No Smoke Without Fire

06 20 steamshipOn this day in 1819, this ship, the SS Savannah, became the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean. I know it doesn’t look much like a steam ship, but if you look carefully, you can see a paddle wheel on the side. She left Georgia, in the United Sates, in May and arrived in Liverpool on June 20th.

Although the ship had a full set of sails, she also had two 16 ft paddle wheels, one on either side, that were driven by a steam engine. The ship was too small to carry much fuel, so the wheels were only intended for use when the sea was calm and there was not enough wind to fill the sails. When not in use, they could be folded like a fan and stowed away on deck. It was something of a one-off design, the only ship known to have had retractable paddle wheels. Below decks, she was fitted out in a luxurious style with three large and comfortable saloons and sixteen state rooms, each with two berths.

In spite of this, they had a great deal of trouble persuading anyone to sail with them. Crossing the Atlantic was a dangerous undertaking at the best of times, but in such an unusual ship, no one was prepared to take the risk. They weren’t keen to travel on the Savannah, and they didn’t care to send any freight on her either. It was hard enough even to find a crew. No one thought such a ship had a hope of making it across the Atlantic in one piece. She was quickly dubbed ‘The Steam Coffin’. Their departure was delayed several times, including an occasion when an inebriated sailor fell off the gangplank and drowned. Despite last minute appeals for passengers and freight, no one came forwards. The ship’s historic voyage would be purely an experimental one.

Twice on the journey they were hailed by passing ships who were concerned because, seeing the smoke rising from the funnel, they assumed that the ship was on fire. Firstly, on May 29th, she was spotted by a schooner. They saw the smoke and pursued the ship for several hours but couldn’t catch up with her, On the second occasion, a ship called the Kite sighted her just off the coast of Ireland. After chasing her for some time, they eventually brought the ship to a halt by firing several warning shots across her stern. The Kite’s commander demanded to come aboard to inspect the ship and was surprised and ‘much gratified by the inspection of this naval novelty’.

When she approached Liverpool hundreds of boats sailed out to greet the unusual ship. Some were concerned though, that she had been sent by Jerome Bonaparte to rescue his brother Napoleon from prison on St Helena. One of their visitors was a British warship, demanding that they take down their American flag, which was perceived as some sort of insult. One of its officers told the captain, Moses Rogers, that if he would not take it down, he would send someone to make him. The captain, responded by calling to his engineer to “get the hot-water engine ready.” There was no such piece of equipment on board, but the threat of it was enough to dissuade the officer from pressing the point.

The Savannah sailed on to Russia, Denmark and Sweden. Captain Rogers, was showered with gifts from royalty and offers to buy the ship. But she recrossed the Atlantic, returning to her home port in November. Sadly her first crossing was her only one. A fire in the city of Savannah the following year damaged the business of the Savannah’s owners and they were forced sell the ship’s engine. She remained in use as a sailing ship until 1821. It would be almost another twenty years before steamships began to make regular trips across the Atlantic.

Creatures From The Vasty Deep


Today is World Oceans Day. More than seventy per cent of the Earth’s surface is covered with water. Without it, there would be no life on our planet. Life began in the oceans around three and a half billion years ago. There was nothing on land until four hundred million years ago. Our seas and oceans have been a major source of food for us, for thousands of years. The tiny phytoplankton that live in the water provide our planet with more than half of its oxygen. If we could harness just 0.1% of the energy in the tides, we could meet all our energy needs five times over. Our oceans are the cradles of our existence, they are our future. We should look after them.

Our seas and oceans make up ninety seven percent of the habitable space on our planet. But, as it is not habitable by us, less than one tenth of it has been explored by humans. Humans were sent to have a look at the moon four years before anyone went to explore our own planet’s longest mountain range. It extends from north of Greenland way down to well beyond the tip of South Africa and hardly any of it is above water. No one even knew it was there until the 1870s, when people started thinking about laying a transatlantic telegraph cable across it.

06 08 blue whaleThe oceans are home to the blue whale, which is the largest creature on Earth. So far as we know, it is the largest creature that has ever lived here. A blue whale may grow up to a hundred feet in length. Even just its tongue can weight as much as an elephant. They are also the loudest animals on the planet Although their calls are too low for us to hear, they can hear each other up to a thousand miles away. So, if I was a blue whale, sitting here typing this, probably on a really big keyboard with my massive tongue, I would be able to hear you shouting to me from Prague, or Madrid. You’d think we’d know everything there was to know about this large and noisy creature. But we don’t even know where they go to breed.

My point is, that the oceans are huge and we really don’t know what might be down there. I’ve come across loads of myths and legends about sea serpents while I’ve been researching this blog. Huge marine creatures that sometimes attack, sometimes just benignly swim past. Most of these tales are from so long ago that we can’t really know what they are describing. But there is a very long, serpent-like fish called a giant oar fish that is very real. Here is a drawing of one. He has some pretty fancy headgear.

06 08 oar fish

Again, we don’t know a great deal about them. The largest recorded specimen was thirty-six feet long. Some claim to have seen ones that are fifty-six feet long. But who knows how big they can grow. It won’t swallow you whole though. Like the blue whale, it feeds on krill, which are tiny.

06 08 weedy sea dragonThere are so many real-life monsters of the deep, that it’s a hard subject to narrow down. But I’ll mention a couple of my favourites. On the right is a weedy sea dragon. They’re not huge and scary, they grow maybe eighteen inches long. But they are beautiful. I love weedy sea dragons. I love the way they look. I love their name. They are a sort of fancy cousin of the sea horse, and like sea horses, it is the males who incubate the eggs. They look after them in a pouch and then sort of give birth to them when they’re hatched.

06 08 vampire squidThe other animal I want to tell you about is the vampire squid. Let’s start with it’s Latin name, ‘vampyroteuthis infernalis’. That literally translates as ‘vampire squid from hell’. They live two or three thousand feet below the surface in complete darkness. They are mostly red and black and have webbing between their tentacles which makes them look as though they have a cloak. The vampire squid, isn’t really a squid. It’s an ancient ancestor of the squid and the octopus that is still with us. This animal is older than the dinosaurs. It has several tricks to help it avoid predators. It can squirt ink but it is not black like squid ink. That would be useless in the dark, it is bioluminescent. They also have fake glow-in-the-dark eyes on the tops of their heads and on the ends of their tentacles. If that’s not confusing enough, they can pull their cloaks around themselves so the little spines on the underside of their tentacles stick out making them look a bit like a sea urchin. I find them fascinating to watch. You can see a video, and find out a bit more about them here.

There is much still to be learned about the deep ocean. It is only forty years ago that we discovered hydrothermal vents, miles below the ocean surface, which spew water that can be as hot as 400° C, that’s hot enough to melt lead. Yet there are whole colonies of creatures living there. In this habitat their food chain cannot possibly rely in any way on sunlight, which had been thought impossible. In fact, they rely on hydrogen sulphide, a substance poisonous to almost all other types of life.

Even more recently, in 1983, areas of concentrated brine were discovered on the ocean floor, These settle into pools that look like underwater lakes. The shores of these ‘lakes’ are populated with muscles and tube worms that rely on bacteria that feed on methane. It is these discoveries that have led us to believe that life may exist in the more inhospitable areas of our solar system. Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa, may have liquid oceans beneath its crust. If these are kept from freezing by hydrothermal vents, then it is possible there could be similar life forms there. Amazing.

There’s so much more to tell you about the ocean. I could tell you about the 29,000 rubber ducks that were lost at sea in 1992 and are still turning up occasionally. They have taught us all sorts of things we didn’t know about ocean currents. We’re always loosing stuff at sea. We’ve probably lost more things in the sea than are in all the world’s museums put together. I could tell you about the millions of tons of gold that are dissolved in sea water (that doesn’t include the gold that we’ve lost in it) and peoples’ interesting plans to recover it. Or that the composition of coral is so similar to our own skeletons that we can use it to repair bone fractures. But there isn’t time. I need to go and look at Peter the Great, whose birthday it is tomorrow.

All That Glisters…

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESYou might have heard that the streets of London are paved with gold. Dick Whittington certainly thought so. I didn’t see any the last time I visited, but there may just be a grain of truth behind that story.

On this day in 1577 Martin Frobisher set sail from Harwich for the New World. Frobisher was a bit of a chancer, basically a pirate with a letter from the Queen saying that he could get on with his job. Ostensibly he was looking for the same Northwest Passage that everyone was looking for. Portugal controlled the shipping lanes all along the coast of Africa, so it was difficult for anyone else to trade with the Far East. They were hoping to find a northern route to China and India by finding a way to sail along the north coast of Canada. But Frobisher had a secret mission. He was looking for gold.

An earlier journey in 1576 to the same spot had not gone well. He set off with three ships but lost two of them on the way and five of his crew were captured by Inuit and never seen again. However, he was so confident that he has found the route, he named his landing place ‘Frobisher Passage’. They returned with a few bits and pieces they’d picked up, tokens of possession, including a small black stone “as great as a halfpenny loaf” if you can imagine such a thing. They didn’t think it was worth much to begin with. There is a story that one of the sailors was given a piece of it in payment for his services. His wife was so disgusted by it that she threw it into the fire, where it changed colour and sparkled “with a bright marquisette of gold”. Then, it was examined by experts and most of them thought it was pretty useless. Two men though, named Burchard Kranich and Jonas Schutz thought that it contained gold.

This was enough to send them on the second, much bigger, voyage. They scoured the West Country for miners to take with them and seem to have found only five. Arriving at what is now named Frobisher Bay in Canada, they spent twenty days mining ore and loading it onto their ships. They collected two hundred tons of ore. Significantly, they worked until their baskets wore out and their tools broke. This rather suggests that the men they brought may not have been miners at all, since they didn’t know how to repair the tools of their trade.

Oddly, they returned with only one hundred and forty tons of ore which was locked up in a castle in Bristol. Schutz claimed to have smelted some of the ore and found it to contain £40 worth of gold per ton. Most of it though, he told them, was trapped in the slag and what he really needed was a ‘great workes’ – a really big smelting plant to really, properly get at the gold.

Everyone was pretty excited and set off on a third voyage, this time returning with one thousand three hundred and fifty tons of ore. The smelting works were built at Dartford and everyone thought they were going to be very rich. Sadly, when the ore was treated it was found to yield very little gold. Everyone blamed Schutz for designing such a rubbish 05 31 pyritefurnace but eventually it turned out that the actual problem was that there wasn’t really any gold in the ore in the first place. What it most likely contained were crystals of iron pyrite, which is also called ‘Fools Gold’ and clearly not without reason.

Surprisingly, both Frobisher and Schutz survived the debacle. Frobisher was later knighted for his services in the battle against the Spanish Armada and Schutz went to work for the king of Scotland. His ‘great workes’ were sold and eventually became England’s first paper mill. As for the ore, once it was found to be valueless it was smashed up and used as gravel to pave the streets of London.

Fantastic Voyage

05 16 saint brendanToday is the feast day of Saint Brendon, patron saint of sailors, divers and also whales. He’s a pretty popular saint in his native Ireland, probably second only to Saint Patrick. Though frankly, why people go for Patrick in such a big way when they have a saint like Brendon, I find hard to understand.

Early Irish monks were adventurous souls who loved to set off across the sea in tiny boats, believing that God would take them where they needed to go. Brendan had already travelled quite widely when he met an Abbot named Barrid told him an intriguing tale of how he had ventured west across the sea and visited Paradise.

Brendan built a boat with a hull made from leather stretched over a wooden frame. He gathered together a company of either 14, 16 or 17 other monks and, somewhere between 512 and 530 AD, set off on a voyage of his own. The story of his seven year adventure is pretty amazing. They encountered an island inhabited only by a dog and an Ethiopian devil, an island populated with giant sheep and an island of birds who sang psalms in praise of God. On Easter Day they landed on the back of a whale which they mistook for an island. When they lit a fire it sank beneath the waves. The whale, who was named Jasconius, didn’t bare them any ill will though. The monks celebrated Easter on his back every year for seven years. They met with many fish, birds and sea monsters including one with the head of a cat and horns in it’s mouth. They sailed past a crystal pillar and an island of blacksmiths, who threw fiery rocks at them. They came upon a coagulated sea and fertile islands with giant fruit. On a bare rock in the middle of the ocean, they saw Judas. We are told that this was where he went when he was allowed out of Hell on Sundays. They seem to have revisited some of the islands regularly, so they must have been sailing around in circles. But they did reach the land that the Abbot had spoken of, which became known as Saint Brendan’s Island, and eventually returned home.

The Voyage of Saint Brendon was such a popular tale, not just in Ireland but throughout Europe, that Saint Brendon’s Island appeared on many maps. Its location tended to change a fair bit though. When Columbus first set sail for America, he fully expected to find the island on his way. Its existence wasn’t fully discounted until the nineteenth century. More recently, people have started to believe that it could be a partially true account of an early voyage to America. There are certainly some quite big sheep on the Faroe Islands. The crystal pillar could be an iceberg. The blacksmiths throwing fiery stones could be an interpretation of an active volcano. The sea monster with horns in its mouth could easily be a walrus.

It is widely accepted now that the Vikings sailed to North America. The Vikings have tales of a settlement they call Vinland, which could be in America and they refer to the land to the south of it as ‘Irland it Mikla’ – ‘Greater Ireland’.

In 1976 a man named Tim Severin built a replica of Saint Brendan’s boat. He managed to sail it, with a small crew, from Ireland, via the Faroes, Iceland and past Greenland all the way to America. So such a journey would have been possible. When the leather hull was torn by a lump of ice they managed to stitch on a patch. Such a repair would have been impossible with a wooden or metal ship. They were particularly surprised to find that they were visited on their journey by many whales. It’s quite likely that they thought the big leather boat was some new, odd sort of whale that needed investigating.

To Seek Out New Worlds

03 07 kepler spacecraftOn this day in 2009, NASA launched its Kepler space observatory. Its purpose is to identify earth like planets orbiting other stars. It is focused on the Milky Way where there are billions of stars. Its only instrument is a photometer which continually measures the brightness of 145,000 stars. If any of the stars it is looking at dim periodically, that might indicate that there is a planet passing in front of it. So far, it has identified 1039 planets.

As I have been thinking about space travel today and, as I casually mentioned yesterday a seventeenth century bishop who wrote a story about flying to the moon with some swans, I thought I’d take a closer look at that today, along with another story that I didn’t get chance to mention, which heavily influenced Cyrano de Bergerac‘s ‘Other Worlds’. It is ‘True History’ written by Lucian of Samosata some time in the second century.

Francis Godwin was born in 1562 and became Bishop of Hereford. His father was the bishop of Bath and Wells. Both of his grandfathers were bishops. His ‘The Man in the Moone, or a Discourse of a Voyage Thither’ was published posthumously under an assumed name in 1638. He may have written it in about 1620. It is about a man called Domingo Gonsales, the book’s supposed author. Domingo has made a fortune in the East Indies but has to flee because he killed someone in a duel. He leaves for his native Spain along with his servant Diego. Ill health forces him to stop at St Helena. There he finds a new variety of swan he calls a ‘gansa’ that he discovers can carry substantial weights. 03 07 the man in the mooneEventually he harnesses some of them together so they can carry the weight of a man and flies around the island. Then, he decides to use the swans to fly him home. Nearing Tenerife he is attacked by British ships and forced to land. Finding the natives hostile, he takes off again. The swans carry him higher and higher. On the first day he meets demons and wicked spirits who give him a package of food for his journey. They promise to see him safely back to Spain if he promises to join them and serve a master who they will not name. He refuses.

Instead, the gansas carry him higher and higher, for twelve days, until he reaches the Moon. Suddenly, he feels hungry and opens his package to find that it contains dry leaves, goat’s hair and animal dung. There is also wine that he says smells like horse piss. He finds that the people who live on the moon are tall Christian people who live in a kind of paradise. He finds out that they maintain their Utopian existence by swapping any delinquent children for children from Earth. Here, he cites an example, the Green Children of Woolpit.

This is a very odd story dating from the twelfth century about two children who suddenly appeared near the village of Woolpit in Suffolk. They spoke an unknown language, their clothing was unfamiliar, their skin was green, and they would eat only beans. When they adapted to a normal diet, they lost their green colour. The boy died but the girl survived to adulthood. They couldn’t say how they arrived, only that they had been tending their father’s cattle, there had been a loud noise and suddenly they found themselves in a strange place. There is only one other writer we know of from this time who mentions the story and suggests that they may have come from an extra-terrestrial world. It is Robert Burton in his ‘Anatomy of Melancholy‘. This is an interesting piece of information for me as, over the last year, the Anatomy of Melancholy has become one of my favourite books that I’ve never read. But I digress.

After six months of living on the moon, and learning their strange musical language, three of Domingo’s gansas have died and he becomes concerned he will never get back to earth. He sets off for home, but before he leaves, the King of the Moon gives him a gift of three sorts of stones. Poleastis, which can store and generate great quantities of heat, Macbrus, which generates great quantities of light and Ebelus. Holding one side of this stone to you, renders you weightless, touching the other side makes you half as heavy again.

He uses his Ebelus to make himself lighter so that the journey back to Earth is easier for his remaining gansas. He lands in China where he is arrested as a magician. It takes him ages to learn Mandarin so he can explain himself. Eventually he makes contact with some Jesuits who write down his story and promise to send it to Spain. The book ends with him hoping that his adventures will make him famous.

The second century tale written by Lucian of Samosata was intended to be a parody against contemporary and ancient sources which quote obvious myths and legends as if they had really happened. So its title ‘True History’ is a joke. In the story, Lucien and some adventuring heroes sail west beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Straits of Gibraltar) and come to an island with rivers of wine filled with fish and bears. They also find marks indicating that Heracles and Dionysus have passed that way. On leaving the island they are 03 07 bearsley's space spidersswept up by a whirlwind and, after seven days, deposited on the moon. There, they find a huge war between the king of the Moon and the king of the Sun over who should colonise the Morning Star (Venus). There is a fantastical description of the two armies which includes men who wear long gowns that they use like sails to fly around, dog-faced men riding winged acorns and giant spiders. The armies of the sun are victorious when they build a wall that eclipses the moon. Lucian tells us that there are no women on the moon but that children grow inside the calves of men. This sounds like a weird idea, but it’s one I’m probably going to mention again at Bacchanalia next week.

After returning to Earth, they become trapped inside a 200 mile long whale. There are some amazing things inside the whale; among them, a little garden a lake and a temple dedicated to Neptune. There are also a thousand people who they go to war with. Then they discover a sea of milk and an island of cheese. After that, they sail to the Island of the Blessed. There, they meet the heroes of the Trojan War and Herodotus who is being eternally punished for all the lies he wrote in his own ‘Histories’. Herodotus was responsible for some of the more outlandish beliefs of Pliny the Elder and which persisted into medieval times, such as the belief in a race of dog-headed people. Lucian tells us that he is glad he will never suffer such a fate as he has never told a lie in his life.

Lucian then discovers a chasm in the ocean, which they manage to sail around and he ends his story as they discover a new continent and begin to explore it. It ends with the promise of more to come. No one now has any idea if there ever was more.

Lost at Sea

12 04 mary celesteIt was on this day in 1872 that the American merchant brigantine, Mary Celeste, was found adrift and deserted about half way between the Azores and the coast of Portugal. No one ever found out what became of her crew.

The ship was built in Nova Scotia and launched in 1861. She was then a British ship called Amazon. Her maiden voyage did not go well. She was to load up with timber and take it to London. As soon as the cargo was loaded, the captain fell ill and soon died. A new captain was appointed and the voyage continued. The Amazon ran into some fishing equipment off the coast of Maine. Then, on her return journey from London, she crashed into, and sank, another ship in the English Channel. Things then went okay until 1867 when she was driven ashore by a storm and abandoned as a wreck. But she was salvaged, refitted, re-registered as an American ship and given the name Mary Celeste.

The Ship’s captain, Benjamin Briggs, came from a sea-faring family and chose a crew of experienced sailors for his voyage from New York to Genoa in Italy. He was so confident that things would go well that he took his wife and two-year-old daughter with him. Their cargo of methylated spirit was loaded at pier fifty on the East River and then she moved into New York Harbour. While preparing to sail, we know that he met the captain of another ship, the Dei Gratia, called David Morehouse. The Dei Gratia was preparing to take the same course with a cargo of petroleum. The Mary Celeste set sail on November 7th and the Dei Gratia followed on November 15th.

On December 4th, around 1pm, the helmsman of the Dei Gratia spotted a ship about six miles away. It was moving erratically and heading straight for them. Something appeared to be wrong. Their signals received no response and, as the they drew closer, they could see no one on board. Two of the crew went to investigate, and when they saw the name Mary Celeste, they boarded her. The sails were partly set, but in poor condition and some were missing all together. The rigging was damaged and there were ropes hanging loose over the sides. The main hatch was fastened but two of the smaller hatches were open. The case that held the ship’s compass had been moved and the glass broken. They found about three and a half feet of water in the hold, which is a fair bit, but not a worrying amount. There was also a sounding rod on the deck, which is a device used to measure the depth of water in the hold. The ship’s only lifeboat was gone and there was no one on board. They found the ship’s log, its last entry had been nine days earlier, on November 25th, when it’s position was recorded some 400 nautical miles (740km) from where they encountered her. The cabins were found to be in reasonable order and the cargo seemed intact. In the captain’s cabin, they found a few personal items, including a sword under the bed. But most of the ship’s papers and the captain’s navigational equipment were missing. Everything in the galley was neatly stowed, no meal was being prepared but there were ample stores for the rest of the journey. All evidence pointed to a fairly orderly departure from the ship by means of the lifeboat.

Morehouse divided his small crew between the two ships and headed for Gibraltar. There he expected to receive a substantial reward for salvaging the ship and its cargo. In fact, he was only awarded around one fifth of the total value of Mary Celeste and her load of methylated spirit. There was a hearing in which the judge was sure that foul play must be involved. He was sure that the crew had drunk the meths, gone wild and murdered the captain and his family before escaping in the lifeboat. He was sure that blood had been found on the captain’s sword and on the ship’s rails, and that some suspicious looking cuts in the bow of the ship had been man-made to make it seem as though she had run aground somewhere. All these accusations turned out to be false.

Later theories, which are also unlikely include insurance fraud, which was disproved. Some thought that Morehouse had overtaken the Mary Celeste and murdered her crew for the salvage. This is impossible as the Dei Gratis was eight days behind and a much slower ship. Some thought perhaps Briggs, his family and crew had been attacked by pirates. But this is unlikely as there were some quite valuable personal items left behind on the ship. One man even suggested that Briggs had been overcome by a fit of religious mania, killed everyone on board and then himself. This was a terrible theory and he was made to apologise to the Captain’s remaining family.

12 04 waterspoutIt could be that the ship encountered a severe waterspout, which is a kind of tornado over water. The accompanying low barometric pressure might have caused water to rise in the bilges, making the crew think they were taking on more water than they in fact were. This might have led them to abandon ship and would also explain the state of the ship’s sails and rigging. Or it could be that their very flammable cargo was leaking and they feared an explosion making them open the hatches to let the fumes escape and leave the ship as a temporary measure, while they watched how things went.

12 04 giant squidWe’ll probably never know what really happened on the Mary Celeste and her story has become very confused by myth and by a few fictional accounts that were written later. Perhaps the most influential was written by a young Arthur Conan Doyle in 1884 called ‘J Habakuk Jephson’s Statement’ about a ship called the ‘Marie Celeste’. In it, there is a fanatical crew member who kills everyone and sails the ship the West Africa. Jephson survives because he possesses a scary magic charm. This, and all other accounts that later appeared, depended on there being a survivor to tell the tale and, as we know, there were none. So any stories you’ve heard about then all being eaten by sharks whilst swimming, or that they stole another ship filled with silver and gold, or even that there was a meal left, untouched on the table, are all fantasy. Others have suggested the Bermuda Triangle, which it was nowhere near, and even flying saucers. In 1904, Chamber’s Journal suggested that the ship had been attacked by a giant squid. While this is possible, I don’t think the squid would have been very interested in the lifeboat or the captain’s instruments of navigation.

Stove By a Whale

11 20 whaleToday I have the story of the real event that inspired author Herman Melville to write his novel ‘Moby Dick’. It isn’t a happy story. People die, some people get eaten, some people go mad. If you’re not up for that, maybe give this one a miss. But it’s so spectacularly awful in every way, that I really can’t ignore it.

The whaling ship Essex was an old ship when she set out from Nantucket, in August 1819, on a whaling voyage that would take its crew down the east coast of the Americas, around Cape Horn and on into the Pacific. They expected to be away for two and a half years. She had already completed many successful missions and was considered to be something of a lucky ship. But this was about to change.

Two days out of harbour, they were hit by a squall. They lost one of their sails and, of the five smaller whaleboats that were kept on the ship, one was damaged and another completely destroyed. Whaleboats are pretty important if you want to go whaling, but rather than stopping for repairs they decided to press on. They reached Cape Horn in January 1820 and it took them five weeks to get through to the Pacific. When they arrived at the whaling ground off the coast of South America, they found there were no whales there. But they met other crews who told them about a new hunting ground way out in the middle of the Pacific. The middle of the Pacific was a worrying place to be. It was dotted with islands reputed to be populated by cannibals. Also it was around 2,300 miles from the mainland, a phenomenally long way to go and they would need more supplies. The ship set sail for the Galápagos Islands. They reached Hood Island on October 8th and there, they hunted down 300 Galápagos Giant Tortoises to supplement their stores. On October 22nd, they moved on to Charles Island where they captured a further 60 tortoises. Then the helmsman thought it would be really funny if he started a fire. It was the dry season and the fire quickly got out of control. The crew were forced to run through the flames to escape. By the time they reached the ship, the whole island was on fire. They sailed away for the hunting ground, leaving the burning island behind them, but even after a day at sea, the smoke was still visible on the horizon. It was an environmental disaster of huge proportions, thousands of animals must have died and it probably contributed to the extinction of some species.

By November 16th they had got to the new hunting ground but weren’t having much luck and another of their boats, captained by First Mate, Owen Chase, had been destroyed by a whale surfacing directly beneath it Then, on the morning of November 20th 1820, they sighted a pod of whales and the three remaining whaleboats were launched and set out in pursuit. The two boats led by Ship’s Captain George Pollard and Second Mate, Matthew Joy, both speared whales and were being dragged off towards the horizon. But the whale harpooned by Chase’s crew thrashed out with it’s tail, damaging his boat. So Chase was back aboard the Essex repairing his boat when the crew noticed a whale behaving strangely. It was an enormous whale, around 85ft (26m) long and it was lying motionless on the surface facing towards the ship. Then it began to swim towards them, faster and faster. It rammed right into the side of the ship, battering it and causing it to tip from side to side. Then it dived underneath them and came up on the other side. It appeared to be stunned and they considered harpooning it, but its tail was inches from the rudder. If they lost that, they’d be stuck in the middle of nowhere with no way of steering the ship. The whale recovered and swum a few hundred yards, then turned and faced the ship again. This time it was facing the bow. Here is Chase’s description of what happened next:

“I turned around and saw him about one hundred rods (500m or 550 yards) directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed of around 24 knots (44km/h), and it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect. The surf flew in all directions about him with the continual violent thrashing of his tail. His head about half out of the water, and in that way he came upon us, and again struck the ship.”

11 20 essex and whaleThe whale crushed the bow, hitting it so hard that the ship was driven backwards. It then swam away, never to be seen again. But the Essex was sinking fast. The crew barely had time to launch their remaining whaleboat, add some rigging to it and collect a bit of navigational equipment. When the captain returned to the scene of devastation he was completely speechless. When he was eventually able to ask what had happened, Chase replied “We were stove by a whale.”

The whaleboats were only around 28ft (8.5m) long and completely open. They were not at all suitable for a long voyage, but the men had no choice. They gathered together what supplies they could from the wreckage but had neither enough food or fresh water for the journey they faced. The nearest land was the Marquesas Islands 1200 miles (1900km) west. Captain Pollard wanted to head that way, but Chase was concerned. He thought they might find cannibals there, he wanted to head back to South America. Because the winds were unfavourable this meant they would have to sail south for 1000 miles before turning east and sailing another 3000 miles to reach land. Recklessly, they went for the second option. Within two weeks, all their food was contaminated with sea water and they were forced to drink their own urine. In mid December, just as they were all about to die of thirst, they reached the Pitcairn Islands where they found fresh water, crabs and birds eggs. There was not enough food to sustain them for long. After a week they decided to leave, though three of the crew insisted on remaining on the island.

The Second Mate died on January 10th and the next day Chase’s boat became separated from the others. As they drifted south, a man in Chases boat died and was buried at sea. When a second man died on February 8th, they realised they would have to resort to cannibalism if they were to survive. They kept his body. They were rescued on February 18th by another whaling ship called ‘Indian’. The other two boats similarly ran out of food and were forced to eat the bodies of their dead crew members. On January 28th the two boats separated. We know what became of Captain Pollard and his crew, but the three men in the other boat were never seen alive again. Pollards crew ran out of food on February 1st . Faced with starvation, they decided to draw lots to decide which of them would sacrifice himself to save the rest. The black spot was drawn by the captain’s seventeen-year-old cousin, Owen Coffin. They drew lots again to decide who would be his executioner. It fell to his friend, Charles Ramsdell, to pull the trigger. Pollard, Ramsdell and another man called Barzillai Ray lived on the remains of Coffin until Ray died on February 11th. Then they ate him too. When the two men were finally rescued by another whaling ship, ‘Dauphin’, on February 23rd, they had survived only by gnawing on the bones of their shipmates. They had become to detached from reality that they did not notice the ship pulling along side them, and they were terrified by their rescuers.

11 20 owenThe three survivors on the Pitcairn Islands were also eventually rescued, although they were close to death. Several years later a whaleboat was found beached on a Pacific island that had four skeletons in it. They were believed to be the remains of the crew from the missing boat. All of the survivors returned to sea within months of the incident. The ship’s captain, Pollard, sailed on two other ships that were wrecked. People started to think he brought them bad luck and he was forced to retire. Owen, the first mate, spent another nineteen years at sea. But after his retirement he took to hiding food in his attic and was eventually institutionalised.

Going South

09 20 bellinghausenToday is the birthday of Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen who was born in 1778 in what is now Estonia. In 1820 he headed the first expedition to sight mainland Antarctica. I’ve read a lot about explorers and sea voyages researching this blog and the nineteenth century seems rather late to find a whole new continent. But of all the discoveries I’ve read about, it’s really the only recorded instance of someone finding a major land mass that was uninhabited. I could argue that none of the other famous adventurers we know about really ‘discovered’ anywhere because the places they encountered already had plenty of people living there.

09 20 Ortelius World MapFor centuries people believed that there was a large land mass to the south of the equator. Aristotle had postulated that the Earth was symmetrical, so there must be a land mass to the south to balance out the northern lands of Europe, Asia and North Africa. Although the idea that the earth was spherical dates back to at least the 6th century BC, no one in Europe was completely sure that it was possible to cross the equator into the Southern Hemisphere until the fifteenth century. The unknown landmass to the south is marked on early maps as Terra Australis Incognita and it’s enormous. It was not until 1487 that Europeans knew that Africa was not joined to this land mass, when Bartolomeu Dias made it round the Cape of Good Hope. Ferdinand Magellan assumed when, in 1520, he sailed through the Straits of Magellan, that the land to the south of him was part of Terra Australis. This was not disproved until 1615.

In the seventeenth century, the newly found region called New Holland was assumed to be part of the large continent in the south, but then in 1642, Abel Tasman sailed around to the south of it, proving it was not the case. In 1773 James Cook sailed as far south as the Antarctic circle, but found only ice. He declared that there was no landmass there at all and the name Australia was given instead to New Holland.

09 20 antarctic mapIn 1819 Bellinghausen, a captain in the Russian Navy, was chosen to lead a Russian expedition to the far south. He had already distinguished himself as part of the first Russian circumnavigation of the world and had proved himself to be an excellent cartographer. His expedition was the first to cross the Antarctic Circle since Cook’s voyage. Bellinghausen sighted the coast of Antarctica on January 20th `1820. During his voyage he sailed right around the continent, proving that it was not connected to any other landmass. Belinghausen’s orders for the mission were to explore as far south as possible and to carry out ‘scientific work’. I haven’t managed to find out what the scientific work was, but he couldn’t possibly have fulfilled the ‘far south as possible’ part of his mission any better than he did. Yet the Russians seem to have been unimpressed on his return. It was ten years before his account of his voyage was published.

Around The World

09 06 victoriaOn this day in 1522 the ship Victoria returned to Sanlúcar in Spain. Her sails were in tatters and her small crew were constantly pumping water out of her to keep her afloat. This single ship and her eighteen crew were all that was left of the five ships and 270 men who had set out three years earlier with Ferdinand Magellan on the first ever round the world voyage.

At that time the world had been divided in two, half belonged to Spain and half to the Portuguese. Portugal had control of the eastern shipping routes that led to the Spice Islands, a valuable source of trade. The voyage was largely funded by the Spanish Crown and the intention was that they could gain access to the islands by sailing west. No European had ever sailed beyond the Southern tip of the Americas before, it was uncharted territory. The maps were blank. Magellan though, was confident that he knew of a way through.

They set off in September 1519 and reached the coast of Brazil in December and in January they reached the mouth of the River Plate. Magellan must have thought it was the route beyond the continent that he had been looking for and he must have been extremely disheartened to find himself in a fresh water river. They turned back out to sea and continued southwards down the coast. In March they anchored at a place they named Puerto San Julián in Patagonia. They overwintered there and we are told that they met with a race of giants. Antonio Pigafetta, who was one of the few survivors and chronicled their journey describes them as twice the height of a normal man. Probably they were a tribe called the Teluelches who were unusually tall, but certainly not that big. The idea that there were giants in Patagonia persisted for around 250 years and early maps of the New World often included the Region of Giants.

09 06 strait of magellanIt was a tough winter and supplies were scarce. Also Magellan had a mutiny to contend with. His crew had begun to think that his crazy obsession with trying to find the route to the east would lead them all to their doom. Three of the ships’ captains were against him. He had most of the mutineers killed. Their bones would be found years later by Francis Drake when he made the same voyage. As the search for a route through to the east continued, one of the ships was wrecked and another turned back for Spain. In October, the remaining three ships arrived at a place they named the Cape of Eleven Thousand Virgins, an odd name but it is named after a saints’ feast day. There they found a salt water channel that would later be called the Straits of Magellan. It took them more than a month to thread there way through the strait. When they reached the ocean on the other side the water there was so calm the Magellan named it the Pacific Ocean.

Once in the Pacific he assumed that they were close to their destination. He had no idea how big the Pacific was. It was more that three months before they sighted land. The men were forced to eat
rancid biscuit crumbs, leather hide and even the rats aboard the ship. Many starved.

09 06 elcanoWhen they arrived in the Philippines in April, Magellan became involved in a war between local kings that was really a result of his desire to convert everyone to Christianity. He was killed there, he never made it back to Spain. The remaining crew sailed on. In May they were forced to abandon another of their ships. They no longer had enough crew and one of the ships was so worm eaten that they set it on fire and left it. They arrived at the Spice Islands in November and loaded up with what seems to have been principally cloves. The Victoria was now under the command of Juan Sebastián Elcano. It was he who decided to continue sailing westwards back to Spain. Magellan had never intended to sail right around the world. He had expected to sail back the same way they had come. The second remaining ship, the Trinidad, had to remain behind for repairs but the Victoria sailed across the Indian Ocean, around the cape of Good Hope and northwards back to Spain.

The ship carried 26 tonnes of spices which were worth more that their weight in gold. But all the crew had to eat on the last part of their journey was rice. Twenty of them starved to death before they reached home. The remaining crew were never properly paid for their service. The cargo was siezed by the crown as compensation for the lost ships.

Although Magellan is often credited as being the first to sail around the world, he did not complete the journey. He didn’t even get to the Spice Islands. The credit should more properly go to Elcano and the seventeen other survivors. You could even argue that the first man to sail right around the world was Magellan’s slave, Enrique, who had been with him since 1511 and was born in the Spice Islands. He completed his circumnavigation in 1521, over a year before the Victoria returned to Spain.


08 06 daedelusOn this day in 1848 a ship called the Daedalus was sailing home from the East Indies, between the Cape of Good Hope and St Helena when the ship’s captain, Peter McQuhae and several of his officers spotted a huge sea serpent. It was swimming with four feet (1.2 metres) of it’s head above the water. McQuhae estimated that the whole creature was about sixty feet long. He said that is was dark brown with a yellowish white throat. It had the head of a snake and it also seemed to have some sort of mane like a horse. It passed so close to the ship that McQuhae said: had it been a man of my acquaintance I should have easily recognised the features with the naked eye. He estimated that it was moving at a speed of between twelve and fifteen miles an hour and said that it remained in sight for twenty minutes.

This information appeared in a letter to the Times on October 13th 1848. While others came forward with their own reports of sea serpent sightings, the scientific community were more sceptical. The biologist Sir Richard Owen wrote a particularly scathing reply which was published on November 9th. Owen, who was the man who coined the term dinosaur, knew a great deal about fossil specimens. He thought that no such animal could possibly exist. No bones of such a creature had ever been found and no fossil evidence had ever been discovered. He was sure that what the sailors had seen was an elephant seal.

08 05 koch's sea monsterIt seems a little unfair to assume that seasoned sailors did not know what they were looking at or had never seen an elephant seal before but perhaps Owen’s scepticism was born of experience. Three years earlier he had identified as a fake, a sea serpent skeleton that was being displayed all around Europe by a man named Albert Koch. Koch had used the skeletons of six separate animals and also some whale bones and a few ammonite shells to fabricate a creature that was 114 feet (almost 35 metres) long. Koch’s biggest mistake was to use for the head of his leviathan, the skull of a Basilosaurus. A creature that Owen himself had helped to identify.

The evidence we have of the sighting are the testimony of seven sailors and a number of drawings that McQuhae had made when he returned home. He first joined the navy in 1803 and was made captain in 1835 so he had really spent a lot of time at sea. He didn’t have any reason to make up a story like this as it was inviting ridicule. On the other hand, there is still no physical evidence that such a creature exists. But the seas and oceans make up 97% of the earth’s habitable space. Also we once thought the same about the giant squid.