28 December 2011

New Beagle Project podcast

John Lort-StokesAfter something of a hiatus (ahem!), we have just published a new HMS Beagle Project podcast on the Beagle Channel.

David Lort-Phillips, co-founder and Executive Committee member of the HMS Beagle Project, talks about his relative, Admiral John Lort-Stokes, the last captain of HMS Beagle. The interview with BBC Radio Wales's Jamie Owen was recorded on 01-Aug-2011.

David-Lort-Phillips-Interview-2011-08-01.mp3 (9.9 kB).

27 December 2011


In his final "Setting sail" post, maritime historian and HMS Beagle expert Dr Gordon Chancellor marks the day in 1831 when FitzRoy and Darwin left England behind...

In our last post we left the HMS Beagle on Christmas Day, stuck in Plymouth by south-westerly gales. 26 December in contrast was ‘a beautiful day,’ and Captain FitzRoy’s Narrative indicates that there was ‘a dead calm’ with every prospect that soon there would be a breeze from the east. The whole day was wasted, however, because so many of the crew were in irons for getting plastered the day before!

FitzRoy’s easterly duly arrived 180 years ago, on 27 December 1831, and he resolved to strike south for Madeira. Darwin ‘took a farewell luncheon’ of mutton and champagne ashore with Sullivan. The two friends boarded at about 2pm ‘and immediately with every sail filled by a light breeze, we scudded away’ from England.

So, after months of preparations and false starts, one of the most important voyages of all time was under way. As FitzRoy so truly said, the voyage ‘though likely to be long, promised much that would interest, and excite, and perhaps reward....’

24 December 2011

Merry Christmas!

This festive take on Darwin's sketch - the Phylogenetic [Christmas] Tree - and other interesting musings about the natural world, astronomy and ideas generally can be found atAllison Banks's blog, look up - we encourage you to visit her, and hope she'll bring her creative view of science to bear on future HMS Beagle Project endeavours.

In the meantime, best of the holiday to you and yours, and here's to getting the new Beagle's keel laid in 2012!

An unpromising first Christmas aboard

Our third guest post from Dr Gordon Chancellor gives a snapshot of Darwin's first Christmas aboard HMS Beagle - anxious to get under way, suffering foul weather... and having far less fun than the crew, though the latter would pay dearly for their celebrations.

My last post saw HMS Beagle 180 years ago waiting what must have seemed an eternity for a north-easterly to carry her out of Plymouth and start her voyage around the world.

Slashing rain on 22 December added to Darwin’s misery, but on the 23rd he had some fun with shipmates Sullivan and Bynoe, pitting his marksmanship against theirs to see who would be buying the drinks in Madeira. That evening, he endured a ‘bad concert’ in town with Stokes.

Christmas Eve was 'a blank and idle day', but Christmas Day was better for Darwin, as he found an old Cambridge friend leading the church service he attended. Darwin dined with the officers that afternoon, but didn't enjoy the conversation which, in such formal circumstances, was 'entirely devoid of interest.'

Not such a great time for our young naturalist then, but the crew all got drunk, that 'sole and never failing pleasure to which a sailor always looks forward'!

20 December 2011

Fuegians and false starts on the run-up to Christmas

Here's the second in a series of guest posts by archivist and historian Dr Gordon Chancellor, who has spent 30 years getting to know the HMS Beagle...

16 December 1831 was the first day Darwin spent entirely on the Beagle. He was daily writing his ‘journal’ for the voyage around the world of HMS Beagle, even though the little ship was still anchored in Plymouth waiting for a north-easterly breeze to take her south towards Madeira.

That day Darwin decided to write a preface, in which he recounted the months before his daily entries began on 24 October. He especially looked back to two ‘very anxious and uncomfortable days’ at the end of August when, having been offered the place on the Beagle, he had had to turn it down because his father had not approved it. Poor Darwin had been desperate to go and we have his uncle Josiah Wedgwood to thank for changing Darwin’s father’s mind and letting the young naturalist go.

Darwin had gone immediately to stay in Cambridge with his mentor John Henslow for a few days, before seeing the Beagle, then returning home to Shrewsbury for the last time. From there he was in London for three weeks, then arrived aboard the survey ship on 24 October. He spent the next month or so learning about longitudes and dipping needles, as well as doing some geology in limestone quarries and on the granite tors of Dartmoor.

The Fuegian Indians were on board by mid-November [!], and the superb ship’s library was stocked within Darwin’s easy reach - once he had learnt how to get into his hammock. HMS Beagle sailed on 10 December and Darwin’s brother Erasmus made his farewells, but she was driven back by storms.

On the 11th, the date before the first of these posts, Darwin reflected that though he had been right to accept the position on the Beagle, he doubted ‘how far it will add to the happiness of one’s life’. On the 12th he set out his agenda for the voyage, the number one priority being to collect, observe and read ‘in all branches of Natural history that I possibly can manage.’

A suitable breeze followed the Beagle from her moorings on 20 December and Darwin retreated to his hammock for the night to escape sea-sickness. A gale brewing off the Lizard had, however, forced her back again to Plymouth on the 21st, where she was anchored this day, exactly 180 years ago.

19 December 2011

Get the inside story on Beagle happenings

Our first official e-bulletin goes out today to folks who've registered for updates at the HMS Beagle Project homepage.

If you'd like to get the latest news on ships, trips, and ways to participate, by all means sign on! We won't bombard you, and it's easy to subscribe or unsubscribe.

17 December 2011

A little Beagle for Christmas?

From the shameless commerce department:
Just a quick note to say that if you're stuck for gift-giving ideas and want to support the HMS Beagle Project, you can still order a gift through our Café Press shop this weekend and have it arrive in time for Christmas - or for the Dec 27th anniversary of the second voyage.

A portion of proceeds goes to our project work, and the shirts, mugs, totes etc are quite nice. I've got the 'Charles Darwin signature' field bag, and have had compliments. On the bag...

16 December 2011

Guest post by Captain Skellett: Future floating laboratory, prospectus of the HMS Beagle Project

This is a guest post by Aussie pirate scientist blogger extraordinaire Captain Skellet. Her introductory post can be found here.


Yesterday afternoon I went to a prospectus to the HMS Beagle Project while founder David Lort Phillips is in Adelaide.

It’s a CRAZY exciting project which plans to build a modern version of Darwin and FitzRoy’s tall ship the HMS Beagle, kitted out as a floating laboratory.

Marine biologists could benefit from getting much-needed ship time. As it’s a tall ship, it can get closer to land than large cruise vessels, giving it an extra bonus to people studying tidal areas. Groups into DNA barcoding might find it useful too, as it can be tricky to get high quality samples for DNA testing - most are set in formalin which ruins the info. More on DNA barcoding soon.

Climate research can be done from the boat, the connection between biodiversity and climate change could be exploited in the project. There’s a collaboration of the HMS Beagle with NASA, combining observations from space with water samples in the ocean.

Space shuttle before docking with space station.
Image by NASA
In 2009 the Brazilian tall ship Tocorime with the International Space Station, and they ran live hook-ups between scientists on the boat, an astronaut above, and school children in Paraty. Looks like Keven Zelnio from Deep Sea News was there! The students had questions written in English on paper which they screwed into a sweaty ball with excitement, according to Karen James, involved with the HMS Beagle Project.

Most interesting for me is the prospect of science communication on the high seas. We can take high-tech science to ports around the world, including remote areas that often miss out on science engagement events.

I’d like to see the online aspect of the beagle able to webcast and tweet from the deck, setting up chat sessions with classrooms and the public. Maybe people could watch the Beagle’s progress through the ocean, and be updated with the science we on the way. Oh, I gots ideas!

At the moment they have blueprints and some collaborations sorted out, but are still looking for funding to get it built and in the water. The first five years it would retrace the first voyage of the Beagle, including along the South American coast.

Chile are planning to build their own ship in connection to the project, possibly named after the Beagle support ship, the Adventure.

Darwin was 22 when he signed on with the Beagle, an amateur with an interest in science – mainly geology. What he saw from the ship and at port, particularly in the Galapagos Islands, lead him to a world-changing hypothesis.

Maybe the new Beagle will have the same effect on some young scientists. Good heavens, I just really hope they build this tall ship, and when they do, that I'm on it helping to share their discoveries online, in ports, worldwide.

This blog post first appeared on A Schooner of Science.

14 December 2011

In the news...

The Beagle Project has been (like the Beagle 160-odd years ago) in Australia. We made the news.

More on Antipodean developments later.

New guest blogger: Captain Skellett

This is the first of what we hope will be several guest posts by Aussie pirate scientist blogger extraordinaire Captain Skellet, who came to our attention in Adelaide two weeks ago during our visit there (more about that shortly).


Ahoy! Call me Captain Skellett. I’ve been running yonder blog, A Schooner of Science, for two and a half years. My interests include science, sailing and long walks on the beach with a compass and treasure map.

It’s exciting to be invited to guest post on the HMS Beagle Project blog, the greatest nautical science venture (adventure!) that I’ve heard tale of. Just the thought of a tall-ship following the voyage of Darwin, brimming with science reaching ports remote… well it gives me tingles!

We pirates are generalists by trade, so I write about anything that catches my fancy. My background in chemistry, biochemistry, molecular and drug design doesn’t stop me blogging on robots, stars and such suchness. Science art is particularly close to my heart. Here at the Beagle, I’ll keep it to topics that tie into the project, like the deep sea and evolution.

For those so inclined to follow, find me @CaptainSkellett on Twittarrr and on the book of faces. And so, me hearties, join me for a journey of guest posts on this here HMS Beagle Project blog.

12 December 2011

About to set sail...

Got a reminder this morning from palaeontologist, maritime historian and HMS Beagle aficionado Dr Gordon Chancellor, asking if we were going to mark the 180th anniversary of HMS Beagle's second voyage. He then kindly offered up the vignette below:

Monday December 12th 2011 is a good date on which to recall that exactly 180 years ago a certain HMS Beagle was lying off Plymouth, waiting for a favourable wind to set off round the world.

On board was a twenty-two year old naturalist who had finished his Cambridge degree that summer. His name was Charles Darwin and he had started to keep a journal of his expedition for his family to read in instalments.

He wrote, once ‘snug and quiet’ back in his small berth in the poop cabin, that there was a heavy swell that day and that he feared sea-sickness. He had been ashore and dined with Sir Manley Dixon, returning to the mother ship after a ‘long and rough pull’, presumably in the dark. Darwin’s day ended at eight bells (midnight) as he turned into his hammock.

More to come...

21 November 2011

Beagle Project parish notices

The blog has been languishing of late, languishing in a most unseamanlike fashion and that will never do. I have been on paternity leave and turbo-blogger Dr Karen James has very sadly for this Isle been brain drained back to the USA. It's time to play catch up, but it will take a while.

Great Beagle Project things have happened in South America and I will be trying to get a full report from the Beagle People concerned to post here.

In the meantime stalwart friend of the Project Friends of Charles Darwin is now on Google+. Go and give him some BP bloglove.

And science with a smile returns to Radio 4 with a new series of The Infinite Monkey Cage hosted by Mediagenic Manc Pop Particle Sci God Brian Cox. Appointment to listen radio. 4.30 pm, R4 today.

9 October 2011

Darwin's octopus

I learn via Michael Barton's The Dispersal of Darwin blog that 8th–12th October have been dubbed Cephalopod Awareness Days. What better excuse do I need to repost this 2009 post from one of my other blogs?

Charles Darwin to John Stevens Henslow (18-May-1832):

St Jago [modern-day Porto Praya in the Cape Verde Islands] is singularly barren & produces few plants or insects.—so that my hammer was my usual companion, & in its company most delightful hours I spent.—

On the coast I collected many marine animals chiefly gasteropodous (I think some new).— I examined pretty accurately a Caryophyllea & if my eyes were not bewitched former descriptions have not the slightest resemblance to the animal.— I took several specimens of an Octopus, which possessed a most marvellous power of changing its colours; equalling any chamaelion, & evidently accommodating the changes to the colour of the ground which it passed over.—yellowish green, dark brown & red were the prevailing colours: this fact appears to be new, as far as I can find out.

Darwin was hopelessly wrong about the colour-changing ability of octopuses being a new observation. But never mind: the good news is that one of Darwin's St Jago octopuses is still alive and kicking preserved for posterity in Cambridge, and I have photos to prove it:

Darwin's octopus
Darwin's octopus

Darwin's octopus
The accompanying label

8 October 2011

New website, new look, new contributor

Hello again, blogosphere! We have some announcements:
  • The HMS Beagle Project has a shiny new website, designed by M/A with invaluable input from Beagle Project associates Anna Faherty and Lisa Taylor.
  • This blog is in the process of being re-skinned to match the new branding. Pardon our mess while we get it all ship shape.
  • Please welcome our newest Beagle Project blogger Lisa Taylor. *clap clap clap* A lifelong traveler and fan of nature in all its oddity, Lisa has been to a handful of the countries HMS Beagle visited, and plans to explore more. Having worked as a journalist, video producer and project director on five continents, she linked two of them in 2009 by sailing the North Atlantic on a Canadian Navy vessel, and counts good sea-legs as a treasured genetic trait. She now lives in London, sharing her time between the HMS Beagle Project and sustainable housing advocacy.
    Lisa Taylor, Beagle Project Administrator and your newest Beagle Blogger.

22 May 2011

185 years ago today...

On 22nd May, 1826, His Majesty's Ship Beagle set sail from Plymouth on a surveying voyage to South America.

Neither Darwin nor FitzRoy were on board. This was Beagle's first voyage. Her more famous second voyage was to begin five years later.

But her first voyage was not without incident: hardship; scurvy; several deaths; the suicide of Beagle's captain, Pringle Stokes; his temporary replacement by Lieutenant Skyring; his official replacement by the 23-year-old Robert FitzRoy, who joined the ship at Montevideo; surveying; the discovery and naming of of the Beagle Channel; the abduction of four young Fuegian natives.

The first Beagle voyage was to establish Robert FitzRoy as an able and talented ship's captain, making him the logical choice to fulfil the same role on what was to become her far more famous second voyage. The need to return the young Fuegians to their homeland was surely a factor in FitzRoy's acceptance of the commission; Stokes's suicide a key factor in FitzRoy's decision to take a gentleman companion on the voyage.

In other words, were it not for the events of the first Beagle voyage, history might have been very different.

20 May 2011

The Beagle Project: news and website.

Pop over to The Beagle Project main website and you will see changes afoot. They are afoot, ahoof, afin and apseudopod (that's enough of that lame gag - Ed) organizationally too.

We are no longer run by three enthusiasts from their respective attics and bedrooms: David Lort-Philips, Karen James and I (with almost immediate help and support from Richard Carter at Friends of Charles Darwin go and join if you haven't) set the project up in our spare time and with our own resources.

However, with the Project gaining great interest and support in South America and arrival of our first large donation there is the need to put things on a more organized, professional footing. We now have scientists of the calibre of Dr. Simon Boxall on the board of trustees and are moving to secure our next lump of funding . The Beagle Project is developing a scientific programme. This is not independent of the ship build, building a new, sailing HMS Beagle remains our main objective.

It hasn't been easy keeping things running during the current economic crisis, and Karen James and David Lort-Phillips have done a fantastic job. I've been preoccupied with an evolutionary project of my own, but am back and excited that the Project is gaining momentum. Too many people have given time and money for the new HMS Beagle not to be built.

17 May 2011

The voyage of the Beagle

reported in the Manchester Guardian. Go read a contemporaneous report.

Beagle Project housekeeping: several member of the BP are in Chile doing Important Things. I will extract a report from them on their return and blog it for all to read. I know you're impatient for updates, but the Project is no longer treading water in the way it has been.

From the Beagle Project blogroll: if you don't go and read this wonderful piece from Deep Sea News about Hans Fricke and his research into the secret lives of coelacanths, you're missing something good. This kind of stuff is what the internets are for.

And congrats to NASA

for launching Endeavour safely.

Blogging about this from Whitby is particularly poignant because the Shuttle Endeavour was named after the ship in which our local hero James Cook made the first of his circumnavigations. Cook learned his sailing skills in Whitby and Endeavour (the Earl of Pembroke before she was bought into the Royal Navy) was a Whitby-built ship. Cook's first voyage, like the modern Endeavour's last, was of cosmic import - his trip was to observe the transit of Venus acoss the face of the sun. As Cook wrote:

Saturday 3 rd This day prov'd as favourable to our purpose as we could wish, not a Clowd was to be seen the Whole day and the Air was perfectly clear, so that we had every advantage we could desire in Observing the whole of the passage of the Planet Venus over the Suns disk: we very distinctly saw an Atmosphere or dusky shade round the body of the Planet which very much disturbed the times of the contacts particularly the two internal ones.

Endeavour's mission is to deliver a mass spectrometer, a high pressure gas tank, two radio antennae and spares for the all-important meteorite shield. Thier mission is at the cutting edge of what is possible just as Cook's was. As they orbit the earth, the crew of Shuttle Endeavour are the living embodiment of Cook's personal motto 'Nil intentatem reliquit'.

Leave nothing unattempted. We wish them all a successful mission and safe return. (Pic the Australian-built replica Endeavour sailing into Whitby.)

For those interested in Beagle's chronometers...

Wikipedia now has a page up about them.

The fact that Captain Fitzroy carried so many (more than 20, the majority purchased at his own expense) and cherished them so well throughut the voyage is a tribute to the man's rigour and seamanship. The primary purpose of the 1831-36 voyage was not to carry Darwin to fame, but to survey the coast of South America and to 'carry a chain of chronometric measurements' around the world.

Navigation in those days was far more complex than the modern penchent for punching up the GPS, and an accurate chronometer was crucial in calculating longitude. Fitzroy has a dedicated padded cupboard set aside for his stock of chronometers and a crew member appointed to ensure that they were wound.

21 April 2011

Darwin's rooms update

Richard Carter of Friends of Charles Darwin emails (with no triumph whatsoever) to say he has been there, done that and got the photos. He and the Disperal of Darwin's Michael Barton were shown around by John van Whye (no less) who has done such great work with Darwin Online. And rides an echt cool bike.

Writery rooms: Darwin's rooms at Cambridge.

Charles Darwin was a very modest student at Christ's College Cambridge, suggesting that University performance is no guide to subsequent greatness. While many would consider him a scientist, the conservative UK political journal The Spectator dubs him a writer and includes his rooms at Christ's in their list of quirky or desirable writers' rooms and abodes.

Award for quirkiest writerly abode, meanwhile, is won by Charles Darwin. For Darwin at 200 in 2009, Christ's College, Cambridge made a motherly fuss over Darwin's old college rooms, redecorating the insides to best echo the original right down to chalking in Darwin's name outside the staircase (pictures included on the link above), an act of architectural homage afforded few.

Looking at his bibliography many a person now considered a writer has published far less, but then looking at the grounds of Down House gardeners may equally claim him one of their own. Perhaps we should call him a polymath or renaissence man and have done with pigeonholing him, despite his love of pigeons.

Anyway, for the 2009 Darwin Year bash Christ's titvated the rooms back to their 1820's state and the results can be seen here. According to the biographies, Darwin did lots of hunting and feasting while at Cambridge, while developing his eye for natural history at the point where he was called 'the man who walks with Henslow' (John Stevens Henslow). Darwin's friendship with Henslow was fateful, as it was Henslow who wrote to Robert Fitzroy prevailing upon him to accept Darwin as the Beagle's gentleman scientist. And the rest is (natural) history.

19 April 2011

On this day in 1882

Charles Darwin died. His wife Emma recorded the event in terse diary style:

'fatal attack at 12'

18 April 2011

J Smith (bosun's mate, HMS Beagle) would have been proud

of Andrew Smith (they've got to be related...) of the Indianapolis Smiths for his splendid 1:36 scale radio control model of the Beagle. Do go and have a gander: Mr Smith is recording progress by the week as he builds. He carved the hull from a pear tree bough using an axe. Most gonzo. And most recently disaster has struck as the 2011 Beagle suffered a main mast collapse on her maiden voyage.

Obviously we want to see more Beagles of all sizes in the world, so we here wish Mr Smith well in his rerigging of the Indianapolis Beagle and will be awaiting details of her next voyage.

J. Smith of the 1831 crew should be looking on with approval.

For those who want a model of HMS Beagle and don't have Mr Smith's dedication and skill, Premier Ship Models do a superb HMS Beagle.

So good that one was bought by Simon Keynes, Professor of Anglo Saxon history at Trinity Cambridge who also happens to be a Darwin descendent.

He pronounced himself happy with the result which Beaglers Karen James and I were lucky enough to see in Prof Keynes's rooms in Cambridge.

17 April 2011

Popular science book review sites: go look.

For those of us without the grey matter, patience or Nature subscription to get our science news from primary sources, popular science books are an intellectual lifeline.

As a very average zoology graduate from Liverpool University, I was clicked back onto the wonder of science by Wonderful Life: Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, Stephen Jay Gould's book about the fossils of the Burgess Shale. My shelves now groan with the weight of popular science books and good-looking well-written books like these are absolutely vital in the cultural fight to prove that scientists are not the Einstein-alikes or evil world destroying megalomaniacs so beloved of Hollywood's clichéd screenwrtiting groupthink.

One of science writers on my radar (through my membership of the writers' colony Litopia) is the prolific Brian Clegg. He has done his bit to spread the pop-sci word through his site Popular Science. This site has done the biological thing and reproduced,its offspring being a discussion forum for popular science books, which is here. It's new, it's worthy and I hope Beagle Project supporters will get stuck in. For those of us looking through the bars, good popular science books are a must.

19 January 2011

The day we have been working and waiting for: our first six-figure donation!

As announced at Science Online 2011, I am delighted to confirm that The HMS Beagle Trust has received a six-figure donation from a private source in the UK. *snoopy dance*

Without naming the source, I will just say she is a committed Darwinist and has a background in politics.

The funding will be used to 1) hire a full-time professional fundraiser and 2) re-launch the project in the form of a new website and new marketing, fundraising and communications mechanisms.

This blog will continue is some shape or form... probably not this form, though; as you will have noticed we've been trailing off for some time as a natural result of changes in our personal and professional lives.