Notes from the Hassler archives: On tropical waters

[This post is part of a series on the archives of the 1871-1872 Hassler expedition, written by Bruno Costelini, Science without Borders intern at the Ernst Mayr Library]

As the year of 1871 was drawing to a close the Hassler steamed its way off the U.S. coast on through Caribbean waters, where the first dredging efforts were to be made. A stop by St. Thomas (one of the Virgin Islands, then a Danish colony) left the members of the expedition impressed not only with its natural beauty but also with the different customs of these first foreign peoples they encountered, as they managed to find the fish market fully operating on a Sunday:

Sunday is very little regarded here although there are a number of very small churches of different denominations. Regard for the Sabbath is much greater now than it was before the late earthquakes the people having been very much frightened at the time thinking it was their punishment. Groups were seen on any places during the earthquake singing hymns, and offering prayer.

St. Thomas harbor
“View of St. Thomas harbor with the Hassler on the left”

They were always very well received by local authorities and a letter from the scientific leader of the expedition, Prof. Louis Agassiz, was able to open all doors and be worth invitations to meetings with officials and balls. In Barbados, for instance, the Governor himself would board the ship and accompany them on what would be their first successful dredge, “by moonlight”:

The first haul of the dredge brought up a beautiful sponge which the Professor was in hopes to get […] Professor was delighted. The principle object in visiting these grounds was to procure a species of Crynoid which was known here at this locality and this species is I believe the only known one in existence – many are found in fossil state. […] The next haul of the dredge brought up these very wished for creatures with many other rare and unknown specimens. We dredged three or four times and returned to the harbor and anchored again in Bridgetown about 11 o’clock having made a good haul, a pleasant sail, and all well satisfied. Prof. A. said he would be contented if we got nothing else.

Hassler dregde
“Count L. F. Portalès and Hassler crew with dredge about to go down”

The wealth of specimens collected in the dredges added to those obtained with local fishermen, who were frantic to procure and sell all the fish the Professor could buy, would finally put to good use the artistic merits of James H. Blake, who obliged by working intensively and coming up with some beautiful drawings, when not fooled by nature’s tricks, as in this time, already on Brazilian waters:

While the vessel was sailing at the slow rate a surface dredge net was put over by Dr. Pitkin and he succeeding in taking some small animals such as young sponges, a few crustacea and three fish of the Scombroid […] family about 1 1-2 or 2 inches long. They were new to Professor consequently created much pleasure for him and us all. I made a drawing of one of them. A curious fact about them was the rapidity of the changing of color. I made a rapid sketch of the first one taken which was […] dark covered with darker spots and longitudinal bands pink tail and yellowish fins. The second fish which was taken resembled the first in every way but the color in which it differed very much. It was destitute of spots or markings of every kind, but quite translucent and on a light-red all over. I was to make a sketch of it and after making the first went for the second and behold it was of the color of the first dark spotted all over and resembled the first so much in every way it was thought useless to make a sketch of it. This was the quickest change in colors in fish I ever saw.

Barbados fish drawing
“Colorful fish specimen caught in Barbados”