The German Carl Chun (1852-1914), leader of the first German deep-sea expedition named “Valdivia” in 1898, escaped the fate of not going down in history as a forgotten hero. Two greatly expanded biographies deal with Chun and his pioneering deed: the first look into the deep sea. It could be the birth date of a horror movie, March 11, 1899 somewhere in the Indian Ocean. What lands on the deck of the “Valdivia”, salvaged from a depth of 2500 metres, amazes everyone on board. And causes shudders: in the net wriggles a dark ball of fish, armed with razor-sharp teeth and thorns on its skin, a kind of fishing rod protruding from its head, dangling towards the ravenous maw. The world had yet to see such a creature, a spawn of the Abyssal darkness. Nor did the crew of the “Valdivia”, the first German deep-sea expedition, which had started from Hamburg in the summer of 1898.
Until recently, it was generally assumed that life was no longer possible below a water depth of 500 metres. The fact that the “Valdivia” expedition had brought to the surface the first deep-sea anglerfish from lightless depths was a sensation. To understand the magnitude of this discovery, one must recall what was known about the deep sea at that time, the turn of the last century but one: virtually nothing. After the depth, which fish nets reach, no further proper knowledge (except some bit from the Challenger-expedition) existed and the realm of the fantasy had began.
The dry land was largely surveyed and mapped, the world of the seas beneath its surface was a great white spot, terra incognita. But one always suspected something terrible there. On ancient maps, mighty monsters had lurked in all the world’s oceans for centuries: gigantic nasty fish, bloodthirsty whales, giant squids, monster sharks, scaled pterosaurs, spawns of fantasy and fear of hell. And now there’s a monster like that aboard the Valdivia. The fact that this is only a finger long does not diminish the sensation. The “Valdivia” cartoonist Fritz Winter mused at the sight of the fish: “One thinks that our Good Lord has hidden all the foolishness he has done in the depths.” That this strange “stupidity” now came to light, the world of that time owed to the initiative of Carl Chun. The committed and far-sighted biologist from Höchst near Frankfurt recognized the importance of the deep sea early on. He demanded that Germany should be “in the competition with other cultural nations for the exploration of the deep sea”, saying that this was a “duty of honour”. The German Reichstag was receptive, and on January 31, 1898 a comfortable 300,000 marks were granted. And Kaiser Wilhelm II was thrilled; he had always been interested in seafaring and dreamed of a fleet like the one the English had. So the “Valdivia”, a 100-metre-long and 11-metre-wide screw steamer with 1400 hp, was refitted for the adventure: with cold rooms, laboratories, darkrooms, powerful steam winches on board, a cargo boom with a carrying capacity of 10 tonnes, two sounding machines, several cable drums and steel cables ten kilometres (!) long. Massive bottom trawls, plankton nets made of gauze and closing nets, as well as deep-sea traps were specially made; Siemens developed an electric thermometer that could withstand the pressure of great depths.
To preserve the expected booty, 8000 litres of 96-percent alcohol, 500 litres of formalin and countless glass containers of all sizes were loaded in the ship’s hold. Well equipped, the “Valdivia” set sail from Hamburg on July 31, 1898 with 43 men on board, including a good dozen scientists. A course was set for the Faroe Islands. The first deep-sea soundings were taken on August 6 and 7. With bottom nets at a depth of 486 metres, all kinds of sea urchins, brittle stars, glass sponges, isopod spiders and arthropods were brought to light. Chun noted in his logbook: “The mood is upbeat on all sides, as all the facilities have proved their worth and confidence in the expedition’s success has been strengthened.” Because stormy winds arose and the weather forecasts were poor, the “Valdivia” turned back on August 7 1898 at 62 degrees north, the northernmost point of their voyage.
Luck remained true to the adventurers. Nine months, 60,000 kilometres and 274 survey locations later, the “Valdivia” docked again in the port of Hamburg on May 1, 1899, the crew and their souvenirs were celebrated frenetically. What unknown species were retrieved from depths of up to 5000 metres kept sketchers and biologists busy for decades to come. It was not until 1940 that the last of the 24 thick volumes of the “Scientific Results of the German Deep-Sea Expedition” appeared. Carl Chun did not live to see the completion of the work, having died in 1914. But his legacy lives on in the shape of deep-sea exploration in the Polar regions.