Challenger Expedition: Importance, Goals, & Findings

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Today's understanding of the ocean is due to the field of oceanography. But, oceanographic expeditions were once almost unheard of. In this lesson, we'll look at the journey that set the stage for modern oceanography and deep sea exploration: the Challenger Expedition.


Many people today wonder if there's life in outer space. Are there animals and plants on a planet somewhere that we haven't discovered yet? In the 19th century, people wondered the same thing about the depths of the ocean. Oceanography is the scientific study of the seas, and modern oceanography really got started in the late 1800s with the HMS Challenger Expedition, the first modern oceanographic expedition.

The Challenger Expedition focused on deep sea exploration, or the scientific study of the ocean floor. Like the outer reaches of space today, at the start of the Challenger Expedition, the depths of the seas were unknown. To understand how the Challenger changed that, let's take a closer look at the expedition and its legacy and impact.

Challenger Expedition

The HMS Challenger didn't start out as a scientific vessel. In fact, it started out as a British Navy ship with cannons and other equipment to go into battle on the high seas. But, the Royal Society, a British organization dedicated to science and scientific discovery, obtained the Challenger from the British Navy.

The HMS Challenger
HMS Challenger

The Royal Society wanted the Challenger to go on an expedition to learn more about sea currents, temperatures, and the depth of ocean waters. They retrofitted the Challenger to be a traveling science lab, removing cannons and adding in scientific equipment and space for scientists to live and study.

From 1872 to 1876, the Challenger circumnavigated the world, traveling a total of almost 70,000 nautical miles. On the four-year journey, the scientists on board learned so much that it took almost 30,000 pages and 25 years for all of the scientific discoveries to be published!

Legacy & Impact

The Challenger Expedition left many scientific advances in its wake. The scientists themselves spent the four years on board the ship measuring the depth and temperature of the waters, the movement of currents, and plant and animal life deep in the ocean. They discovered around 4,700 new species of marine life, including new plants and animals that had never before been seen. They also discovered what is now called the Challenger Deep, a deep part of the Pacific Ocean that's part of the Mariana Trench. It's one of the deepest places of the ocean floor, and named for the Challenger.

Despite all the discoveries made on the expedition, though, the true lasting legacy of the Challenger involves the way science changed. Some of the species that were discovered on the expedition provided evidence to support Darwin's theory of evolution. At a time when the theory was not as widely accepted by scientists as it is today, this was a huge leap forward in our understanding of how life evolves.

Further, as the first modern oceanographic expedition, it laid the groundwork for other scientific journeys. It also inspired other countries to pay attention to the oceans and launch their own oceanographic expeditions, which led to even more discoveries.

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