23 February 2012

A kinder, gentler view of the Falklands

By UK guest blogger Dr Claire Goodwin. Claire is a marine biologist at National Museums Northern Ireland. Her work involves SCUBA diving survey projects and the study of marine invertebrates – she has a particular interest in sponges. She has recently been on diving expeditions with the Falkland Islands-based Shallow Marine Surveys Group, helping them document the sponges of the Falkland Islands and South Georgia - research highlights are here.

Black-browed Albatrosses on what Darwin called 'miserable islands'. Photo Claire Goodwin 

Here’s hoping Prince William enjoys the Falkland Islands more than Charles Darwin did. In March 1834, HMS Beagle arrived in ‘these miserable islands’ with a population ‘of which rather more than half were runaway rebels and murderers’. Darwin saw an ‘undulating land with a desolate and wretched aspect…everywhere covered by a peaty soil and wiry grass, of one monotonous brown colour’ which ‘can boast of few plants deserving even the title of bushes’.

Exploring the islands on horseback with Gauchos, he found ‘nothing could be less interesting than our day’s ride’, although maybe his mood was not improved by the hail and rain they tramped through and lack of sleep as ‘the ground on which we slept was on each occasion nearly in the state of a bog, and there was not a dry spot to sit down on after our day’s ride.’ He didn’t think much of the overall climate either - comparing it to the mountains of North Wales, only with more wind and rain.

Having visited the Falklands for research over the last few years, I can agree with Darwin about the windy weather, but found its wildlife much more interesting and its human inhabitants much more hospitable. However, I did have the advantage of escaping underwater from any inclement conditions as I was participating in diving surveys with the Shallow Marine Surveys Group.

Exploring the shallows. Photo Claire Goodwin

The Falkland Islands are situated in the South Atlantic roughly 400 miles from the coast of Argentina and 850 miles north of the Antarctic Circle. The archipelago includes two main islands, East and West Falkland, and 778 smaller ones. It offers a wide variety of dive sites, but the shallow marine zone remains largely unsurveyed. Much of the coastline around the islands is rocky, and beneath the waves, swoops into a series of dramatic pinnacles, gullies and ledges.

What the Falkland archipelago lacks in terrestrial trees it makes up for underwater. The giant kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera, forms long-leaved stands which reach several meters in length, trailing on the surface and forming a trap for unwary diver legs and boat props. Tree kelp (Lessonia trabeculata) is found in deeper water and, as the name suggests, its holdfasts are thick and tree-like: ideal for grabbing onto in a swell but tricky to manoeuvre around when surveying. Underneath the kelp, the bedrock is covered with colourful splodges of encrusting invertebrates.

SMSG are conducting SCUBA surveys trying to document the shallow underwater species and habitats of the island, many of which may be new to science – on a survey of the Jason Islands in 2008 we found 12 new species of sponge, and we’re in the process of describing several new species from a second expedition. Being based on the expedition yacht Golden Fleece allows the group to reach far-flung corners of the islands such as BeauchĂȘne Island – some 40 miles to the south of the main group.

SMSG vessel Golden Fleece. Photo Claire Goodwin

The productive shallow water environments are one reason that the Falkland Islands are globally important for bird life. The penguins, which Darwin observed crawling through the tussock grass and diving ‘like a fish leaping for sport’, comprise five different species including 30% of the world’s population of Gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua). Two-thirds of the world’s populations of black-browed albatrosses are also found here, and we often encountered vast colonies with birds sitting on sandcastle-like mud nests or wheeling overhead when we went ashore from the survey vessel.

Less friendly were the Striated Caracaras (Phalcoboenus australis) or Johnny Rooks as they are locally known, which frequently dive-bombed us. As Darwin noted these ‘extraordinarily tame and fearless’ birds ‘are very mischievous and inquisitive; they will pick up almost anything from the ground’. We had to be on guard of our cameras when they were around, and Darwin’s party experienced several losses including ‘a large black glazed hat…carried nearly a mile’ and ‘a small Kater’s compass in a red morocco leather case which was never recovered’. Despite being noted by Darwin as ‘exceedingly common’, the species is now listed as ‘near threatened’ by BirdLife International. Its decline is partly because its habit of attacking lambs and weakened sheep has historically brought it into conflict with sheep farmers.

Rooks contemplating petty thievery - or lunch. Photo Claire Goodwin

From Johnny Rooks to the endemic Hairy Daisy, both above and below water the Falklands have many species and habitats of importance.  Much research has been undertaken since Darwin’s day – for example the grassland he dismissed as ‘monotonous’ has been found to harbor 175 species of plant, including 14 endemic species. The work of the Shallow Marine Surveys Group and Falkland Conservation continues to document and study the fascinating wildlife of these Islands. We hope they’re joined in the near future by researchers and students traveling with the new Beagle – and traveling with ample woolies and waterproofs! 

18 February 2012

Bringing Darwin into the 21st Century

Charles Darwin lived much of his adult life at Down House, the family home he established in Kent. It was where he fine-tuned his theories on natural selection, and where he wrote The Origin of Species, along with several other publications.

But it was also where he and wife Emma raised a large family, where he recreated his father's 'thinking path' and walked it three times a day for 40 years, where he played billiards with the butler, and set up a wooden slide so his children could play on the stairs.

Origin, parked with the croquet mallets
In fact, for many of the family’s years at Down House, Origin sat wrapped in brown paper in a closet under the stairs, with sheets occasionally purloined by the children as drawing paper. Some wonderful examples survive in the Cambridge University Library, one of 15 sources mined by the American Natural History Museum for its Darwin Manuscripts Project.

Down House is also a good example of the evolution of museums. Using funding tied to Darwin's bicentenary in 2009, English Heritage and curator Annie Kemkaran-Smith launched a programme of modernisation, and while she has ongoing targets for improvement, the museum today is a deft mix of Victorian and modern.

My favourite example is the recreation of Darwin’s cabin aboard HMS Beagle – a chart-room he shared with mate John Lort Stokes and 14-year-old midshipman Philip Gidley King. Lort Stokes (profiled for the BBC by relative and HMS Beagle Project chair David Lort-Phillips) would go on to command HMS Beagle for part of her third expedition, a six-year survey of the Australian coast. Draughtsman King – who would become a lifelong friend of Darwin’s – sketched some of the few existing images of the cabin and ship. Good company.

Darwin's cabin recreation, courtesy English Heritage

The ship's cabin at Down House is uncomfortably to scale, contains HMS Beagle artefacts and features a wonderful bit of Victorian technology, a type of ‘Pepper’s ghost’ projecting an image of a young Charles Darwin working at the chart table. He may or may not match your own image of the amateur naturalist, but it’s more effective than mannequins and less annoying than most costumed re-enactors. The ‘ghost’ doesn't have legs, but as Darwin never got his own at sea, perhaps that’s appropriate...

Filmed in 'seasick-cam'. There's also a 2008 video on the Sandwalk 
thinking path at Down House, which is equally disturbing...

Another state-of-the-art feature - and the focus of the 2009 effort - is a digitised archive of Darwin’s notebooks from his five-year voyage. These are accessible in an exhibition dedicated to the Beagle, in a small but well-equipped resource room, and online. Scroll through scans of the actual notebooks or, if Darwin’s scrawl defeats you, access transcribed highlights.

Curator Annie Kemkaran-Smith with some of Down House's hands-on residents

The museum also includes recreations of Darwin’s study and various living rooms, plus modern and Victorian-flavoured interactive displays. The latter chart the scientist’s developing theories, working partnerships, and family life.

As someone with a short attention span, I have to say this was one of the most enjoyable historical museums I’ve been to, with lots to offer children and adults. As part of the team trying to re-imagine the voyage of Darwin, FitzRoy and crew for a modern audience, I'll be looking to Down House's skilled mix of period, new and learning resource for inspiration. Visitor information can be found here.

Upcoming Events: Down House curator Annie Kemkaran-Smith has offered to share her knowledge and enthusiasm for the human side of Charles Darwin at HMS Beagle Project special events later in 2012 – keep an eye out by registering for updates.

15 February 2012

40 Degrees South - a voyage on the HMB Endeavour

By Australian guest blogger Rachel Slatyer. Rachel is a soon-to-be PhD candidate, studying ecology and evolution. She has volunteered on the sail training ship STS Leeuwin II for the last two years and is currently working on the replica of Captain Cook's exploration ship HMB Endeavour. She hopes to combine her science and sailing passions through involvement in the HMS Beagle Project.

HMB Endeavour in Albany, Western Australia - Rachel Slatyer
When I signed on to the crew of the HMB Endeavour, to sail from Fremantle to Adelaide, I was more than a little bit anxious about what awaited me when we went across the Great Australian Bight. This part of the Southern Ocean has an almost legendary status for big rolling seas, fierce storms and sea sickness.

The 21st-century schedule that our 18th-century ship sails on meant that the voyage from Fremantle to Albany had to be done largely under the power of our 'iron staysails' (engines). To avoid a repeat experience on the voyage between Albany (on the western side of the Bight) and Port Lincoln (on the eastern side), our Captain decided to take a gamble and steer the ship south, aiming for the famous 'Roaring Forties' - strong westerly tradewinds at the latitude 40 degrees South.

As we approached 40S, the order came to set 'lotsals' - lots of sails! Up went the topgallants, the jib, the spritsails...and everything else, and before long we were sailing under the magnificent sight of 17 sails. When some of the voyage crew (who pay to join the ship for single voyages) asked why, the Captain simply replied: "because we can." To use the words of Ratty from Wind in the Willows, "there is nothing, absolutely nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."

It wasn't long before our next bit of excitement. On night watch, in the eerie quiet, dark and fog that preceded a cold front coming through, we suddenly heard a loud puff right next to the boat. All hands rushed to the side to see the pale shape of a sperm whale disappearing below the water. We were soon joined by two more whales - I always find the sight of whales in these waters, where whaling has had such a long history, particularly encouraging. Our interest was also piqued by mysterious patches of bioluminescence, about a metre across, that appeared near the surface for a few seconds at a time, then vanished. Despite our best efforts, we were unable to identify the source.

The crew were keen with anticipation for 40 knot winds that would blow us into Port Lincoln. We weren't disappointed. When I emerged on deck one morning to feel the fresh sea breeze and see the ship riding the 4m swell, knowing that we were surrounded by the vast Southern Ocean, I felt invigorated and had a deep sense of freedom that I think is unique to being at sea. I have no doubt that seafarers throughout the ages have felt the same and looking at the faces of the other crew, I knew I wasn't alone.

In three weeks, I will start a PhD, with fieldwork in the Australian Alps. I'm excited by starting new research, although I know I'll miss the ship, the sailing and the camaraderie that comes from sharing a 33m ship with 55 other people. In June this year, the Endeavour will sail to Lord Howe Island, to track the Transit of Venus, like Captain Cook did from Tahiti 243 years ago. This continues the Endeavour's tradition of involvement in science. For now, though, we’re focusing on completing the circumnavigation of Australia, with only 7 more ports to visit before the ship returns to her home in Sydney. As Captain Jack Sparrow would say "now, bring me that horizon."

HMB Endeavour foremast and bowsprit with all sails set - Rachel Slatyer

12 February 2012

Happy birthday, Charles Darwin

Cross-posted from the Guardian.

In 1819, he might have spent the day memorising Homer at boarding school. As it was a Friday, he would have rushed home at the end of the day, eager to assist his brother in their garden shed chemistry laboratory.

A few years later, the day might have been marred by the fresh memory of a lecture from his father. "You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching," he'd admonished, "and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family."

In 1826 he might have spent it holding his nose and peering into the decomposing guts of a bodysnatched corpse at Edinburgh University. Before the anatomy lesson was over, though, he would have to run out and retch in the hallway. He didn't get along very well with blood and gore.

In 1832, he was most likely retching again, this time gripping the rail of a little ship called Beagle bound for South America. Two years later, in 1834, it might have been much the same, but further south, in the Magellan Strait. In 1836 he passed the day, blessedly, on land. He was exploring Tasmania and, perhaps, pondering some of the strange animals he'd seen the previous autumn in the Galapagos archipelago.

In 1839, the day's notability would have been eclipsed by an even more significant event two weeks before: his wedding. It was a good beginning to a good year: his Journal of Researches from the voyage was published to popular acclaim, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and his first child was born.

Over the next decade, he would make a name for himself as a geologist and start sketching an idea he called "descent with modification".

Fast forward to 2009, and thousands of people around the world spent the day toasting him and this idea of his at parties, lectures, exhibitions, performances and more. There were cakes, including a spectacular one in the shape of an enormous number "200" at the Natural History Museum. I ate some of it, and though it was delicious, I will confess here that the most memorable thing about it was its location … smack dab under the bum of Dippy the Diplodocus. And yes, the frosting was brown.
As a co-founder and director of the HMS Beagle Project, 2009 was, like that frosting, bittersweet.

Three years earlier, we had initiated our project to raise funds for a modern rebuild of the aforementioned little ship. We had hoped that by the time Charles Darwin's 200th birthday rolled around, we might have already begun laying the keel and scheduling the reprise of her namesake's voyage around the world, which would carry researchers to their field sites and inspire public audiences along the way.

In a way, I'm glad the big, round-numbered birthday year is over. The lifespan and impact of the new Beagle will be measured in decades, so it was never right to confine that vision to a single year.
Moreover, this Darwin's birthday blog post notwithstanding, there are more stories associated with the Beagle than just Darwin's. Robert Fitzroy, the Beagle's captain has a story worth celebrating for its own sake. He established the Met Office and his contributions to weather forecasting saved countless lives at sea. The crew of the Beagle charted the coasts of southern South America and Australia in particular detail and her legacy can be found there in place names and even in the living memories of those who used her survey charts for navigation.

And so it's with great pride and pleasure I report here that 2012 is already shaping up to be a big year for The HMS Beagle Project. Buoyed by our first major donation in late 2010, we've added paid project staff who are making headway on fundraising for the shipbuild, updated our website and revitalised our blog.

We've begun a search for the UK port where the new Beagle will be built. Gloucester, Milford Haven, Crowes, Bristol and Woodbridge/Ipswich have emerged as strong contenders.

Since I last reported on our progress, we've travelled to Chile and Australia, establishing partnerships to make the most of the new Beagle's future visits to port cities and rural coastlines there. As a result of these travels, a new sister organisation has been founded in Chile and we're working to establish a similar entity in Australia. We're also building new partnerships at home, including with the Garden Museum in London, the Welsh Botanic Gardens and classic shipbuilders.

In 2013, then, the day might be spent dancing to the music of hammers and saws in a major UK port.

In 2014, we might spend it christening the new Beagle and embarking on a national tour. I have an image burned onto the back of my eyelids in which the new Beagle sails past Tower Bridge, the booms of ceremonial canonfire ricocheting up the Thames. What a golden moment for science, maritime history and education that will be!

Postscript: To really get the idea, watch this video from the day in 2007 when Swedish Ship Götheborg sailed up the Thames, exchanging ceremonial canonfire with HMS Belfast.

A miserable birthday aboard HMS Beagle

Sometimes even plain sailing isn't plain sailing:
12th There has been a little swell on the sea to day, & I have been very uncomfortable: this has tried & quite overcome the small stock of patience that the early parts of the voyage left me. — Here I have spent three days in painful indolence, whilst animals are staring me in the face, without labels & scientific epitaphs. — This has been the first day that the heat has annoyed us.
Charles Darwin writing in his diary aboard HMS Beagle 180 years ago today, on his 23rd birthday. In almost five years voyaging around the world, the poor lad never really overcame his dreadful seasickness.

7 February 2012

Bananas, baobab - and the germ of an idea

Guest post by Beagle archivist, writer and editor Dr Gordon Chancellor

HMS Beagle’s voyage round the world was finally under way, this time 180 years ago in February 1832. In our last post, we left the little ship on 13 January steadily working down towards Brazil on a south-southeast bearing, having not been able to stop at either Madeira or the Canaries. This was a cruel blow to Darwin, but he made the best use of his time by trawling a net behind the ship in the hope of catching something new to science.

Trawling for evolutionary ideas

Having been fascinated by strange marine invertebrates since Edinburgh University four years earlier, Darwin focused on those that seemed to be on the boundary between plant and animal. Perhaps he recalled that his grandfather Erasmus believed life had evolved from the sea? Perhaps he also suspected that his Edinburgh mentor Robert Grant’s research on marine creatures was behind Grant’s then-radical belief in evolution?

A week of firsts

The weather was beautiful and Captain FitzRoy dropped anchor at the little known Cape Verde islands on January 16th. That afternoon Darwin set foot on land for the first time out of England, in Porto Praya on St Jago Island (today’s Sao Tiago). He was fascinated by the different races of people on the island, tasted a banana for the first time in his life and "first saw the glory of tropical vegetation." It was for Darwin "a glorious day, like giving to a blind man eyes."

The next day Darwin helped FitzRoy set up an observatory on Quail Island. This was a momentous day for Darwin and the history of geology. He started collecting rock specimens and began to use a pocket-sized field notebook, now preserved at Down House. Back on board he started a ‘geological diary’ in which he recorded his interpretations. He quickly worked out that a layer of limestone in the cliff, which had obviously been laid down on the sea bed, had then been uplifted to its present position and covered by more lava.

Ilha de Fogo, Cape Verde Islands

Geology at work: putting new ideas to the testIn recognition of their friendship, FitzRoy had given Darwin the first volume of Charles Lyell’s new book Principles of Geology and the band of limestone instantly confirmed to Darwin that Lyell’s method of geology was the best available. Lyell said that geologists must interpret rocks using knowledge of present day processes, and that they could allow for unimaginable periods of time in their interpretations. Darwin was instantly converted to Lyell’s view of the Earth’s crust as constantly oscillating: any place will be sometimes under the sea, sometimes elevated above it. He could also see the immensity of time and how small gradual changes could account for anything. This was essential later for his theory of evolution.

A biblical baobab and shipboard politics

On the 20th Darwin went for a walk with the ship’s Surgeon Robert McCormick, who carved his initials on a great baobab tree reputed to be 6,000 years old; this was older than the world according to the Bible. McCormick’s nose was out of joint, as he would normally have doubled as the ship’s official naturalist and was galled at the privileges enjoyed by the gentleman Darwin. They returned on the 24th with FitzRoy and Wickham to measure and draw the tree and on the 26th Darwin went riding into the interior with Benjamin Bynoe, Assistant Surgeon. He spent the rest of his stay on further excursions inland and collecting octopuses and scores of other animals and plants. He even collected a fish which had driven its ‘teeth through Mr Sullivan’s finger’.

FitzRoy completed his magnetic experiments around February 6th, then after a three-week stay in the Cape Verdes, HMS Beagle set sail again on the 8th for St Paul's Rocks, near the equator. What a day it will be when our 21st-century Beagle crosses the line!

The Dickens Connection

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. On days such as these, it has become something of a tradition to write a blog post linking the subject of the anniversary in question with the theme of the blog—no matter how tenuous the link. Charles Dickens and HMS Beagle? That's quite a tall order. All right, I'm game…

The link between Charles Dickens and HMS Beagle goes back to October, 1859. This happened to be one month before the publication of former Beagle occupant Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, but this story has nothing to do with Charles Darwin.

On the 25th and 26th October, 1859, a mighty storm passed along the west coast of Britain, from the English Channel, around Wales, across Liverpool Bay, and on up to Scotland. It is believed to have been the most severe storm to hit Britain in the entire Nineteenth Century, reaching force 12, hurricane force, on the Beaufort Scale. (Yes, there are numerous connections between Sir Francis Beaufort, inventor of the eponymous scale, and HMS Beagle, but this story is not about him either.)

The great storm of 1859 was responsible for the loss of around 800 lives, and the wrecking of 133 ships. Over half the lives lost, thought to have been around 459, resulted from the loss of a single ship, The Royal Charter, a steam clipper en route to Liverpool from Melbourne. Many of her passengers were returning rich from the gold fields of Australia. Having tried and failed to take on board a Liverpool pilot, the ship's captain, Thomas Taylor, decided to try to weather the storm by dropping anchor off the east coast of the Isle of Anglesey. But, early in the morning of 26th October, first one and then the other of the ship's anchor chains snapped. The Royal Charter was driven on to rocks just north of the fishing village of Moelfre, and broke apart. Only 39 crew and passengers managed to struggle ashore. The rest either drowned or were dashed against the rocks.

The Wrecking of the Royal Charter
The Wrecking of the Royal Charter [Wikipedia].

Two months after the dreadful wreck, Charles Dickens visited Moelfre to report on the aftermath for the new journal he had founded earlier that year, All Year Round. His moving report, The Shipwreck, was later included in his collection The Uncommercial Traveller. In the piece, Dickens describes visiting the scene of the wreck:

Even as I stood on the beach with the words ‘Here she went down!’ in my ears, a diver in his grotesque dress, dipped heavily over the side of the boat alongside the Lighter, and dropped to the bottom. On the shore by the water's edge, was a rough tent, made of fragments of wreck, where other divers and workmen sheltered themselves, and where they had kept Christmas-day with rum and roast beef, to the destruction of their frail chimney. Cast up among the stones and boulders of the beach, were great spars of the lost vessel, and masses of iron twisted by the fury of the sea into the strangest forms. The timber was already bleached and iron rusted, and even these objects did no violence to the prevailing air the whole scene wore, of having been exactly the same for years and years.

Yet, only two short months had gone, since a man, living on the nearest hill-top overlooking the sea, being blown out of bed at about daybreak by the wind that had begun to strip his roof off, and getting upon a ladder with his nearest neighbour to construct some temporary device for keeping his house over his head, saw from the ladder's elevation as he looked down by chance towards the shore, some dark troubled object close in with the land. And he and the other, descending to the beach, and finding the sea mercilessly beating over a great broken ship, had clambered up the stony ways, like staircases without stairs, on which the wild village hangs in little clusters, as fruit hangs on boughs, and had given the alarm. And so, over the hill-slopes, and past the waterfall, and down the gullies where the land drains off into the ocean, the scattered quarrymen and fishermen inhabiting that part of Wales had come running to the dismal sight—their clergyman among them. And as they stood in the leaden morning, stricken with pity, leaning hard against the wind, their breath and vision often failing as the sleet and spray rushed at them from the ever forming and dissolving mountains of sea, and as the wool which was a part of the vessel's cargo blew in with the salt foam and remained upon the land when the foam melted, they saw the ship's life-boat put off from one of the heaps of wreck; and first, there were three men in her, and in a moment she capsized, and there were but two; and again, she was struck by a vast mass of water, and there was but one; and again, she was thrown bottom upward, and that one, with his arm struck through the broken planks and waving as if for the help that could never reach him, went down into the deep.

Dickens goes on to describe how the recovered bodies of the deceased, which washed up along the shore over several weeks, were taken to a nearby chapel and cared for by the local clergyman. His piece ends with moving extracts of letters to the clergyman from the recently bereaved: a real Dickensian tear-jerker,

It is at this point that the link with HMS Beagle enters the story in the shape of her former Captain, now Admiral, Robert FitzRoy, head of the nascent Meteorological Office. FitzRoy's prime responsibility in his new role was to provide statistical data about the weather. But, being a former seaman, and convinced by the usefulness of barometric measurements for predicting changes in weather, FitzRoy's hidden agenda was to provide advance warnings to ships of impending storms. In other words, FitzRoy wanted to forecast the weather. Such an undertaking seemed preposterous to many, and FitzRoy, not for the first time, stretched his terms of reference to breaking point at times to pursue his goal, but the terrible results of The Royal Charter Storm, as the storm came to be known, provided the political impetus FitzRoy needed to develop his weather forecasts further.

The foibles of the British weather mean that, even in this age of supercomputers and satellites, providing accurate weather forecasts can still occasionally be problematical. FitzRoy never really stood a chance, and the inaccuracy of his weather forecasts, which began to appear in The Times newspaper in 1861, became something of a national joke. Indeed, the ridicule FitzRoy received, it has been suggested, might have been one of the contributing factors to his eventual suicide in 1865.

FitzRoy was, in many respects, ahead of his time. But his pioneering work, recognising the potential of weather forecasts to help prevent further disasters like the wrecking of The Royal Charter was rightly celebrated in 2002 with the renaming of the shipping area Finisterre in his honour.

Site of the wreck of The Royal Charter
Site of the wreck of The Royal Charter
[cc. Richard Carter]