The H.M.S. Challenger

At V Factor we are working with samples collected during the H.M.S. Challenger expedition. This is really exciting as these samples were collected over 100 years ago and hold so much prestige within the scientific world. So what was the H.M.S. Challenger expedition all about?

The H.M.S. Challenger Expedition took place from December 7th 1872 to May 24th 1876 and was the first major scientific cruise1. The voyage lasted 1000 days and covered nearly 68,000 nautical miles (127,000 km)2. Plans for the cruise began when Professor Charles Wyville Thomson of Edinburgh University asked the Royal Society of London to make a proposal to the British Government to see if it would be possible for one of the H.M.S. ships to be equipped for an ocean exploration cruise around the world. The proposal was accepted without much opposition, and the H.M.S. Challenger was chosen for the voyage. The Challenger was a three-masted, square rigged wooden ship (above3) which was 200 feet in length. Many of the ships’ guns were removed to make space for the specially designed scientific laboratories, sample storage space and workrooms1. The ship also had  auxiliary steam power, which helped during sample collection3. Only 6 scientists were on board during the expedition including Charles Wyville Thomson. The ship’s commander was Captain George Nares and there were also 216 crew members. After the voyage ended, only 144 crew members were left; 7 had died, and 26 were hospitalised, unable to continue or had left1.

The expedition covered parts of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the arctic seas and south of the Antarctic Circle1. Millions of new samples were collected, and many new species of organisms were found. Drill cores were brought up from depths of just over 8 km3. This was certainly a big step up from previous voyages, which had only explored depths of up to 1 km! A major result from the Challenger expedition was the discovery of the deepest place in the ocean – the Marianas trench, located in the western Pacific (sea floor is > 4 miles deep); this area is now called the Challenger deep in the voyages’ honour. The Mid-Atlantic ridge was also discovered in the Atlantic ocean4.

362 sites were sampled across all the continents (see below6). Observations such as the depth, atmospheric and meteorological conditions and surface current direction and rate were recorded1. Samples from the sea bed, water from different depths and fauna from different depths (collected by nets or dredging) were also collected. The expedition was also important in surveying the shape of the ocean floor; this information would be important to submarine cabling companies in the future3.

Eventually, 50 volumes containing illustrations, photographs and details about specimens from the voyage were published between 1885 and 1895. Scientists who contributed towards the Challenger expedition in any way were presented with a Challenger Medal1.  Most of the samples collected are now at the Natural History Museum. These include microfossils (such as foraminifera and diatoms) and rocks. The collections are used by scientists worldwide for climatic, chemical, physical and biological studies.

Even though this was a major cruise and played such a significant part in the advancing of ocean science, all that now remains of the H.M.S. Challenger is the figurehead. This can be seen in the foyer at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton. After the ship returned, she was used by the Coast Guard and as a drill ship for the Naval Reserves; she was then decommissioned in 1878, and became a 'floating warehouse' in 1883. The Challenger remained docked in the River Medway until 1921 until she was demolished5.

The expedition the H.M.S. Challenger helped to carry out has left a great legacy - giving scientists across the globe plenty of samples to work with and to enjoy for many years to come.


1. Challenger Society for Marine Science (2013) "History of the Challenger Society for Marine Science" [Online] Available from
[Accessed 29/09/2013]

2. Bishop, T., Tuddeham, P., Ryan, M., Payne, D. & Babb, I. (2003) "Then and Now: The HMS Challenger Expedition and the “Mountains in the Sea” Expedition" [Online] Available from [Accessed 29/09/2013]

3. Stonybrook University Biology Department (2013)  "The Voyage of the Challenger"  Availabe from [Accessed 29/09/2013]

4. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (2013) "Dive and Discover: History of Oceanography" Available from
[Accessed 29/09/2013]

5. Birch aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego (2013) "HMS Challenger" Available from
[Accessed 29/09/2013]

6. Bernews (2013) "Bermuda and The ''Challenger'' expedition" Available from [Accessed 30/09/2013]

Further reading

"The Silent Landscape: Discovering the World of the Oceans in the Wake of HMS "Challenger's" Epic 1872 Mission to Explore the Sea Bed: In the Wake of HMS "Challenger" 1872-1876" by Richard Corfield

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