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The cruise of HMS Challenger was the first expedition organized and funded for a specific scientific purpose: to examine the deep-sea floor and answer comprehensive questions about the ocean environment. Wyville-Thomson would compile the resulting data in to the 50-volume Challenger Reports, opening the era of descriptive oceanography. He hoped to disprove the recently-proposed azoic theory which postulated a "dead zone" below 1800 feet in all the worlds' oceans, and to prove the findings of Darwin.

The re-outfitted navy ship sported state -of-the-art on-board laboratories and workrooms, and the latest scientific apparatus, plus telegraph capabilities with which they sent results home.

November 22, 1872
We have two Steam Boats on board, and about 30 miles of deep sea line, and dredging line, the other six boats we shall take in when we go into the river next week. All the Scientific Chaps are on board, and have been busy during the week stowing their gear away. There are some thousands of small air tight Bottles, and little boxes about the size of Valentine boxes packed in Iron Tanks for keeping specimens in, insects, butterflies, mosses, plants etc. There is a photographic room on the main deck, also a dissecting room for carving up Bears, Whales , etc.

Joseph Matkin
HMS Challenger

Challenger's scientific objectives as determined by the Royal Society were:

  • To investigate the physical conditions of the deep sea in the great ocean basins (as far as the neighborhood of the Great Southern Ice Barrier) in regard to depth, temperature, circulation, specific gravity and penetration of light.
  • To determine the chemical composition of seawater at various depths from the surface to the bottom, the organic matter in solution and the particles in suspension.
  • To ascertain the physical and chemical character of deep-sea deposits and the sources of these deposits.
  • To investigate the distribution of organic life at different depths and on the deep seafloor.