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Tracking the HMS Beagle to its end

A design of the HMS Beagle

Although many historic ships are preserved in museums or at docks, the Beagle, the vessel employed for Charles Darwin’s voyage to the Galápagos Islands and around the globe, has apparently lain in a muddy grave in the east of England for the past 130 years. At a public lecture last week in London at the Royal Society, Robert Prescott, who uncovered the first clues to the Beagle’s whereabouts in 2004, detailed his team’s hunt for the ship. The marine archaeologist believes he has found his prize, although his team is seeking more confirmation and eventually hopes to excavate the ship’s remains.

Prescott and his colleagues determined that after three long-distance voyages, the well-traveled Beagle was relocated to a backwater town in coastal Essex in 1845. Stationed along the River Roach in a village called Paglesham, it was used to guard coastal creeks and waterways against smuggling after the Napoleonic Wars. The ship was finally decommissioned in 1870, as smuggling slowed in response to the expanding Victorian economy, and was dismantled over time. Prescott’s team then studied historic maps of the river area and performed geophysical surveys using magnetometry and ground-penetrating radar to identify the ship’s final resting place—a site now 7 meters below ground.

A quick look at the site, which is now engulfed by muddy marshes, would betray little trace of a buried ship. However, at low tides, water can be seen swilling into an indentation just a few centimeters deep in the mud. “The water fills the dips and eddies [providing] a ghostly shadow of the Beagle,” says Prescott, who is based at the University of St Andrews in the United Kingdom. (The pictures below shows the suspected site of the Beagle at various tide levels.)

The pictures show the suspected site of the Beagle at various tide levels.Robert Prescott

It’s likely that the ship was broken up on site, he says, as those dismantling it gathered useful materials they could sell. Once the remaining vessel began to sink and flood, they would have abandoned it: “It would be a dead weight and slowly get buried.” However, this last chunk of ship is entombed in poorly oxygenated mud, which is good for preservation, notes Prescott.

Hoping to confirm that the remains are those of the Beagle, the team has recently been drilling into the mud to extract tiny segments of the remaining timber. These fragments are home to tiny micro-organisms called diatoms, which could be used to trace the ship’s journeys around the globe. The “pot of gold” would be to find diatoms normally found in the Pacific Ocean, from Darwin’s charting of the South American waters, says Prescott, but none have been seen yet.

The team is calculating the resources required for an excavation, but with the money needed likely to reach a six-figure total, it may be some time before it’s possible. “At some point, we might make a delve into the depths of the marsh,” says Prescott. Until then, arguably the most famous ship in science may lie quietly in the mud.