Until the mid-1940s, knowledge about the sea and Brazil’s seacoast was limited to meager records of organisms observed at great depths and either collected with the aid of dredges on maritime expeditions undertaken during the 19th century or reported by European naturalists. Given the absence of an oceanographic research center that would set the standards for exploration of coastal and marine environments, the government of the state of São Paulo, spurred into action by attorney Paulo Duarte (1899-1984) decided in December 1946 to establish the Paulista Institute of Oceanography (IPO), Brazil’s first oceanographic research institute.
With his combative and humanistic mindset, Duarte had devoted himself to various political and cultural campaigns in Brazil. He was one of those who fought for the establishment of the University of São Paulo (USP), founded in 1934. He was involved in political and military maneuvers that led to the Constitutionalist Revolution of 1932 and as a result went into exile in France. While living in Paris, he became acquainted with marine biologist Louis Fage (1883-1964) who convinced him that Brazil needed an oceanographic research center.
Duarte returned to Brazil in 1945 during a period of reorganization of the country’s international relations. Science had become an important factor in the development of nations after the end of World War II (1939-1945). Infected with that spirit, Duarte pursued his plans for new research spaces, working with José Carlos de Macedo Soares (1883-1968), then the federal regulator in São Paulo, to establish both the IPO and the Institute of Pre-history, both eventually incorporated into USP.
The IPO was subordinate to the Fish and Wild Animal Protection Division of the Animal Production Office of the State Department of Agriculture. Initially, the institute was responsible for defining policies to promote fishing. Years later that function was expanded to include mapping the underwater relief of the São Paulo continental shelf and research on the physical, chemical and biological factors that could affect the productivity of the state’s marine and continental waters and species of aquatic fauna and flora, especially economically significant species.
At the suggestion of Fage and French anthropologist Paul Rivet (1876-1958), his friend from the years in exile, Duarte negotiated the arrival in Brazil of oceanographer Wladimir Besnard (1890-1960) to head the newly-established institute. Besnard was born at sea, on board the ship that carried his parents to Russia. His birth was registered at the French Consulate in St. Petersburg. He studied natural sciences at the Institute of Comparative Anatomy in Moscow. In 1914, he became a professor at the Biological Station in Villefranche-sur Mer, in the south of France, and in 1923, chief of the Biology Department of the Robert American University College High School in Istanbul, Turkey, where he carried out research in the Sea of Marmara and the Bosporus Strait. He returned to France in 1931, where he worked at the Natural History Museum in Paris and the Roscoff Biological station, besides establishing aquariums in Denmark and India.
Besnard therefore already had a distinguished scientific career in Europe when he was invited to assume leadership of the IPO. “He was attracted by the possibility of establishing oceanography in a country that had such a long coastline but so little scientific tradition in the fields of marine, hydrologic, and fishery biology,” says Elisabete Braga Saraiva, a researcher at what is now the USP Oceanographic Institute (IO) and director of the Science Museum at that university from 2004 to 2010. “Besnard’s enthusiasm for science made him leave one of the leading centers of scientific production to come and help promote oceanography in Brazil.”
As soon as he began his work at the IPO in March 1947, Besnard took steps to form a small corps of researchers. He invited Italian-Brazilian biologist Marta Vannucci to join the Institute. At the time, she was an assistant to German zoologist Ernest Marcus at what was then the School of Philosophy, Science and Language and Letters of USP. Besnard later recruited Icelandic oceanographer Ingvar Emilsson (1926-2016).
As had occurred in the early days of USP, the first generation of IPO researchers was composed of foreigners. “There were no courses dedicated to oceanography in Brazil, let alone professionals with expertise in that field,” explains historian Alex Gonçalves Varela from the History Department at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) in a study he prepared on the consolidation of oceanographic sciences in Brazil that was published in the journal História, Ciência, Saúde – Manguinhos in 2014.
The founding of the IPO paved the way for institutionalization of oceanographic sciences in Brazil. Establishment of other institutes followed. In March 1953, the Society for Oceanographic Studies of Rio Grande, embryo of the oceanography program offered by the Federal University of Rio Grande (FURG) was one example. In the 1960s, the Marine Biology Center of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN) was created, as was the Marine Biology Station, which later became the Ocean Sciences Laboratory of the Federal University of Ceará (UFC). Meanwhile, the first program in oceanography in Rio de Janeiro was not established until 1977, at UERJ.
As head of the IPO, Besnard was responsible for installing two oceanographic research bases at the southern and northern regions of the São Paulo coastline, in Cananéia and Ubatuba. Those facilities permitted the conduct of studies about the biology of the Southern white shrimp (Penaeus schimitti) in order to determine the most favorable seasons for harvesting it, as well as research on such topics as marine invertebrates, and the physical and chemical aspects of the waters along the São Paulo coast. In 1950, Besnard launched the Boletim do Instituto Paulista de Oceanografia [Bulletin of the Paulista Institute of Oceanography], the first Brazilian periodical on the subject and the principal medium for publicizing scientific works by researchers from the IPO and other research centers in Brazil and abroad. (This journal has been known since 2004 as the Brazilian Journal of Oceanography).
It was in those years that the IPO completed its first major scientific undertaking. In May of 1950, Besnard was appointed by the Ministry of the Navy’s Director of Hydrography and Navigation to lead an oceanographic expedition to the island of Trindade, 1,180 km off the coast of the city of Vitória, capital of Espírito Santo State (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 178). The expedition to that volcanic island sought to explore its strategic potential for construction of a naval air base and to study the natural resources of the region to find out whether a farming community could be sustained there. The expedition was conducted on two Brazilian Navy destroyers and resulted in several publications, further convincing Besnard that the IPO should not limit its efforts to fisheries, but pursue marine sciences in general.
That opinion, shared by Marta Vannucci, gained acceptance and in 1951 the two met with Luciano Gualberto (1883-1959), then chancellor of USP, to discuss the transfer of the IPO to that university.
The strategy succeeded. “Transfer of the Institute to USP was accomplished within nine months,” recalls oceanographer Michel Mahiques, director of the IO from 2009-2013. The IPO then came to be known as the Oceanography Institute. It operated from a rented house in Barra Funda in the eastern zone of the city of São Paulo. The Institute soon grew larger and another house had to be rented.
Both premises were fully occupied from the kitchens to the bathrooms by laboratories as well as offices for researchers and administrative personnel. A print shop had been set up in a lean-to in the backyard. The IO began conducting research in the areas of physical, chemical, geological, and biological oceanography.
With the death of Besnard in August 1960 at age 70, Emilsson took over as head of the IO. Educated in philosophy at the University of Iceland, Emilsson had studied physical oceanography while pursuing his doctorate at the University of Bergen, Norway, where he participated in projects in fisheries technology and marine ecology. He was a researcher at different oceanographic and fishery institutions in Norway and Iceland between 1946 and 1953, when Besnard invited him to chair the physical and chemical oceanography division of the Institute.
As IO director, he expanded the base at Cananéia, conducted oceanographic expeditions in the equatorial Atlantic, and established a graduate program in physical oceanography. “Emilsson began systematic collection of data on temperature and salinity around Santos Bay,” recalls oceanographer Luis Bruner de Miranda, a senior professor at the IO. The Icelandic researcher remained at the institute until 1964, when he left Brazil to become an advisor on physical oceanography for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), providing technical assistance to the Fisheries Research Center and the Oceanology Institute, both located in Havana, Cuba.
Marta Vannucci, now 96, took Emilsson’s place. This prompted construction of the Institute’s current building in Cidade Universitária, completed in 1970. Also built to the Institute’s own specifications was a ship designed for research at sea. Negotiations for construction of an oceanographic vessel had begun during Besnard’s administration and continued throughout Emilsson’s term. It was not until April 1964 that the contract was signed for the building of that ship. The USP Polytechnic School was charged with designing the craft, which was built by A/S Mjellem Karlsen, a shipyard in Bergen. Work was finished in May 1967. The new oceanographic vessel was christened the Prof. W. Besnard. It could accommodate 25 people and featured modern navigation equipment.
The ship left Bergen on June 10, 1967 and docked at Santos on August 9. The voyage served as its first official scientific expedition, since it collected water samples and organisms along the coast of Africa and then passed through Recife, Abrolhos, Vitória and Cabo de São Tomé. The expedition was dubbed Vikíndio and both Brazilian and Norwegian researchers took part in it, among them Thor Kvinge and Reidar Leinebö. “The Prof. Besnard enabled Brazil to implement important international agreements, such as one signed in the 1970s with the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory at Columbia University in the United States that provided for laying undersea cables,” Mahiques notes.
The vessel made six expeditions to Antarctica. In December 2008, a fire destroyed its interior, introducing the possibility of purchasing a new, larger and more modern vessel. At the time, Mahiques made efforts to raise funds for the purchase of a new oceanographic vessel. The strategy resulted in the submission to FAPESP of a project that made possible the purchase and renovation of the Alpha-Crucis, which began operating in 2012. In 2013, the IO acquired another, smaller ship, the Alpha Delphini, the first oceanographic ship built entirely in Brazil.
Studies on Climate Change
Decades before the first international conferences were held about the environmental status of our planet, studies on the effects of climate change were appearing in the Brazilian and international press. In 1957, Joseph Kaplan, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Hungarian origin from the University of California, published an article in the Santa Monica Evening Outlook in which he stated that combustion of petroleum and heavy oil could produce gases that would heat the atmosphere to such a degree that within 60 years polar ice caps would melt and sea levels would rise.
Brazilians reacted strongly to the article. It was reproduced on April 10, 1957, in Folha da Noite, now the Folha de São Paulo (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 136). The paper returned to the subject the very next day by publishing an interview with Ingvar Emilsson, then at the IPO, who was already involved in research on the impact of global warming and the melting of polar ice caps. At the time, Emilsson said that Kaplan’s theory was not new, but that he found the Hungarian physicist’s reasoning to be logical. “Observations have already shown that in both northern and southern hemispheres there has been an increase in average temperature in recent decades,” the Icelandic oceanographer pointed out.Republish