On Darwin Day and the desire to travel

It’s Darwin Day today – the celebration held on the birthday anniversary of legendary scientist Charles Darwin. He was a pioneer in not just evolutionary science (which most people know him for) but in geology and exploration as well.

Last year I had the pleasure of enjoying Darwin Day whilst overlooking the stunning viewpoint of the Beagle Channel itself. This channel separates Chile from Argentina at the bottom of the South American continent, and is so named for the HMS Beagle, the ship that Darwin sailed through it in 1833. By a twist of fate, the ship was exploring the Argentinian coastline from late January onwards, meaning that Darwin was actually around these shores on his birthday.

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It truly was amazing waking up in such a place, on such a date. It wasn’t something that had been planned – I was there to go on a tall ship expedition of my own, and February, in the height of the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, is the best time for it.

On the glaciers surrounding the channel, Darwin wrote:

“It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow.”

There is a lot less snow visible these days at this particular time of year. The weather was a balmy ten degrees Celsius or so. I did expect more of a challenge, but I suppose the fierceness of a far-South summer can be left to the ages past.

Snow-capped cordillera surrounding the channel - surprisingly warm!
Snow-capped cordillera surrounding the channel – surprisingly warm!

After I realised it was Darwin Day, I spent some time reading his voyage journal, in particular I was interested in what he had to say on this part of the world. His observations on geology are truly remarkable, but in stark contrast, as can be expected for a man of his time, he had some rather disagreeable opinions of the local people who lived there, the Yámanas. This indigenous group still lives in this part of the world, mostly thriving off the tourist industry now – us Europeans didn’t wipe them out completely, but we did do some awful things based on our assumptions. So one thing we should take away is that we must pay attention to the difference between due scientific process and personal/social bias, especially when it comes to listening to important and knowledgeable figures.

The collective name for this region, the southernmost tip of South America, is Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire. Although it wasn’t the HMS Beagle’s first trip down there, having completed a preliminary hydrographic survey in 1830, it was Darwin’s trip that brought this land to the attention of the Western world, along with other places he visited on this voyage such as the Pacific Galapagos islands.

The prog rock band XII Alfonso have created an album called Charles Darwin which tells his entire life story story through an epic 52-song compilation. You can listen to the entire thing for free on Bandcamp, and I’d strongly recommend doing so (and maybe chucking a few pounds their way) – in particular check out Track 15, ‘Tierra del Fuego’.

I would encourage everyone to delve into Darwin’s journal this Darwin Day. For its scientific observations, for Darwin’s personal struggles, for the inextricable socio-historical undercurrent, for the fact that he had the idea of getting out there to find out more and went for it, despite the dangers. Human curiosity in a nutshell. It’s important to not forget this stuff – it’s part of our human history, and a big part, at that. Share it with people, tell your kids: think, and get others thinking too.

Hidden Stories: John Nunn and the Wreck of the Favorite

Most of my favourite stories come from real life. Hidden gems, tucked away in annuals and magazines centuries-old. Unbelievable tales from friends that you would not believe if you saw it in a film or read it in a book. The incredulity and haphazardness of what real life can throw at you beats any bizarro film, any magical realism novel.

If you want to exercise your powers of portraying the bizarre, take a look in these places. You never know what you will find.

Two years ago I found what I still consider to be my favourite story of all. It’s the story of a young sailor, name of John Nunn, who was shipwrecked in the wild and desolate Kerguelen Islands in 1825. I may be biased, because this is a tall ship story, and it involves Kerguelen, but yet, it is like no other.

Portrait of John Nunn smoking a pipe
Portrait of John Nunn

Nunn was no stranger to being shipwrecked, but even still, his resourcefulness that allowed him and his few friends to survive, for two years with limited supplies (not much more than hunting tools and a bible) is stunning.

How did it happen? Well, Nunn was part of a whaling expedition to the Southern Hemisphere. Only fifty years prior, Admiral de Kerguelen, a Breton Frenchman, discovered the Kerguelen Islands, opening up a whole new area of the Southern Ocean to industry after it was found that a whole lot of sea creatures  frequented the place, which was completely uninhabited by humans.

Part of the reason for the lack of human colonisation is that fact that, to this day, these islands lie in the path of one of the strongest ocean currents on the globe.  The whole region of the Southern ocean between South Africa and Australia is so fraught with danger that in the 1870’s, the British Navy habitually sent ships out to search for shipwreck survivors, as it was naturally assumed by then that people would fall under misfortune when taking the perilous shortcut to Australasia.

Map of the Southern Ocean around Kerguelen, showing Antarctic Convergence line
The perilous zone of the Southern Ocean, as shown by the Antarctic Convergence line. Image © roc.asso.fr

Of course, Nunn went before all this, when the whaling industry was in its prime. After a chaotic journey south involving a pirate chase, they arrived at Kerguelen in a ship christened the Frances, armed with weapons that could take down anything from baby sea elephants to adult whales.

The most haunting part of the story comes when he talks about the events which led up to the first shipwrecking. During a stint in which him and four crewmates took a shallop (a small, open rowboat) out to Iceburgh Bay to hunt sea elephants, they experienced a series of strange events. First, the mysterious discovery of a cavern, in which a dozen baby sea elephants were imprisoned by bars of ice. The group of men, heads full on enchanted tales from their childhoods, broke the ice bars and freed the baby seals.

Later, aboard the shallop, the men observe the sea fall still, and in that gentle stillness, a giant whale rises from the sea depths and arcs above them, rocking the boat with its tail in a fantastic display of proximity and threatening with that majesty to send them all into the water.

They then realise that the oil lamp has been burning all night, unnoticed. This is an ill omen, on top of the other two strange events. Nunn and his friends find themselves unable to get it out of mind, and experience a sense of dread.

The following day their shallop encounters foul waters and they are shipwrecked across that same stretch of coast.

The 'Loon', the shallop Nunn was shipwrecked in
The ‘Loon’, the shallop Nunn was shipwrecked in

I can only imagine the awe, intrigue, and sense of chill strangeness they must have felt in the lead-up to the shipwrecking. The sense of ill-portent fulfilled, that bit of magic creeping into reality with devastating effect.

Confined to the small bay with no way to obtain fresh food and no resources for cooking meat, they nonetheless survived and were rescued by the captain of another ship, the Favorite, a month later. But soon the Favorite fell under the dismal spell too.

It started with a dream John Nunn had. In it, he is trying to escape a sinking shallop and ends up swimming to shore. When he told his friends with whom he had been shipwrecked, they took him very seriously and asked that he tell the first mate. He did not.

A few days later, when navigating an awkward bay, the Favorite sprung a leak. Nunn had to swim to the shore. And this time it was no month but two years before him and his shipmates were rescued.

Throughout that time the group made use of abandoned whaling huts and seal oil distilling equipment, and scraped out a living worthy of a 21st Century post-apocalyptic film.

I won’t spoil the rest of it for you; you can read it for free here.

My parting advice: look in the forgotten places. Find the stories that hide there. Your imagination will be all the richer for it.

Shallop