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Getting acquainted with the sea

The first Brazilian oceanography expedition, led by Wladimir Besnard, took place 60 years ago

collection of Instituto Oceanográfico / USPBesnard on his way to the island of Trindade, in 1950collection of Instituto Oceanográfico / USP

A rocky, volcanic island, measuring nine square kilometers, was the final destination of two ships that had left port in May 1950, with 50 people on board, 30 of whom were researchers. All these passengers were participating in the first Brazilian oceanography expedition, organized by the Federal Government. The group visited the island of Trindade, the easternmost point of Brazil, 1,180 kilometers off the coast of Vitória, the coastal capital of the State of Espírito Santo. The aim of the trip was to undertake studies for the construction of a naval and air force base and to become better acquainted with the sea, Brazil’s most unknown region, even though the country has an 8.5 thousand kilometer coastline. During the expedition, Wladimir Besnard was in charge of the oceanographic research, together with João Capistrano Raja Gabaglia.

This was nothing new to Besnard (1890-1960), a Russian from Saint Petersburg and naturalized Frenchman. Besnard had a degree in natural sciences and had specialized in comparative anatomy and general biology at the Comparative Anatomy Institute of Moscow. While working in France, from 1920 to 1945, he decided to focus on oceanography studies. He conducted research studies in the Sea of Marmara and other fishing areas in Turkey. He had also worked at the Museum of Natural History of Paris and had created aquariums in Denmark and India. He traveled extensively around the world and his trips were mostly connected with oceanography and the fishing industry. Besnard had been recommended by anthropologist Paul Rivet and by marine biologist Louis Fage, both of them native Frenchmen, to head the recently created Paulista Institute of Oceanography in 1946. “He must have evaluated the major contributions he could give to a country with such an extensive coastline as ours, with little or no tradition in the fishing industry. He was also an expert on the industrial processing of fish,” says Elisabete Braga Saraiva, a researcher at the Oceanography Institute (IO) at the University of São Paulo (USP) and director of USP’s Museum of Sciences. “Besnard was responsible for introducing and developing oceanography in Brazil during the 13-year period he lived here.” Besnard, who was also a photographer and an inventor, implemented research bases in the coastal towns of Cananeia and Ubatuba, and wrote texts on scientific issues.

In 1950, he started the Boletim do Instituto Paulista de Oceanografia, which first became the official newsletter of the IO, then went on to become the Revista Brasileira de Oceanografia (1996), and was finally renamed the Brazilian Journal of Oceanography (2004). When the institute became part of USP, in 1951, Besnard continued working as the director of the IO.

Besnard’s 120th birthday, the 60th anniversary of the first expedition and the creation of the journal, and the 50th anniversary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC-Unesco) were all celebrated in 2010 with a number of events. Elisabete is a curator of an exhibition on Besnard, one of the four exhibitions of historical photographs that can be seen at the IO until December. The other three exhibitions were organized by the IOC, the Brazilian Program for the Antarctic (together with the Interministerial Commission for Ocean and Antarctica Resources) of the IO’s Oceanographic Museum. Michel Michaelovich de Mahiques, the director of the institute, released the book Prof. Wladimir Besnard (IO-USP). A discussion forum on the sea and the relation between researchers, non-governmental organization, the population living on the coast and the government was held in November. “The objective was to open a wider communication channel between the oceanographic scientific community and the parties that make use of the information provided by this community,” says Alexander Turra, a professor of the IO. “We also want to be better prepared to participate in decisions on national and international levels that involve oceanography and the environment.”