The ocean is the largest wilderness on the planet. We often think there are no blank spots left on the map and nothing left to explore, that it was all done years ago by people with names like Drake, Magellan, and De Gama. William Smith, the last person to discover a continent, sighted Antarctica in 1820. But to say the age of exploration is over simply isn’t true.
Here are five modern ocean journeys to explore that will make your heart pound.
Peru to the Tuamotus, 1947
Thor Heydahl wanted to challenge the dominant belief that Polynesia was settled from West to East, with migrations originating in Asia. His theory—that settlement originated in South America, following the Trade Winds—led him and five others to build a raft of native materials based on the drawings of Inca rafts by Spanish conquistadors and native legends. After 101 days and 4,300 harrowing nautical miles, Kon-Tiki, as he called it, crashed into a reef on the island of Raroia, demonstrating that the journey was at least possible. It didn’t change the dominant anthropological theory, which still holds largely to an Asian settlement, but it did make anthropology heroic.
The Mahdia, 1948
Using the new technology of the then new aqualung, a French naval officer named Jacques Cousteau, along with Phillipe Talliez, Frederic Dumas, Jean Alinat and Marcel Ichac, took a sloop named the Elie Monnier from France to Tunisia. Taking advantage of a break between missions clearing World War 2 mines, they dove on the wreck of an ancient Roman ship, the Mahdia. It was the first example of underwater archeology using the autonomous diving technology of the aqualung, and it opened the doors to all kinds of scientific discoveries, in addition to promoting the health of the sea. Cousteau and Ichac shared a film of their dive at the Cannes Film Festival in 1951, and the rest as they say, is history.
Walsh and Piccard Bottom Out, 1960
At 1:06 pm on January 23, 1960, Don Walsh and Jacques Picard reached the bottom of Challenger Deep—the deepest spot in the deepest place on earth, the Mariana Trench. When their Bathyscape Trieste finally touched bottom 35,814 feet below the surface, they could have stood Mount Everest inside this trench and still had a vertical mile between its peak and the surface. Using rebreathing life-support systems in development for the space program, in a capsule designed to withstand the enormous pressure of the deep-sea, Walsh and Picard noted flounder swimming at the bottom of Challenger Deep and a seafloor covered in “diatomaceous ooze:” the first proof that life existed under the intense pressure and total darkness in the depths of the sea.
The Nordkapp Expedition, 1975
The same year that Peter Gabriel left Genesis, Six Brits with climbing and whitewater backgrounds—Colin Mortlock, Sam Cook, Colin Litton, John Anderson, Nigel Matthews and Peter Davis—planned a new kind of expedition: 500 miles up the coast of arctic Norway to the North Cape, or Nordkapp, the northernmost point in mainland Europe. Coastal trips weren’t new—Viking longboats had been plying these waters for centuries—but they envisioned a trip using a newfangled type of craft: 18-foot long, skinny, 21-inch wide sea kayaks. The kayaks had to be specially designed for them by Frank Goodman of Valley Canoe Products; and 500 miles and several modifications later, the sport of modern sea kayaking was born. The Nordkapp expedition was the first proof that such a tiny craft was up for such a journey. Sea kayaks have since rounded Cape Horn, circumnavigated Australia, Iceland, South America, and Alaska, and paddled the calm waters of millions of people’s backyard lakes and rivers.
London to London via the World, 2012–2015
And then, there’s the repeat of Ferdinand Magellan and Francis Drake’s round-the-globe journey…except instead of under sail, it recently took place under human power. Brit Sarah Outen circumnavigated the world by rowboat, sea kayak and bicycle, floating under Tower Bridge and across the Channel to Calais, by bike across Eurasia, and then a 4,500-mile row from Japan toward Canada. The first rowboat crossing was interrupted by Tropical storm Mawar, and Outen set out again from Japan in 2013. After four months at sea battling storms and contrary currents, she turned north and a month later landed in the Aleutians. The next spring, she and expedition filmmaker Justine Curgenven sea kayaked 1500 miles down the Aleutian Chain to Homer, Alaska. After cycling across Canada, she spent four months rowing across the North Atlantic until she encountered the tail end of Hurricane Joaquin. She paddled back under London Bridget on November 3, 2015. Like Drake, who was knighted for his round-the-world journey, Outen is now Sarah Outen MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).
The sea may be charted, but the spirit of exploration is still very much alive and well.