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Voyages: Scientific Circumnavigations 1679 to 1859
United States Exploring Expedition 1838-1842

The Wilkes Expedition, comprised of six ships, was the first scientific voyage sponsored by the government of the United States. It was the first such voyage to embark from the Americas, those great "obstacles" that stubbornly refused European voyagers a single passage to the Orient from the farthest north to the farthest south, nearly to the very poles of the earth. Ironically, this first voyage did not launch from the west coast of North America and sail directly to China, but from the east coast where the ships were made. After setting sail from Virginia in the flagship Vincennes, Captain Charles Wilkes recorded passing through the Gulf Stream at 36 degrees north latitude and 71 degrees west longitude.

"We had a fine opportunity for examining the temperature of the Stream, as we crossed it at right angles to its course, and the thermometer was observed hourly while making little progress through the water: the maximum temperature of the water was found to be 83 degrees, and the width of the Stream about fifty-three miles."



Brachylophus Fasciatus (Fiji Islands),
Hoplodactylus pomarii (New Zealand),
and Teius Teguixin


Callirhinus Patagoniensis
and Dendrophis Prasimus
(South America; Australia)

both images from Charles Girard's United States Exploring Expedition. During the Years 1838-1842. Under the Command of Charles Wilkes…Herpetology
Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1858.



The expedition sailed into the Atlantic, where it progressed exactly as did European voyages, even crossing the Atlantic to Madeira off the coast of Africa, a traditional European stop, to verify the locations of dangerous shoals south of the island for future navigators. Having completed their ocean survey, the expedition headed back across the Atlantic to South America, where the naturalists were rewarded by experiencing such remarkable fauna as the spotted lizard and the brilliant green snake shown in the plates above. The ships then rounded Tierra del Fuego and sailed into the Pacific Ocean to Samoa.

Wilkes: Page 1 of 6.
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