At Sea

Oct 20, 2017 - National Geographic Orion

Even as our team of naturalists alternate between the bridge and the bow searching for marine life, our historian is on the aft deck contemplating the wake of the ship and who may have sailed in these waters in the past. Today saw a second presentation on the life and times of Charles Darwin who sailed these waters, pretty much exactly in the route we are charting, on board HMSS Beagle in the spring of 1832. He made his first stop, as we did, in the Cape Verde archipelago and checked out the Peter and Paul Rocks and the island of Fernando de Noronha, both of which we also observed from on deck. Beagle was headed to South America to survey the Rio Plate and went on to name and chart the Beagle Channel. Darwin was on board at the invitation of the ship’s Captain Robert FitzRoy, a stern unbending Tory who wanted a travelling companion of the same social class to mitigate the loneliness of his command and to ward off the family tendency to melancholy. As it turned out they disagreed about a number of burning issues of the day, for they were living in tumultuous times. Darwin was opposed to slavery, a stance that FitzRoy (like Admiral Horatio Nelson) found positively whimpish. They had a major disagreement over this issue when in Salvador which led to Darwin taking an extended land break during which time he encountered the tropical rainforest for the first time. His account of that encounter, in his The Voyage of the Beagle, published shortly after his return form the five-year voyage, is very moving: “To a person fond of natural history, such a day as this brings with it a deeper pleasure that he can ever hope to experience again.” Darwin owed his invitation to sail on HMSS Beagle to his former Cambridge tutor John Henslow who had introduced him to the writings of Humboldt and promised him a voyage to the Canary Islands to see the Dragon Tree; that plan had fallen through and the Beagle voyage contrived by way of compensation.  

It was, of course, a voyage that changed history. Back on terra firma in the 1840s, Darwin was a married man, ensconced at Down House in Kent and at work on a lifetime project to make sense of all that he had collected and observed. His work was meticulous and may never have been synthesised for publication had it not been for the arrival in the post of a slim package from one Alfred Russel Wallace outlining a theory of natural selection in the much the way that Darwin envisioned it. This proved the catalyst for Darwin who within a year had produced The Origin of Species, one of the intellectual landmarks of the century. Within a year the book and its theory were being debated at Oxford at a meeting of The British Association for the Advancement of Science at which the Bishop of Oxford asked Thomas Huxley if he were related on his grandmother’s or his grandfather’s side to an ape. Huxley’s reply was popularly summarised to the effect that he would rather be an ape than a bishop. In the audience was the lonely figure of Robert FitzRoy who became characteristically agitated, waved a Bible above his head, and rued the day he had accepted Darwin as his voyage companion thus giving him the opportunity to produce his new theory. Within a few years FitzRoy had committed suicide, a sad end to a distinguished career, but we should be eternally grateful that he did select Charles Darwin for that voyage even though Darwin, who was not a good sailor, complained that he had hated every wave in the ocean! 


So much for ruminations from the aft-deck. On the bow we were treated to remarkable views of four Antarctic Minke whales surfing under the bow, in near total disregard of the ship. Our naturalist suggested at Recap that they had other things on their minds.

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About the Author

David Barnes

Expedition Leader

David studied history at the University of York in England and theology at the University of Wales. Research in the field of religious history (at Cardiff) followed on naturally. He has spent most of his professional life teaching history, most recently in adult education departments within the University of Wales where he has taught a wide variety of courses pertinent to the wider Atlantic world. In 1988, he made his first lecture-tour of the U.S. for the English Speaking Union. He has published extensively on Welsh history and topography–his most recent book being the Companion Guide to Wales (2005)–and is a frequent contributor of articles and reviews to Welsh cultural and literary journals. In the1990s, David was active in the field of international education, traveling worldwide and spending a year in the U.S. (in Atlanta and New York City). He speaks English and French in addition to his native Welsh.

About the Photographer

Conor Ryan


Conor Ryan is a congenital ecologist. His career began in the late 1980s, when he developed a keen interest in intertidal ecology, undertaking almost daily field trips to the seashore across from his home in Cobh, Ireland. Though he logged significant hours searching beneath barnacle-studded rocks for eels, his publication record on this seminal research was sorely lacking because he was five years old. As he grew, so too did the size of the marine creatures that he was preoccupied with. 

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