One hundred years since the Michael Sars Expedition
The Michael Sars Expedition in 1910 occupies a central place in Norwegian and international history of marine science.
SS ”Michael Sars” was the research vessel of the Board of Fisheries in Bergen and had since 1900 been carrying out investigations in the Norwegian Sea. The expedition in 1910 was carried out following an initiative from the Director of the Board of Fisheries, Johan Hjort, and was financed by Sir John Murray. Murray was the leader of the British “Challenger Office”, which administered the material from the world-encompassing Challenger Expedition.
Bergen Museum played an important role in the implementation of ”Michael Sars 1910” and the working out of the results from the cruise. In the scientific collections held at the Museum today, more than 6000 of the catalogued zoological specimens are from this project. From this material, more than one hundred new species have been described.
The Research Vessel
SS ”Michael Sars” was built as an English steam trawler and was in 1900 equipped for Norwegian marine research at a price of NOK168 000 on the initiative of Johan Hjort. The ship was 38 m long and had a tonnage of 226 tons. The steam engine used 5 ton coal per 24 hours and could yield 300 Hp and had a speed of 10 knots.
In the course of the winter of 1909-1910, the ship was prepared for a deep-sea expedition with the very best of instruments available at that time. Many of these were inventions made by contemporary Norwegian oceanographic communities. Fridtjof Nansen had, among other things, contributed with a cable length counter and a water-sampling bottle that could collect samples of water from stated depths. Helland-Hansen had developed a light-meter based on the principles of photography. A camera body contained a photographic plate that was exposed by sending a weight down into the deep to open and shut the house.
The captain of the cruise was Thor Iversen. Apart from Hjort himself and the famous British oceanographer Sir John Murray, who signed on in Plymouth, researchers from Bergens Museum and the University of Christiania were participating. Among them were the plankton specialist Haaken Hasberg Gran, who had previously worked at Bergens Museum, but who at this point was a professor of Botany in Christiania. Dr. Bjørn Helland-Hansen was the leader of Bergens Museum’s Biological Station and was a pioneer in oceanography. Einar Koefoed was, like Hjort, especially interested in fish. The artist Thorolf Rasmussen participated as a scientific illustrator.
“Michael Sars” started out from Bergen in the afternoon on 1 April 1910. John Murray signed on in Plymouth, and extra equipment was also loaded.
The first leg of the actual research cruise was from Station 1 to the south of Ireland on 9 April to Station 18 at Gibraltar on 30 April. The largest depths were sounded to 4 700 m at Station 10 outside Biscaya. Here, they were finally able to test the equipment in really deep waters. In Murray and Hjort’s account of the journey (1912), we read:
"Then we decided to test the large trawl on this vast depth. To reach down to 4700 metre depths, we found it necessary to lower 8 kilometres of wire; it lasted from 5 ½ until 7 ¼ in the afternoon. At midnight, the heaving started, which lasted for approx. 6 hours."
In the second leg, Sars steamed into the Mediterranean to Station 19, then turned back again and out to Gran Canaria, where samples were taken at Station 34 on 13 to 14 May. Along the Gibraltar Strait, Helland-Hansen took the first reliable measurements of the current velocities into (upper part) and out of (lower part) the Mediterranean.
The third leg stretched from Gran Canaria, Station 35, on 18 May to Station 42 at Cape Bojador in Western Sahara (23-24 May). During its fourth leg, from 27 May to 13 June, Sars left Station 43 at Grand Canary and headed for Fajal on the Azores.
The sampling Stations 51 to 59 were more or less in line with the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which in 2004 became the research focus of the MAR-ECO project, but they had a more northerly route.
From the Azores at Station 59, Sars crossed the Atlantic Ocean towards the West to Newfoundland at Station 74. The fifth leg lasted from 17 June to 2 July.
The sixth leg (9 July-27 July) stretched back eastwards, via Station 96 to the south-west of Ireland, to Glasgow.
During the sailing from Glasgow to Bergen, from 4 to14 August, the deep basins from Scotland to the Faeroe Islands were investigated (Station 97 to Station 116).
One of the more general observations from the Michael Sars Expedition was that the abyssal plains seemed to have very little animal life. But when approaching the large mountain formations in the Mid-Atlantic, a good deal of life seemed to exist.
As early as 1912, Murray and Hjort published the book “The Depths of the Ocean” with the Norwegian title: Atlanterhavet. Fra overflaten til havdypets mørke. Efter undersøkelser med dampskibet ”Michael Sars”. (The Atlantic. From the surface to the darkness of the deep. From the investigations of the steam ship “Michael Sars”.) An English version of this classical textbook can be found by clicking on this link:
Murray made a donation of £500 to finance the work on the of the gathered biological material by taxonomic specialists. The persons who played an important role in this work were: at Bergen Museum, among others, the museum’s first professor of Zoology, Adolf Appellöf, curator James Grieg, and at the Directorate of Fisheries, MSc Einar Koefoed. From Oslo, the professors G.O. Sars and Kristine Bonnevie participated; from Trondheim, Hjalmar Broch and O. Nordgaard; from Tromsø, Carl Dons. Among several foreign taxonomic specialists, the professors Carl Chun and R. Woltereck in Leipzig, and Dr P.P.C. Hoek in Haarlem, participated with published work.
One of the persons who later contributed with studies of crustaceans from the Michael Sars Expeditions was Oscar Sund. He was the first student who obtained a Master’s Degree at Bergen Museum (1911) under Professor Appellöf. Later on, he became a well known scientist at the institution we at present refer to as the Institute of Marine Research.
Over the years, more than a hundred new animal species (including 30 fishes) were described from the material collected by the Michael Sars Expedition in 1910. The squid specialist Carl Chun named the up until then unknown squid Mastigoteuthis hjorti after Johan Hjort. In later years, we have acquired more knowledge about this species from various studies (see http://tolweb.org/Mastigoteuthis_hjorti/19517).
But the fish Saccopharynx hjorti, also named after the expedition leader, is still known from only one specimen. It exists in the collections of Bergen Museum. Saccopharynx hjorti therefore may be a good example of the fact that we still have minimal knowledge of the biology and ways of life of many of the animal species living on Earth.
The collections from the Michael Sars Expedition have a continuing relevance as research material. A new fish species, Lycodes paamiuti, was for example described by the Danish researcher Peter R. Møller as late as in 2001, based partly on specimens gathered by the 1910 expedition.
For more information on the scientific collections, visit: