Tara Oceans: a scientific odyssey in the tradition of HMS Beagle


The expeditions of HMS Beagle (1831-36) and Tara Oceans (2009-12). Charles Darwin and Capt Robert Fitzroy.

His Majesty’s Ship Beagle is among the most celebrated of all British warships, commissioned in 1820 as a Cherokee Class, 10-gun brig-sloop. I always thought that it was odd to name a ship after a dog,  unless of course there was an actual Mr. or Mrs. Beagle around back then who was worthy of such a recognition.  But I could not find anything about how the name was selected other than that it was named after a breed of dog.   The other warship captains must have had a fun time teasing the first captain of the Beagle.   Can anyone tell me a famous (or even not so famous) American or French ship named after a dog?   Considering how the English (and the Irish too) name their pubs– Pig & Whistle, as an example—it maybe not be altogether outside the realm of imagination for the British to choose a dog. 

Why choose the beagle for a warship’s “nom de guerre?”  That’s hardly the kind of name that instills a sense of awe, power and danger. The beagle is generally described as even tempered, merry, amiable, non-aggressive and poor guard dogs. The word beagle has many possible origins, but I like to think it came from the Gaelic word beag, meaning little.  The only reason I can find, from reading about beagles, was that the beagle, as we now know as a breed, was developed in Great Britain about the same period when the ship was commissioned.  The beagle was so well liked that it had been depicted in art and written in the popular literature long before the commissioning of the ship, as far back as the Elizabethan period.  Even in this century, the British named its Mars landing spacecraft, Beagle 2, in honor of HMS Beagle.  Or, maybe they just have yet to outgrow their fondness of beagles.  Guess who is the most popular dog in the whole wide world?  Snoopy. And, he’s a beagle, of course.  So now you know!  

I am digressing from the important topic of the day, but I can’t help but finally settle this nagging question in my mind (and yours too I’m sure). 

Now back to some science. 

In the previous blog entry on Charles Darwin, I briefly mentioned the ship.  I think it is time to at least take a moment to devote some thoughts about HMS Beagle.  After the fanfare of being the first ship of the line to cross the new London Bridge in celebration of the coronation of King George IV, the ship remained moored until later when it took part in three survey expeditions.   The Beagle itself was not a highly regarded ship of the line by its sailors who referred to it as a “coffin brig”–more likely to sink to the bottom than sail around the world. The duties of the first survey were so lonely and yet so stressful that its first commander, Lieutenant Pringle Stokes, committed suicide in Cape Horn.  On the second voyage, Stoke’s nephew, Lieutenant Robert Fitzroy was appointed captain.  In this forthcoming second voyage, Captain Fitzroy needed to avoid the same fate as his uncle by cleverly bringing in a paying passenger-naturalist who would conduct the surveys of  the land so that the ship’s officers may attend to the more important military task of ‘hydrography.”  This young man, Charles Darwin, on his way to becoming a clergyman, became that naturalist.  And the rest is history.  

HMS Beagle 

On this second voyage, initially planned as a three year survey that became five years (1831-1836), HMS Beagle circumnavigated South America and then the globe.  It was a magnificent feat of seamanship, using 22 chronometers and with only 33 seconds of error.   Though largely forgotten, HMS Beagle also had its place in world history.  It was one of the three ships that helped the British take the Falklands Islands from Argentina in 1883, eventually leading to the Falklands War between the two countries a hundred years later.  The Beagle Channel and the Beagle Islands of Tiera del Fuego, in South America’s southernmost tip, representing one of the three gateways to the Pacific, were named after this ship.  Conflicting claims to those islands also almost led to a war between Argentina and Chile in 1904.  Aptly named the Beagle Conflict, this arose because of Argentinean claims to the islands and Chile’s refusal to accede.  It took mediation by the Vatican to resolve this issue 80 years later.  Argentina accepted the papal decree of 1984 making the Beagle Islands and the Beagle Channel as territories of Chile. 

Yet, history barely remembers the Beagle and its captain.  Instead, history took note of the Beagle’s paying passenger and would-be clergyman whose ideas, formed during this voyage, became the foundation of our understanding of the diversity of life on earth. 

The tale does not end there.  One of Darwin’s most ardent detractors and one of the champions of anti-evolution crusade turned out to be none other HMS Beagle’s own Captain Fitzroy.  Their opinions of each other, though strained during the voyage, diverged dramatically long after the expedition.  It is ironic that the aspiring clergyman came up with the idea of evolution that shook the foundations of the Church teachings, while the military man, duty bound to vanquish all enemies of the Crown, became one of the Church’s most vocal champions. 

Tara Oceans 

Scientific expeditions, whether on land or at sea, always have a romantic appeal.  Expeditions meant adventure and excitement.  One can only imagine the thrill and the foreboding that Darwin felt as he embarked on this naturalists’ dream of exploration.  That same sense of adventure, despite all the sophistication and the trappings of our modern digitally enhanced world, still remains today.  

The marine ecosystem is still poorly understood; we only see bits and pieces of it.  But each ecosystem is not isolated but part of a larger system; each part impacting the whole.  Within that complexity is the diversity of life, interacting often in unique and often unfathomable ways.

Despite mankind’s technological prowess, it is not an easy task to understand this complexity.  To solve this puzzle, we do need to start at the bottom, the very basic life forms of each ecosystem and somehow integrate this into the wider knowledge of our planet’s water world.  What can be more basic that the bacteria, zooplanktons, phytoplanktons, microalgae and viruses that make up 30% of the primary biomass of the ocean and the source of 95% of the respiration of our planet.  This is what makes Tara Expeditions a unique, singular maritime adventure of our time. 

Tara Oceans is a specially designed 118 ft. aluminum schooner, sponsored by the French Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and many other marine research institutions.  Its principal partnerships include the United Nations Environmental (UNEP) program and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).  Its main purpose is to conduct surveys of marine ecosystems as it travels on its 3-year voyage around the world.  Tara Oceans has a 5-man crew and room for 7 scientists. Their task is to examine marine plankton and other microbial life in the oceans and near coral reefs as it travels along its 100,000-mile route.       

Tara Expeditions started in 2003 because of the vision of its patron, Agnes B, founder of one of France’s most prominent fashion brand, Agnes b.  Her dream was to understand and make a significant contribution to mitigating the effects of the warming oceans.  Since the acquisition of the schooner, Tara, that vision has already taken the ship and its research teams through 7 expeditions in the Arctic, Antarctic and the seas around Patagonia and South Georgia.  

In 2009 (coincidentally the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origins of Species) Tara Oceans embarked on this new 3-year odyssey to study the basic life forms that drive the diversity and productivity of our oceans.  As a moving platform, complete with sophisticated imaging and biological research facilities, Tara Oceans brings together an international team of scientists to conduct over 20 major projects.  Today, Tara Oceans is in the island of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean on a coral research project, prior to sailing to Cape Town, South Africa.  

While there is not enough room in this article to talk about all the research programs during this expedition, it might be of interest to just mention a few to give you the flavor and the sophistication of this voyage.  TANIT (TAra OceaNs ProkaryiotIc FuncTioning and Diversity) is a consortium of scientists investigating the functioning ecology and biodiversity of bacteria in the oceans.   Virus hunters from the Université de la Méditerranée (Marseille, France) shall examine the genome of the MimiVirus, the largest known virus, from the group of giant viruses, called Giruses, which infect a wide range of marine life forms.  The hunt for new ocean viruses will provide a better understanding not only of the genetic diversity but also the role these organisms play in the overall health of the oceans.  The Tara Oceans Marine Biology Imaging platform (TAOMI) integrates all of the data from the research teams as a “tool to extract functional correlations between genes, the diversity of organisms present in a given region and the physical environment.” 

How does Tara Oceans manage to attract such a wide range of scientists from the world’s premier institutions?  That I don’t know.  But, just to impress you, here is the array of acronyms of all the scientific organizations involved: 

CNRS / ENS, Paris, France; NOC, Southampton, UK; CNRS/UPMC, Paris, Roscoff, Banyuls, Villefranche-sur-Mer, France;  Stazione Zoologica, Naples, Italy ; Marine Biology Laboratory, Woods Hole, USA ;  Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston, USA;  University of Washington, Seattle, USA;  University of California, Santa Cruz, USA;  Flinders University, Adelaïde, Australia;  JAMSTEC, Kanagawa, Japan;  ICM-CSIC, Spain; Bigelow Laboratory, USA;  CNRS/IMM /IGS, CNRS /OOB, CNRS / UPMC, Paris, Villefranche-sur-Mer, France;  Centre Scientifique de Monaco University of Milan, Bicocca, Italy;  MNHN, Paris France;  James Cook University, Townsville, Australia;  Museum of Tropical Queensland, Townsville, Australia ; CORDIO East Africa, Mombasa, Kenya ; University of Warwick, Coventry, UK ; Nova Southeastern University, Florida, USA;  Tara Expeditions, Paris, France; University of Maine, Orono, USA;  ACRI-ST, Sofia-Antipolis, France;  LEGOS/CNRS, Toulouse, France; GIP Mercator Océan/CNRS, Ramonville St Agne, France; METEO France, Toulouse, France; Satlantic Inc., Halifax, Canada;  Hydroptic Ltd., Lisle en Dodon, France; WDC-MARE/PANGAEA®, Bremen, Germany;  IFREMER, Brest, France; University of Hawaii, USA; LOG, Wimereux, France; EMBL, Heidelberg, Germany;  University of Washington, Seattle, USA; Genoscope, Evry, France;  EBI, Cambridge, UK ; IOBIS/Cmarz/Census of Marine Life, Washington, USA. 

And, as of June 17, 2010, the newest member of the team—Poseidon Sciences

I am sure you are dying to know why we are part of this.  In my previous blog entry on Darwin, I wrote about Darwin’s 8-year passion to classify barnacles.  Unfortunately, I caught the same, perhaps nastier ‘bug’ and now on my 15th year of the same obsession.  This time, there is an urgent concern by environmentalist and the maritime industry about invasive species carried by ships on their submerged hulls.  Because Tara Oceans will sail to various oceanic environments and stop at different ports of call, it is now possible to critically examine what kinds of biological hitchhikers are present in different regions, how long they remain attached and the succession of different biofouling attachments as the ship sails through different waters.  This is an unprecedented opportunity to look at this issue, with marine biologists on board, supported by Poseidon Sciences’ marine research stations around the world.  Tara’s TAOMI system will integrate the data and enable a continuous look at the biological processes at play on a ship traversing all the oceans. 

To make this program meaningful to the maritime industry, the Tara-Poseidon program shall encourage industry participation by enabling marine coatings companies to paint 1 m2 patches on the underside of the hull to measure the performance of their coatings against fouling attachments while comparing those results with uncoated patches along the hull.  There has been a proliferation of coatings with claims of performance against fouling attachments in the absence of TBT (tributyl tin, a toxin outlawed by the International Maritime Organization of the United Nations) and copper.  This is a unique opportunity to validate the performance of such systems (copper-free and low copper) under the challenging conditions of Tara’s expeditions. 

There is one similarity between HMS Beagle and Tara Oceans.  Both ships are the tools to answer questions relevant to people of their time.  The Beagle’s mission of hydrology was crucial to maintain the British dominance of the high seas during the 19th century.  Tara Ocean’s mission, likewise among the most important of our time, 178 years later, is to understand the organisms that are crucial to support the diversity of life in our oceans and sustain the atmosphere on earth.  And, from that gained knowledge, find ways to plan for its remediation, as the founder, Ages B, had envisioned. 

As in most scientific expeditions, it is the chance of discovery that fuels the excitement.  In the case of Charles Darwin, his ideas on evolution might not have formed without the convergence of Darwin and HMS Beagle at that point in human history. 

As Tara Oceans sail through the deep blue sea–who knows.   Among us might be the next human being that could be the instrument of change in the ocean’s future. 

Welcome aboard! 

Jonathan R. Matias

Poseidon Sciences

June 28, 2010 New York, USA 

PS:  Just a little more about Captain Robert Fitzroy, the forgotten pioneer 

After the Beagle expeditions, Fitzroy made it possible for weather observation equipment to be available in every ship in English ports.  This accomplishment and his precise hydrological charts had saved countless sailors from heavy storms. The first scientific weather forecasting station was devised by Fitzroy, using the telegraph as the method to transmit data from far flung weather stations.  Despite the publication of his Weather Book in 1862, which became the inspiration for the very first daily weather forecast in the Times of London, he received little fame.  In poor health, depression from lack of recognition and losing the fight against Darwin’s evolutionary theory, Captain Fitzroy went the way of the previous captain of the Beagle.  He committed suicide in 1865.  It is only recently that the British government and the world’s atmospheric scientists recognize the pioneering work of Captain Robert Fitzroy in weather forecasting. 

The object lesson:  Be nice to the captain of Tara Oceans.  He has a lot to worry about. 

For further reading: 

About the Beagle




The Tara Oceans scientific program



Poseidon Sciences




Charles Darwin’s other passion: rediscovering the origins of barnacle research

Barnacles attached on the surface of a scallop shell

This blog entry has its origins from a company newsletter I wrote in 2009 for scientists working on marine coatings. 

Darlene Brezinski, the editor of Paint & Coatings Industry magazine, liked the topic so much and asked me to take excerpts from that newsletter into the article that appeared in the magazine on the same year.  I share with you excerpts of that article here as a prologue to my next blog on HMS Beagle and Tara Oceans.

Why bother studying barnacles?  Marine biofouling is such a multi-billion dollar problem because attachments on the bottom of the ship causes drag and increased fuel consumption.  It is estimated that a supertanker from Saudi Arabia to Los Angeles port would cost an additional 1 million dollars worth of extra fuel if barnacles are present in the submerged portion of the hull.  The barnacle, Balanus amphitrite, is the most ubiquitous fouling organism that tenaciously attach to the surface.  It is perhaps one of the earliest  invasive species since it is present in practically all major ports, around the world, having been a hitchhiker on ocean going vessels for over 3,000 years.  To get them off the ship requires expensive dry docking, sand blasting. and re-painting.  Prior to the 1990’s, all marine paints contained toxins to kill barnacle larvae before they settle on the bottom of the ship.   That use has since been legislated out and the search is on for less toxic biocides and preferably nontoxic paint chemistries or repellents.  

Barnacles and an oyster attached on a submerged surface in tropical waters. Photo by Sister Avelin Mary.

So, here is the excerpt from Poseidon Marine Science News and PCI magazine.

“Having been in fish biology in my earlier years and a biomedical scientist in my middle ones, my own passion for barnacle research did not come until later after meeting Dan Rittschoff at Duke University,  Ron Price at the U.S. Naval Research Institute and Sister Avelin Mary at Sacred Heart Marine Research Centre (Tuticorin, India) in the early 1990’s.  Barnacles are not exactly the cute furry creatures one can get so passionate about.  I do have to admit that the interest was partially clouded by my capitalistic pursuits.   Like many of us in this business, we write scientific articles about the biology of the barnacle, Balanus amphitrite amphitrite Darwin, and yet did not spare any second thoughts about why Darwin’s name came to be part of it.  So, let me tell you why.

The Charles Darwin we are all familiar with is the English naturalist who wrote The Origins of Species and Natural Selection, which has since become the foundation for our understanding of evolution and the unifying explanation for the diversity of life on earth.  He wrote about his theory in 1844, then quickly shelved it inside his desk drawer, specifically instructing his wife to release it for publication only if he died unexpectedly.  Darwin was a modest man who shied away from controversies and he knew his theory will be so controversial, and even remains to be so on this 150th anniversary of writing the Origins

Charles Darwin

For 20 years, the paper remained hidden until he received a letter from a young English naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, then living in an island of what is now Indonesia.  In a malarial fit, Wallace remembered reading Thomas Malthus’ 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population (which coincidentally also inspired Darwin) and reached his own Eureka moment totally independently.  He quickly dispatched a letter to Darwin describing an almost identical theory of evolution.  In the typical Darwinian sense of fair play, he presented Wallace’s ideas and his own at the same time during the meeting of the prestigious Linnean Society, giving equal credit to the ideas of Wallace and the share of the controversy as well.  Yet, Darwin is credited with the theory of natural selection because his ideas were written while Wallace was yet in his teens, over 20 years before. 

Then, you may ask, what did he do for 20 years?  Besides dealing with his failing health and the tragedies in his life, he was consumed by the passion of cataloguing barnacles.  His interest in these tiny, ugly creatures began during his famous round the world voyage in HMS Beagle.  Then, at the age of 26, young Darwin was exploring the Chilean coastline looking for biological specimens when he came upon a conch shell riddled with tiny boreholes despite its thick shell.  Inside the hole was a microscopic creature, attached by its head to the shell and waving six tiny legs.  Darwin was fascinated, knowing that it is a barnacle, but without a shell. It has never been described by any naturalist before.  He was a disciplined taxonomist and organized the chaotic nomenclature of this organism, numbering over 1000 species, which were often misnamed during his time. Upon his return to England and immediately after writing his ideas on natural selection, at great expense to his health, he began his day and night obsession with barnacles that lasted for 8 years (1846-1854) cataloguing the collection from his voyage and from the hundreds more sent to him by mail from around the world . 

What drove this passion about such a mundane organism?  Perhaps a clue comes from the earlier anonymous publication of a controversial, incendiary, speculative book, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (later confirmed to be the work of Robert Chambers, a Scottish medical journalist).   Widely panned and mocked for its evolutionary ideas even by Darwin’s friends, the failure of the book was a great personal disappointment because Darwin expected the same response to his own ideas in his theory lying inside his desk drawer.  Even his best friend, the noted botanist Joseph Hooker wrote, “no one has the right to examine the origin of species who has not minutely described many.”  Perhaps, one reason for this obsession was indeed to “minutely observe a distinct part of the natural world and in so doing earn his right to question their origins.” 

Whatever the reason might be, Darwin started us all on a path of research towards understanding barnacle biology and the commercial opportunities that follow in its wake.  As for me, at least I have someone else to blame now for my current obsession with barnacles — Charles Robert Darwin.”

–Jonathan R. Matias,    Poseidon Sciences

Excerpted from:  Poseidon Marine Sciences News, Subsea testing



Also, read the book Darwin and the Barnacle by Rebecca Stott.  It is an engrossing story of Darwin’s passion for barnacles and the mystery of Darwin’s 20-year wait to publish his theory.