Maury’s Ghost: How History and Science Unite on the 38th Voyage

The morning sun is bright overhead, and crowds of people line the edge of the water at Mystic Seaport, where the wooden vessel Charles W. Morgan floats with her ceremonial flags flying high. On the deck, Lisa Gilbert stands apart from the crew preparing for launch, showing her companion where she has placed the scientific tools in a drawer. Unlike Lisa, this woman is not a scientist; in fact, Susan Funk is the executive vice president of the museum, yet it is Susan who will be among those responsible for maintaining a scientific record over the next three months—the first indicator that this will be no ordinary expedition. The data collection in which Susan and many others participate will occur during the epic relaunch of the Morgan, the last wooden whaling vessel in existence and America’s oldest commercial ship afloat, for her 38th voyage.

After several years of restoration at the Mystic Seaport, the ship is about to embark on a journey to many historic ports throughout New England. The purpose of the voyage is to create an interdisciplinary connection to the American Maritime Experience, merging history and science to create an experience like that of 19th century naturalists for members of the public. With a crew of experienced sailors to guide her, the Morgan will host a variety of other voyagers during each leg of her adventure. Along with Seaport staff such as Susan, these eighty-five individuals are artists, historians, journalists, teachers, musicians, scholars, and students. All have applied to for the unique opportunity to join the crew of the Morgan at sea, and as part of the experience, each will participate in daily scientific data collection, using modern tools onboard this historic vessel.

Matthew Maury

Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury is credited with the creation of the first major citizen science project using logbooks from sailors and whalers. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This type of “citizen science” has been in use since the Morgan’s first launch in the mid-1800s. It was during this period that United States Navy Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury developed a system for outsourcing data to members of the public. Sailors have always been rigorous in maintaining their logbooks, recording observations every 15 minutes while at sea; however, many of these logs were discarded to storage after the voyage was completed. Maury not only saw the value in this information, but found that he could engage ordinary people of all occupations in the scientific process by creating a method of extracting key information that he eventually compiled to revolutionize nautical charts with data on tradewinds, temperature, and even whale migrations.

Scientific logbook

The scientific logbook on the Morgan was used to record important scientific data and observations at every hour during the voyage. Source: Lisa Gilbert

As Maury discovered, perhaps the most important component of citizen science is the maintenance of one tool: the scientific logbook. Much like during historic whaling expeditions, this will be the primary record of scientific accuracy during the 38th voyage of the Morgan. While the crew is responsible for maintaining the navigational logbook for the trip, each of the voyagers has to be trained in the process of collecting and entering scientific data both at port and while at sea. The scientific log will include position, weather, and water properties, as well as any observations of whales, birds, mammals, and even trash. This data will be collected every hour while at sea, and at least once a day when the ship is docked. Furthermore, much like the logs created by 19th century naturalists, all entries will be organized according to an established protocol so that it can be used for analysis.

Indeed, in spite of the unique platform for data collection, these modern scientific techniques will yield information that has several modern-day implications. The information from the 38th voyage alone can be used to map critical ocean properties and wildlife migrations in the New England region through which the Morgan sailed. From a broader perspective, with a standardized logbook 21st century scientists can compare current data to that collected from the logbooks of ancient mariners, such as Maury. In fact, Maury’s logs are even today examined to determine trends that may indicate climate change. The practice of maintaining a scientific logbook is more than just tradition—it is crucial to our understanding of our modern-day sea.

Student Molly Weiner participates in data collection while the ship is in port.

Student Molly Weiner participates in data collection while the ship is in port. Source: Mystic Seaport