Photo by Jerzy Strzelecki, Wikipedia Creative Commons
M/V Lyubov Orlova in 2000

If the words “ghost ship” catch your attention, then you may recall reading or hearing about the story of the Russian cruise ship Lyubov Orlova. After being abandoned when its operators went bankrupt in 2010, the Lyubov Orlova spent several years moored in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Only in January 2013 was the vessel finally sold and towed out to sea, destined for a scrap yard in the Dominican Republic. However, shortly after leaving port, the tug encountered rough weather, the towing cable broke, and the Lyubov Orlova set off alone, drifting across the North Atlantic. The Lyubov Orlova has since become a “ghost ship”. There are even blogs dedicated to speculations regarding its current whereabouts. In the past week it was reported that the vessel might have finally sunk beneath the waves, but not before being sighted off the coast of Ireland.

I was reminded of the saga of the Lyubov Orlova when I recently came across an article titled “Atlantique Nord: Bouteilles, Glaces et Carcasses Flottantes” by A. Hautreux, which appeared in the Bulletin de L’Institut Océanographique (Monaco) in 1910. As the title suggests, Hautreaux included “floating derelicts” (carcasses flottantes) as examples of useful indicators for tracking ocean currents. He also included reproductions of American pilot charts showing the trajectories of wrecks in the North Atlantic.

Pilot chart showing the path of derelicts in the North Atlantic.
Pilot chart showing the path of derelicts.

Floating derelicts were probably much more commonplace in the early twentieth century. It would have been difficult to recover abandoned or shipwrecked vessels and it is likely that accidents at sea occurred with much greater frequency than they do now. Thus, we should not be surprised to find that oceanographers were aware of the existence of derelicts and were quite interested in what the trajectories of these vessels indicated about the strength and direction of open-ocean currents.

The concern with derelicts, icebergs, and bottles hints at a broader methodological problem faced by oceanographers in the early 20th century. It can be read as an attempt to deal with what Walter Munk has termed “the under sampling problem” of pre-satellite oceanography. (Walter Munk, “Oceanography before, and after, the advent of satellites”, Elsevier Oceanography Series, Vol. 63 (2000), pp. 1 – 4.) Recognizable floating objects could have been employed by oceanographers in much the same way that AUVs are sometimes used today, their progress intermittently observed without the need for constant observation.

However, this one example also offers a caveat to traditional histories of oceanography. The example of the “floating derelicts” suggests a path to scientific discovery very different from the military-sponsored “great ship” expeditions that are often highlighted in histories of the marine sciences. While it is important to acknowledge the role of military power for the development of oceanography, it is equally important to recognize that marine scientists were also interested in the least complicated, and least expensive, opportunities for data collection. Such methods did not require large government appropriations, or the use of military vessels. Furthermore, such methods would have given scientists greater independence and control over the results of their work.

Two of the best-known historical examples of opportunistic marine data collection are Benjamin Franklin’s interviews with Nantucket whalers in order to determine the location of the Gulf Stream, and Matthew Fontaine Maury’s use of ship logs to create wind and current charts. However, even today oceanographers make use of commercial vessels in order to gather data. These examples raise two questions for which I do not yet have the answers: have marine scientists resorted to opportunistic collection methods more frequently than scientists working in other disciplines? Or, is resorting to opportunistic collection methods a characteristic of science in the field? I am curious to know others’ thoughts on these questions.