Tales from the Archive: Outside the Pillars of Heracles

The study of the ocean, how it works and the secrets it holds, has been the mission of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution from the time it was an idea being proposed by Henry Bigelow and Frank Lillie. When WHOI became a reality in 1930, the idea of ocean sciences was still emerging even though humanity long sailed the sea. In the early days of the Oceanographic Institution one of the oldest tales of the deep became of interest to WHOI research. In 1931, Henry Bigelow and Columbus Iselin looked for Plato’s “island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Heracles,” or the fabled lost continent of Atlantis.

In the WHOI Archives is a recounting of their research trip that appeared in The Minneapolis Sunday Tribune from October of 1931 claiming that the search for Atlantis was underway. The dear readers of the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune were informed “scientists plan to probe for Atlantis by breaking through a thin submarine crust under which the legendary land is declared to be hidden.” With Iselin as the “master” of the research cruise, it was hoped that the team of scientists from WHOI out studying the Atlantean Plateau and with their “well-equipped laboratories between decks” would confirm once and for all the question of Atlantis. By scraping off the “top dressing” of seafloor and making repeated deep-sea soundings, the researchers came to the “belief that if the Atlantean Plateau once rose above the surface it carried with it...soil of a character which may now be classified.” This character, it was hoped, would reflect the soil of Africa, South America, New York, or maybe there’d be granite, evidence of volcanic eruptions, or even coral structure.

The newly minted ketch Atlantis had made her first voyage across the Atlantic over the summer of 1931. Not only did it successfully reach Woods Hole, but the Atlantis also used the opportunity for preliminary soundings and to make “deep sea tests” of the “grapplers, hooks, and borers to be used in probing for the lost continent.” Previous research and the samples collected indicated that the WHOI scientists may only need to break through ten inches of sediment to discover any evidence of Atlantis. The Minneapolis Sunday Tribune continues to describe the other issues WHOI researchers looked to address during their search; what some may call the more pressing, scientific mission.

The real aim of this cruise, at least for the scientists on board, was to collect samples and address “what keeps such great currents as the Gulf Stream flowing.” While the oceanic gyres were not fully understood at this time, there was great news for the future if WHOI scientists succeeded in answering this issue. If it could be proved that “these currents have the pronounced effect on the climate of certain parts of the east coast of North America and the west coast of Europe that some theorists steady [sic] maintain, then it may become possible to forecast weather conditions in these parts of the world far in advance.” The days of the almanac were numbered.

This was not the last time that the story of Atlantis became the buzz around research at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Over thirty years after Bigelow and Iselin’s foray into mythbusting, James Mavor worked with scholars in Greece to locate a lost city on the bottom of the Mediterranean. Off the coast of the island Thera in the Aegean Sea, Mavor and fellow researchers found evidence of a Minoan city dating to 1,400 B.C.E. As evidence of the potential fabled Atlantis being discovered, scientists pointed to the city’s destruction by a powerful earthquake and volcanic eruption, much as Plato described befalling the Atlantean continent and people. The site was an important part of the history of the Helenistic world, giving archeologists a closer glimpse to a society over three millennia removed from ourselves. But was it THE Atlantis?

As the reader may have guessed, it was not. Neither one of these forays into crypto-oceanography proved, without a doubt, the legend of Plato’ lost civilization was brought to the ocean floor for their hubris. Perhaps the search for Atlantis will never end; spurred on by young oceanographers following the writings of Erich Von Daniken. As WHOI continues to explore the depths of our world’s oceans, the lost continent may become the found continent.


by Brett Freiburger