Breakthrough Years (1866-1922)

The Coast Survey Steamer Bibb

The Coast Survey Steamer Bibb (NOAA Photo Library). Click image for larger view.


Diamond Icon Exploration Intensifies (1872-1888)
Diamond Icon Biological Diversity (1889-1922)
Diamond Icon The Era Closes

During the Civil War years, the Coast Survey's efforts were directed toward serving the Union. Coast Survey hydrographers served with the blockading squadrons off Charleston and on the Mississippi River; topographers served with Union armies in all theaters of the war and in all major campaigns; and Coast Survey printing presses rolled off charts and maps for the use of Union forces. Gulf Stream studies and other oceanographic efforts were curtailed until 1866, when the Coast Survey conducted a cable survey across the strait separating Havana, Cuba, and Key West, Florida. The following year, Louis F. de Pourtales, a Coast Survey scientist long skeptical of Edward Forbes' "300-fathoms" hypothesis, sailed on the Coast Survey Steamer Corwin and began dredging operations in the Florida Straits. On May 29, 1867, a 270-fathom dredge haul from a few miles north of Cuba yielded a basketful of living creatures, seriously challenging Forbes' theory. Then, yellow fever struck the crew of the Corwin, curtailing operations for nearly a year. In the late winter and early spring of 1868, Pourtales returned on the Coast Survey Steamer Bibb , dredging up sea life from 517 fathoms.

Dredging and sounding equipment on the H.M.S. Challenger

Dredging and sounding equipment on the HMS Challenger (NOAA Photo Library). Click image for larger view.


Four months later, Wyville Thomson, on the HMS Lightning, dredged sea life from 650 fathoms southwest of the Faeroe Islands in the North Atlantic. He went on to dredge the following year at 2,400 fathoms, finding life there and ending forever the concept of a lifeless (azoic) zone in the deep seas. He built on his successes and went on to lead the great Challenger Expedition, which dredged and sounded its way around the world from late 1872 to 1876.

Louis Pourtales continued his work for the next few years in the Florida Straits, working to 700 fathoms, the deepest waters in the area. He discovered hundreds of new species during the course of his investigations. Today, Pourtales Terrace--the broad bench at 270 fathoms discovered south of Key West--is named in his honor.

The Coast Survey Steamer Hassler

The Coast Survey Steamer Hassler (NOAA Photo Library). Click image for larger view.


In 1872, Pourtales accompanied Louis Agassiz on the Coast Survey Steamer Hassler on an expedition from the East Coast of the United States through the Straits of Magellan and on to San Francisco. Although the Hassler was destined to become a West Coast hydrographic surveying ship, it was outfitted for deep-ocean sounding and dredging on this trip. Pourtales had no luck at all, as the hold carrying the hemp lines for deep ocean dredging flooded early on. Subsequently, the line rotted and parted on every attempt to dredge in deep water. A number of dredgings in waters shoaler (shallower) than 200 fathoms met with moderate success. Although the deep dredging operations failed, the cruise was generally successful, with Louis Agassiz collecting more than 30,000 specimens of sea life.



Exploration Intensifies (1872-1888)

While the Hassler proceeded to the West Coast, Benjamin Peirce offered the use of the Coast Survey Steamer Bache to Fullerton Spencer Baird, the newly appointed U.S. Commissioner of Fisheries. From 1872 through 1874, the Bache conducted dredging operations for the Fisheries Commission, forerunner of today's National Marine Fisheries Service, on the eastern continental shelf and continental slope to depths approaching 500 fathoms. It is fitting that the Fisheries Commission accomplished its first offshore work in cooperation with the Coast Survey, both ancestors of today's NOAA.

Diagram of the Sigsbee Sounding Machine

Diagram of the Sigsbee Sounding Machine from 1875. (NOAA Photo Library). Click image for larger view.


The year 1872 marked the beginning of 15 years of intense ocean exploration. The venerable Challenger expedition sailed throughout the world's oceans from late 1872 to 1876. This expedition was, in fact, part of a larger international competition involving Great Britain, the United States, Norway, and Germany. Perhaps just as important as the Challenger expedition was the revolution that occurred in methods and instrumentation during this period. Highlights included the invention of a wireline sounding machine by Sir William Thomson (later known as Lord Kelvin); Lieutenant Charles D. Sigsbee's modification of this machine to become the Sigsbee Sounding Machine on the Coast Survey Steamer Blake; the first use of steel cable for oceanographic operations, including dredging and trawling operations, as introduced by Alexander Agassiz on the Blake; the pioneering of deep-ocean anchoring techniques developed by Lieutenant John Elliott Pillsbury during Gulf Stream studies on the Blake; and the construction and launching of the Fisheries Commission Steamer Albatross, the first ship built from the keel up as an oceanographic research vessel.

First modern bathymetric map created from soundings made in the Gulf of Mexico

The first modern bathymetric map was created from soundings made in the Gulf of Mexico. (NOAA Photo Library). Click image for larger view.


The Coast Survey Steamer Blake was unique in the annals of oceanography. It is likely that more major innovations were made aboard the Blake than on any other ship of the 19th Century. The ship seemed to inspire its personnel to invent new equipment and improve upon methods, as its tradition of forging ahead of existing technology continued for many years and through a number of personnel changes. The tradition began with Charles Sigsbee, who produced the first truly operational piano-wire sounding machine, and began the process of systematically mapping the Gulf of Mexico in the winter of 1874-1875. The resulting bathymetric map of the Gulf of Mexico was the first modern and accurate map of any portion of the deep ocean. Foreseeing a period when three-dimensional imagery of the sea floor would become a common tool for scientific and engineering interpretation, researchers constructed from the Blake's soundings the first three-dimensional image of an oceanic basin.

Steel wire for dredging and anchoring

The Blake was the first ship to use steel wire for dredging and anchoring. (NOAA Photo Library). Click image for larger view.


The next innovation on the Blake occurred as the result of collaboration between Alexander Agassiz and Charles Sigsbee in the winter of 1877-1878. Agassiz, who had made his fortune in the copper mines of Michigan, suggested to the superintendent of the Coast Survey that steel rope would be more effective than hemp rope for deep-sea dredging operations, and received permission to outfit the Blake with a steel-rope dredging outfit. The Blake accomplished 82 dredges during its first dredging season, and more than 200 the following year. The next year, the Blake operated in the Caribbean Sea under the command of John Bartlett, while Agassiz returned for a third season of dredging. Agassiz published his results in the Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology of Harvard University, and also wrote a classic two-volume work, Three Cruises of the Blake, published in 1888. To this day, all scientists who use steel-wire ropes to lower instruments or tools into the depths owe a debt of gratitude to Alexander Agassiz, Charles Sigsbee, and the Blake.

The final great method to be developed aboard the Blake was deep-sea anchoring. Earlier attempts, using hemp rope, had been made on the Coast Survey Schooner Drift for Gulf Stream studies in up to 400 fathoms. In 1885, the Blake , commanded by John Elliott Pillsbury, developed a method using tapered steel wire to anchor in abyssal depths while conducting Gulf Stream current and oceanographic studies. Reportedly, the Blake anchored in depths of up to 2,200 fathoms. Today, deep-ocean anchoring is employed to moor meteorological and oceanographic buoys, and is occasionally used during oceanographic ship operations that require long-term observations from one location.

The Blake

John Elliott Pillsbury pioneered the use of deep-sea anchoring aboard the Blake. (NOAA Photo Library). Click image for larger view.


In recognition of its contributions, the Coast Survey Steamer Blake is one of the few oceanographic ships to have its name inscribed on the facade of the oceanographic museum at Monaco. The Blake was sold in early 1900, and met its end near the site of some of its greatest work; it burnt and was lost off Frying Pan Shoal, North Carolina, on May 22, 1908. It was figuratively buried at sea near the northern extent of what is now known as the Blake Plateau, named for the ship during its early glory years as a deep-sea sounding vessel. It had at the time of its loss been renamed the George Weems.



Biological Diversity (1889-1922)

A second famous vessel began to explore the deep sea in the 1880s. The Fisheries Commission Steamer Albatross, like its avian namesake, wandered over much of the world's oceans. It wrested the sea's secrets from Labrador to Tierra del Fuego on the east coasts of North and South America, sailed throughout the eastern Pacific Ocean and into the Bering Sea, down through the eastern islands and marginal seas of Asia, and as far south as New Zealand. Primarily a biological research ship, it collected hundreds of new marine species.

The Fisheries Steamer Albatross

The Fisheries Steamer Albatross discovered hundreds of marine species during its expeditions throughout the world. (NOAA Photo Library). Click image for larger view.


But the Albatross was more than a fisheries research ship. Out of 6,000 deep-sea soundings tabulated by Sir John Murray in the early 1900s, more than 800 were observed by the Albatross . The ship took water samples and serial temperatures throughout the eastern Atlantic, Caribbean Sea, and Pacific Ocean. It also spent a number of years patrolling the fur seal rookeries of Alaska's Pribilof Islands and Aleutians to protect the animals from poachers. The Albatross , like the Blake , benefited from the interaction of naval officers and civilian scientists. Its two most famous commanding officers were Commander Zera Luther Tanner, an inventive man who designed and modified much of the equipment on the ship, and Commander Jefferson Moser, who wrote a number of reports on the fur seals and salmon fisheries of Alaska. The most famous scientist to use the Albatross was Alexander Agassiz, who participated in many expeditions throughout the Pacific Ocean. George Brown Goode's great work, Oceanic Ichthyology, drew heavily on specimens collected by the Albatross. Roy Chapman Andrews of the American Museum of Natural History, a man who many believe was the model for Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones, sailed on the Albatross during its Philippine expedition of 1907-1910. Hugh McCormick Smith, deputy director of the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (formerly the Fisheries Commission), led the Philippine expedition and oversaw the collection of more than 27,000 fish species from Philippine waters. This collection was the largest ever to be received by the Smithsonian Institution, and is now housed in NOAA's National Systematics Laboratory, co-located with the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. From the standpoint of oceanic exploration, the Albatross dwarfed all other U.S. efforts during the early 20th Century.



The Era Closes

Plankton tow and dip nets for collecting marine life on the Albatross

Plankton tow and dip nets on the Albatross were used to collect marine life. (NOAA Photo Library). Click image for larger view.


Many other notable expeditions and scientific efforts took place during these breakthrough years in ocean exploration. Sir John Murray completed the monumental work of recording the results of the Challenger expedition. Prince Albert of Monaco sailed for a number of years throughout the eastern Atlantic Ocean, making the first upper-air observations at sea using kites and weather balloons, as well as numerous other oceanographic observations. Concurrent with the Challenger expedition, Germany's Gazelle circumnavigated the globe. During this period, the Norwegian ship Fram drifted around the North Pole while it was locked in the ice. In the United States, the Carnegie Institution began worldwide magnetic observations from the Galilee and then the Carnegie, which was the first ship designed to be a geophysical research vessel. By the early 1920s, the breakthrough years were coming to an end. The great oceanic basins had been outlined; sea life had been found to extend through the oceanic depths; ocean circulation patterns were recorded; and embryonic studies of the interrelationship of the ocean and the atmosphere had begun. Interestingly, the sinking of the Titanic, after colliding with an iceberg on April 15, 1912, marked the beginning of a new era of ocean exploration. This tragedy drove scientists to find new ways to "see" into the sea. Within a few short years, they discovered that the depth of the sea could be measured with electromechanical sounding systems and that sound waves bounced off of submerged objects.

The advent of World War I, with its emphasis on undersea warfare, accelerated this research. In 1919, the French tested the first echo sounders, and by 1922 they were being used for deep-sea cable surveys.

Launching a weather kite on the ship Princesse Alice

Explorers on the ship Princesse Alice launch one of the first weather kites. Prince Albert I of Monaco owned the ship and sailed it throughout the 1920s, pioneering studies of ocean-atmosphere interactions. (NOAA Photo Library). Click image for larger view.


In 1921 the Albatross retired from service, never to sail the seas again. By this time, the early giants of ocean exploration had passed on, including Wyville Thomson, John Murray, Alexander Agassiz, and L.F. de Pourtales. Charles Sigsbee, whose Sigsbee Sounding Machine had outlined so much of the basins of the world ocean, would passed on in 1923, coincidentally, the same year that the Coast and Geodetic Survey Ship Guide was outfitted with the first acoustic sounding system. The great ships Challenger, Blake, and Albatross had been decommissioned, scrapped, or sunk.

Dr. Paul Bartsch, of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, included a eulogy for the Albatross in a commemoration of Dr. Hugh Smith, a former Director of the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries. He noted that "Of all the ships devoted to biological explorations of the sea, none has surpassed the endeavors conducted on board the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries Steamer Albatross during her 39 years of service from 1882 to 1921," The sentiment behind his statement -- that a ship, as an entity, had accomplished great works upon the ocean -- also served well as a eulogy for the Challenger and the Blake. It was the end of one era, but the beginning of another -- one that would lead to an explosion of oceanic knowledge that has continued to this day.