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History of oceanography


Whale skeletons in Bergen Museum

First deep sea explorers

The first deep-sea explorers were not scientists. They were fishermen, merchants, settlers and explorers of the 15th Century looking for new lands. These latter were the first “oceanographers” as they made meticulous maps of their travels. Even Christopher Columbus measured depths and kept a log of the marine life he encountered. The first combination of marine and biology was perhaps Charles Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos Islands aboard the HMS Beagle in 1831.

First oceanographers

Early scientists reasoned that the low temperature, high pressure and lack of light would make life in the depths difficult, if not impossible. However, for centuries indirect and anecdotal information from fishermen and sailors suggested that there was life in the ocean depths. The deep seas have remained a mystery until technology enabled us to start unravelling the secrets about 150 years ago. In the 1850’s and 1860’s, broken submarine cables with animals attached were recovered from the depths. It is the further technology developments of the last 50 years that have made deep-sea exploration feasible.

First major oceanographic expedition

The first world-wide scientific global survey was conducted by the HMS Challenger, from 1872-1876. Challenger carried an international crew of scientists and the latest equipment as she sailed and steamed through all the major oceans of the world (only missing the Arctic), covering a distance of 69 000 nautical miles. Samples collected represented 715 new genera and 4 417 new species. Many of the animals collected had never been seen before, and the collection continues to be studied today, over 100 years later. Many other countries followed England’s lead and a number of national / international expeditions set out.

First oceanographic institutes

The history and development of oceanography has depended upon developments in technology. Oceanographic Institutions were founded to support and continue the work. The Marine Biological Laboratory was established at Wood’s Hole in 1888. Scripps Institution of Oceanography was established in San Diego in 1903. Monaco’s Oceanographic Museum and Laboratory opened in 1906.

First oceaongraphic instruments

One of the first instruments used to investigate the sea bottom was the sounding weight. Viking sailors took measurements of ocean depth and sampled sea-floor sediments with this device. The depth was measured in fathoms; the distance between a sailor’s outstretched arms, or about 1.83m. The unit is still in use today. Much of the equipment used in the first oceanographic explorations is still used today, with various modifications and improvements. For example, trawls have been used as fishing and collecting gear for centuries.

Some web resources

Outline of the history of marine science

The Ocean Planet – a Smithsonian virtual exhibit – 1995

A Chronology of Undersea Exploration  

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