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M/S Explorer, 1969–2007

[The sinking Lindblad Explorer]

M/S Explorer, abandoned and sinking in the Bransfield Strait off the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo: Chilean Navy via the New York Times.

— Two principles often articulated here on the Collegiate Way are that the life of a residential college is best sustained through a regular rhythm of events—including things like poems and quotations-of-the-week—and also that the members of a collegiate society should not merely teach but should embody the knowledge they seek to convey. The senior members of any residential college, artists and scientists, younger and older, will almost always have enough collective life experience that anything breaking into the world’s headlines will have been encountered in some personal way by some of them. And the stories of those personal encounters are just what students need to hear.

Today is a sad day in the maritime world and in the world of popular science education. The M/S Explorer—the most famous adventure-travel ship in the world, commissioned in 1969 by Lars-Eric Lindblad and still often called the Lindblad Explorerstruck ice this morning and went down in the deep waters of the Bransfield Strait off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Fortunately, the passengers and crew, 154 in all, were safely rescued.

How can we mark such an ephemeral news story in the educational environment of a residential college? By passing on to our students, as a quotation-of-the-week in the college newsletter, the story of another great sinking, told by a narrator who declared “a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard”:

“The ship? Great God, where is the ship?” Soon they through dim, bewildering mediums saw her sidelong fading phantom, as in the gaseous Fata Morgana; only the uppermost masts out of water; while fixed by infatuation, or fidelity, or fate, to their once lofty perches, the pagan harpooneers still maintained their sinking lookouts on the sea. And now, concentric circles seized the lone boat itself, and all its crew, and each floating oar, and every lance-pole, and spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex, carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight.

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.

This would be effective education as far as it goes, and it would serve the valuable purpose of encouraging students to see the world not as a collection of isolated events, but as a collection of events that can be linked together: across time, across space, through cause and effect, and through parallel patterns.

But can we do more?

If you were my residential college student I could do a bit more, because many years ago in graduate school I worked on the Explorer as a naturalist-lecturer during three voyages between Tierra del Fuego and the Antarctic Peninsula.

The work was brutal.

RJO at work on the aft deck of the Explorer in the Bransfield Strait off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.

OK, maybe it wasn’t brutal. But it was good work and important work, and I’m pleased to have been one of the many scientists over the years who had an opportunity to teach on the Explorer for a brief time.

The Explorer brought more people face to face with the Antarctic environment than any vessel in history. And as Lars-Eric Lindblad himself often said, you can’t protect what you don’t know. Thanks to the Explorer, tens of thousands of people from dozens of countries got to know Gentoo Penguins, Blue-eyed Shags, calving glaciers, and South Polar Skuas—Melville’s sky-hawks—and they got to visit the remote research stations of the Antarctic Peninsula and the volcanic waters of Deception Island in the South Shetlands, where fire and ice compete for supremacy.

[The Explorer in Port Foster, Deception Island, Antarctica]

The Explorer in Port Foster, the geologically-active caldera of Deception Island, one of the islands that make up the South Shetland archipelago off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo by RJO.

As the great shroud of the sea rolled over the Explorer for the last time today there were surely small fowls circling the foam around her last resting place, like these Pintado Petrels, photographed from her deck many years ago.

[Cape Pigeons (Daption capense) off the Antarctic Peninsula]

Pintado Petrels or Cape Pigeons (Daption capense) photographed by RJO from the deck of the Explorer off the Antarctic Peninsula.

Let us hope that an Explorer II will soon appear to carry on the little red ship’s name and her important educational work for many years to come.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021