing genera such as Corallimorphis, Polysiphonia and Bunodes


Plate 3 from the Challenger Actiniaria report. Showing genera such as Stephanactis, Amphianthus and Ophiodiscus

One species of anemone found on the expedition was Calliactis polypus. They were found on station 208 on January 17th 1875 at 18 fathoms and also at St Vincent, Cape Verde. They were all found on gastropod shells that hermit crabs were living in. This is because the anemone gets to live and feed on the shells in return for protecting the crab. The anemone isn’t naturally attracted to the shells but the hermit crab will persuade the anemone to fix itself on to the shell by tapping on the shell so the anemone relaxes.

Project update!

We are moving a long at a nice pace with the Challenger Project – with the help of many museums we are starting to collect a large amount of Challenger material which I am currently sorting to go on our database. If all deadlines are stuck to, the website/database should go live at the end of September this year. Keep  your eyes peeled!

Me at Bristol Museum photographing Challenger material

Me at Bristol Museum photographing Challenger material

In next month’s blog I will be reading up on the narratives and diaries of HMS Challenger and will be looking in to the dark side of the voyage where all was not going well..

Christmas Day on the HMS Challenger

Christmas  on HMS Challenger

Hello again! Since it is that time of year when the Christmas tree is decorated and soon you will be tucking in to a massive Christmas dinner, I thought you would be interested to know what Christmas was like on board the Challenger. Four Christmas’s were spent out at sea or anchored up and according to the HMS Challenger narrative and diaries this is what went on:

Christmas 1872 on board the HMS Challenger


Challenger set sail on 21st December 1872, just in time for Christmas.  142 years ago from the day this post was published! Unfortunately, Christmas this year was a bit of a miserable one weather-wise. It was very windy, with the crew having to hold tight to their food dishes – many were lost and some food jars, in particular jam and pickles, got smashed on the floor. However, with ham for breakfast and meat pie and plum pudding for dinner the food went down quite well. Every member on the ship was given a third of a pint of sherry too. The officers weren’t so lucky with their food though. The turkey was stolen and they never found out who it was.

Christmas  1873 on board the HMS Challenger

The HMS Challenger spent the second Christmas off Prince Edward Island – belonging to South Africa. Again, the sea was very rough. At about 10am,  the crew caught sight of land but they weren’t due to anchor until Boxing Day. Dinner this year was salt pork and pea soup, plum pudding and a third pint of madeira for each man so quite enjoyable, with music and dancing for entertainment. The men were thinking about where they were going to be the following years at Christmas – around Hong Kong in 74 and near Valparaiso in 75.

When the men anchored on Boxing Day and explored the island they saw many birds – cormorants, albatross,  skua, gulls,  a giant petrel, prion and a sheathbill. This was on top  on three different penguins. One of these was the Gentoo penguin. This penguin is nearly as big as the King Penguin, which was also found on the island. The third of the penguins was the rockhopper penguin, who had very dirty looking nests. Have a look at their photograph of the albatross nests below.


Christmas 1874 on board the HMS Challenger

Indeed, the ship was in China over Christmas in 1874. They arrived in Hong Kong on 16th November 1874 and stayed there until the beginning of January. Christmas here was lovely and warm – nothing like the cold and wet weather of the previous years. A fine dinner with turkeys, geese, ham and of course the plum pudding was devoured by all. Members of the crew save money each month for when they are at land to treat themselves. In Hong Kong they often ate curried cats and dogs..a delicacy there at the time apparently!

Christmas 1875 on board the HMS Challenger

The final Christmas on board! The men were once again correct in 1873 – they had just left Valparaiso on the 10th December. Unfortunately six men were lost there from leaving without consent. Christmas Eve brought music and dancing with a band and many stage acts which was great fun for the men. It was a cold Christmas day at sea this year. Dinner this year was a fat bullock to keep them going. Of course we can’t forget about the plum puddings! Christmas was very enjoyable until the evening. Many of the seamen managed to smuggle in multiple bottles of alcohol, leaving many drunk and fighting terribly. One man even came away with a broken jaw in three places! So it didn’t turn out terribly well in the end but it was all self inflicted!

So those are the main details we have about Christmas on HMS Challenger – food, drink, music, dancing, a mix of weather and the occasional fights (what’s changed?!). Seriously though, life wasn’t easy – I’m sure those men were relieved to have their next Christmas on land with family where they belong.

Have a happy Christmas and New Year everyone!

The Sladen collection from HMS Challenger

The Percy Sladen Collection

Here at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum we are lucky enough to have the Percy Sladen collection, part of which was collected on the HMS Challenger throughout the exhibition. Percy Sladen was a scientist born on 30th June 1849 who grew a good reputation as a biologist.

Percy Sladen portrait

He was presented the starfish material to identify after the exhibition was over. He was the only person Thomson and Carpenter (who led the expedition) could find that would be capable of managing to analyse the starfish. The ship had covered about 70,000 nautical miles and over the 354 stations sampled the crew had collected a lot of starfish! Sladen travelled all around Europe to speak to and gain connections with specialists that could help him a long the way. It is said that his hard work and dedication to the project could have been linked to his early death. He died in 1903 and his wife gave the whole collection to RAMM to make sure it was kept together.

Parts of the Percy Sladen Collection from the HMS Challenger

Take a look at a few of the pieces he studied…


The picture on the left shows a small starfish whose latin name is ‘Lophaster stellans’. This little star doesn’t seem to have a common name. As you can see, the starfish was found south of Wellington island (off of Chile). We also know that is was found on ‘blue mud’. As far as we know, blue mud is so called because of the blue colour caused by organic material and iron sulphide. It is made up of silt and clay. Another thing to notice on the label is that it is from station 308 so we know that it was found in January 1876.

The picture on the right shows a couple of starfish – a different species ‘Chaetaster longpipes’. These were found off Bermuda at station 36 on some coral- so a few years earlier in April 1873.


Another starfish from Sladen’s collection

All the collection is catalogued – he had a lot of specimens that aren’t Challenger specimens too. We are in the process of putting the Challenger data in to a suitable format for our new database. I just realised I haven’t updated you on that yet! We are speaking to museums around the country and also abroad at the moment to talk to them about the project. We are slowly getting our data and data from the Natural History Museum together. We are using this to create fields for the database and to start designing the website. Once we have a secure design and the initial data is uploaded and tested, we will be moving on to further museums to add their collections.

For anyone that has clicked on this post and is not aware of what the project is about, click here!

Speak to you all soon!

Letters written and data recorded from the HMS Challenger

Station recordings from HMS Challenger

Here we are again! I told you all last time I would let you see some of the original data from the reports from the HMS Challenger. Let’s look at some recordings from station 256. This was on the journey from Yokohama to the Sandwich Islands on July 21st 1875.




As you can see they measured:

  • Date and times
  • Longitude
  • Latitude
  • Air temperature
  • Water temperature at different depths
  • Density
  • What they found deposited at the bottom
  • Amount of carbonic acid in the water
  • The water current
  • Species found






They even went in to detail about an albatross having a cotton handkerchief around its neck. They certainly gave very detailed accounts of what they found. The material and species found were sent to scientists around the world once the expedition had finished, allowing them to be identified and written in the reports.


The letters and diary of Joseph Matkin


(Photograph and quotes from: Philip F Rehbock, 1992.  
At Sea with the Scientifics: The Challenger Letters of Joseph Matkin. 
University of Hawaii Press).

There were letters and diaries written by members of the crew and some of these have been documented. Joseph Matkin, only 19 when the voyage began, was a member of the crew aboard Challenger and was a ship’s steward’s assistant for the whole voyage. He wrote a journal throughout which gives a different and more personal perspective of the voyage to the scientists. He speaks of food the crew ate, the people they met on land, the weather and also deaths that occurred along the way. Here are some quotes from a book published containing his diary and letters.

February 9th, 1873 “Last night one of the men caught a shark, about 6 feet in length…he was lively as ever..The old gentleman is now being eaten for dinner in the mess of the men who caught him”
June 28th, 1874 “The deceased Edw Winton was one of the finest and steadiest seamen in the ship, was about 25 years old, & married just before we left England…no one knows whether he was stunned against the ship’s side by the sea, or he might have been struck by the fans of the screw as he drifted under the stern.”
February 24th, 1875 “The natives are undoubtedly lazy, but the Spaniards do very little but smoke, drink coffee and fan themselves, the only hard workers in the Philippine islands are the Chinese.”
July 27th, 1875 “The island of Oahu has a very pleasant rural appearance…the weather is much hotter here; Thermometer 85° in the shade, and over 120° in the sun. The ship is already full of flies,& the ravenous but playful Mosquitos are only waiting for us to turn in before commencing their onslaught.”

The writing is fascinating and his language shows that he was obviously quite a well-educated man. I recommend having a read of these letters if you are interested in a more personal view of the voyage.

Will write again soon!

Measurements and equipment on HMS Challenger

As I explained in our first post, the HMS Challenger expedition aimed to find out the chemistry and physics of the deep-sea. However, what and how did they measure?

Measurements and equipment used on HMS Challenger

DSCF3897   DSCF3896   DSCF3899   DSCF3898   DSCF3901

To measure temperature: Miller-Cassela thermometers

One of the main components they wanted to measure was surface, bottom and intermediate temperatures of the sea. For almost all the observations, the Miller-Cassela thermometer was used. This was a  minimum and maximum thermometer (in other words, it  showed the minimum and maximum temperature of the water). As a series of temperatures were measured at different depths, this type of thermometer could be relied upon..to a certain extent. More accurate thermometers were needed at deep depths but the plan to get any was unsuccessful before the end of the expedition.

To measure specific gravity: Piezometers and hydrometers














First off – what is specific gravity? In simple terms and in this case, it is the comparison of the density of sea water with the density of pure water. This all gets a little confusing but I will try to explain it simply.

Specific gravity was measured using devices called hydrometers and piezometers, measuring mass and water pressure. This can then be used to calculate density and so specific gravity.

So why was this useful for the expedition?  Firstly, water pressure was used to measure depth and you could see how the density of the seawater changes at different depths. It was also used to make sure that the temperature was recorded accurately – the thermometers gave you the minimum and maximum temperature and this would be accurate if at all areas the deeper the water the colder it gets. However, this is not always the case. For example, ice is less dense than seawater and so floats on top, despite being colder than the water below it. The crew worked out that a fall of one degree of temperature had the same effect as an increase of pressure equal to 430 fathoms. From this, temperature could be recorded correctly. How to measure and what to measure with was certainly well thought out! Now on to how they collected water – a little easier on the brain!



To collect water during the HMS Challenger expedition: Buckets and Bottles

When collecting water, water from the surface was collected simply with a bucket. Water from the bottom, however, was collected by specifically designed instruments, for example the Slip Water-Bottle. This was basically a brass cylinder that takes in water once it reaches the bottom. A similar water bottle, called the Stop-Cock Water Bottle, was used to collect water at intermediate depths.










So that is just some of the main equipment used aboard HMS Challenger to gather important data. The temperatures recorded are still being used now to compare how the ocean’s temperature has changed over time so it was well worth the effort.

That is me for now…in the next blog post I will show you examples of some of the data collected from a station, including some specimens that were found. Speak soon!

A bit of background for you

The HMS Challenger scientific expedition is fascinating to hear about. For those of you that don’t know much about it and want to know more than what is in the About the Project page then do read on!


Why search for deep-sea life?

Scientists started looking for deep-sea life to challenge Edward Forbes’ ‘azoic’ theory: The idea that life did not exist below 300 fathoms (about 1800 feet or 549 metres). Forbes was professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh and a very influential man, so his theory was accepted by many. But not by  Charles Wyville Thomson! Thomson worked with his friend William Carpenter to commission the voyage of HMS Lightening that successfully found life at 600 fathoms. This, and the voyages of HMS Porcupine and HMS Shearwater, set the scene for HMS Challenger to explore deep-sea life.

What did HMS Challenger aim to study?

There were four main scientific areas that Wyville Thomson and Carpenter wanted to study:

  • The physical conditions of the sea – What was the temperature of the deep sea? The depth? How far would light travel through the water?
  • The life in the sea – What life is there? At what depths is there life? How is it spread through different areas?
  • The sediments in the sea – What are they and where has it come from?
  • The chemistry of the sea – What is the seawater made of? Does it change at different depths?

These questions had never been answered before. The answers could also add support to the theory of evolution if living creatures were discovered that had previously only been found as fossils on land. Just try to even imagine back in time when none of this was known (hard isn’t it?)…this was a huge investigation which meant an awful lot of work!

The ship and the start of the voyage

Let me tell you a little bit about the ship itself. What was it like? Well, the ship itself was a royal Navy vessel launched in 1858. For the expedition, all but two guns were removed from the ship so there was room for storage of equipment, a dark room for photography, cabins for the crew and laboratories to work in (click on the picture above to see a bigger, annotated version of the layout of the main deck – there is also a top deck, lower deck and a hold on the ship). It wasn’t an overly big ship – there was not much room at all for the 269 crew on board (including 6 scientists) who set off from Portsmouth on 21st December 1872.

Annotated main deck plan

Annotated main deck plan   It wasn’t a fantastic start either – with very stormy weather that made the men seasick and struggle to sit down to eat. However, once they left Gibraltar, things started to look up. They found a sea pen. This was great news as they believed that this was evidence to back up Darwin’s theory of evolution as until now these had only been found on land as fossils. The crew now had hope again. Life on board was certainly not lovely and cosy though – the crew had a very tough time. The cabins for the crew to sleep in were small. Some crew members even had to live below decks in a space only big enough for a chair. Most of the seaman at some point of the voyage got a disease called dysentery, where bacteria causes damage to the large intestines, causing dehydration and diarrhoea. Not a pleasant experience! This was no easy voyage.   DSCF3742-001   I won’t carry on and tell you the whole story right now. The voyage travelled around the globe and will take a long time to tell. So keep an eye out for future posts from myself and the project team where we will continue this fascinating tale of exploration, tell you about the crew the collections of material found, the scientists involved in analysis and more. If there are any particular parts of the voyage you want to know about (or anything else Challenger related for that matter) then do let me know. RAMM has all 50 volumes of the Challenger report (yes, they did take a long time to write – 19 years to publish in fact!) which have a lot of information in. Of course, I will be letting you know all about the progress of the project too!