Popular Science Monthly/Volume 78/March 1911/The Work of the Albatross in the Philippines

1579512Popular Science Monthly Volume 78 March 1911 — The Work of the Albatross in the Philippines1911Albert Lloyd Barrows




THE Albatross is an iron, twin-screw steamer of a thousand tons displacement, built for the United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries in 1883 to enlarge upon the work of fishery investigation and deep-sea exploration begun on a small scale by the Fishhawk, a wooden steamer of some two hundred tons burden. Since the spring of 1888, the Albatross has been in Pacific waters, where she has made trips to Hawaii and Japan and through several groups of the Polynesian Islands, in addition to many seasons spent among the salmon fisheries of Alaska. For the past two years and a half this ship has been in the Philippines, making as complete a collection as possible of Philippine fish. The normal complement of the Albatross is about seventy-five officers and men, detailed from the United States Navy, but during her stay in the Philippines a large portion of the crew was temporarily replaced by Filipino recruits; the uniform of the American sailor is highly attractive to many a Filipino youth. The collecting operations on this cruise have been in charge of a resident naturalist with two assistants, beside two Filipino helpers in the laboratory routine and seamen detailed to the fishing boats. The National Museum has also placed representatives on board, and two Japanese artists have been employed for a part of the trip. In addition to the work of the ship, a special agent of the Bureau of Fisheries has been detailed on shore to compile data on the present supply of fishery products and the demand for them in the Philippines.

The work-room, through which all the specimens are passed, is situated amidships on the main deck. Drawing tables for the artists are hinged to the walls under the ports, and the ship's scientific library is contained in cases along the fore and after bulkheads. A small aquarium of slate and glass is fastened above the sink, and at the side of this there is a battery of four hatching jars. On the deck below this main laboratory is the storeroom, from which open the photographic dark-room and the sick-bay. The smaller specimens, after being sorted, labeled and packed into jars and bottles, are stowed away in lockers here and the larger fish are kept in copper tanks of alcohol. Most of the supplies and collecting gear are stowed in the laboratory hold below this storeroom.

The oceanic work of the Albatross is based upon the soundings taken with the Lucas sounding machine and sounding cups. The machine itself consists of a compact, triple-cylinder, compensating steam engine which turns a reel on which five or six thousand fathoms of steel wire are wound. Geared to the sheave over which the sounding wire runs is a register, which indicates the number of fathoms of wire reeled out.

The "Albatross" in Port. (Photograph by DeLong.)

For depths up to a thousand fathoms, a thirty-five pound shot is used to carry the wire down, and for greater depths a shot of sixty pounds. The shot are perforated with a two-inch hole so that they may be slipped over the cylindrical brass sounding cup. This trips automatically on striking the bottom, dropping the shot, while the sounding cup itself sinks into the mud and brings up an ounce or two as a sample, with the shells and hard remains of countless tiny animals which have played so great a part in the formation of many of the present land masses of the earth. The four or five thousand separate soundings, made by the Albatross during the past twenty-seven years, indicate a long and persistent bombardment of the ocean depths.

Clamped to the sounding line, a few feet above the bottom specimen cup, is a second brass cylinder used to bring up a sample of the water from the bottom to be tested for its specific gravity. The water bottle is sent down with its valves open, but on being hauled up, the reversed motion of the water against the blades of a propeller-like wheel tightly screws up the valves, and a pint or so of water from the very bottom is brought up through a depth of several hundreds or even thousands of fathoms,

A thermometer in a brass case is also clamped to the sounding line above the water bottle. This is sent down right end up, but on starting back to the surface, a water wheel, similar to that used to close the valves of the water bottle, unscrews a catch holding one end of the thermometer, while the other end is fastened by a loose pin, thus upsetting the instrument, which is now brought to the surface with the mercury in the same position as when it left the bottom. At the same time that the sounding is being made, a specimen of the water at the surface is taken, which is also tested for its temperature and density for comparison with the density of the bottom specimen.

For depths under a hundred fathoms, a hand sounding machine with a light cotton line is used, to which the usual instruments may be attached, unless the navigator wishes merely to determine his position with respect to some shoal. In this case a long weight with a hollow in its end filled with tallow is used, and enough sand or mud sticks to the tallow to indicate the character of the bottom.

On account of cross currents below the surface and on account of the drifting of the ship with the surface currents or the wind, taking a sounding is often extremely difficult, especially if at any great depth, when it requires that the ship be held in one position for several hours. Not infrequently, in spite of the greatest care, the sounding line goes down obliquely instead of perpendicularly and comes across the edge of the rudder or a propeller blade, or a kink is thrown into the line, which causes the wire to snap off at once, and the whole set of instruments is lost. The deepest sounding made from the Albatross, while on her Philippine cruise, was in the Sulu Sea at a depth of over 2,200 fathoms. Several successful dredge hauls have been made at depths of over a thousand fathoms, but most of the work has been done in water less than five hundred fathoms deep among the depressions and along the edges of the partially submerged plateau which forms the Philippine archipelago.

The dredging apparatus carried by the Albatross is of two sorts, the dredges which are dragged over the bottom and the intermediate nets which are trawled between the surface and the bottom. Of the
The Dredging Winch on the Forward Deck of the "Albatross."
(Photograph by DeLong.)

several models of dredges, those designed by Captain Z, L. Tanner, the first captain of the Albatross, and by Professor Alexander Agassiz, have been used most frequently. These consist of a pair of heavy iron running frames at the sides of the mouth of the dredge, connected with one cross bar ten or twelve feet long in the Tanner model, and by two such bars in the Agassiz type. Lashed to this frame is a cone-shaped bag, twenty or thirty feet long, made of heavy webbing, with much finer meshes near the tail than near the mouth, and with a lining of fine webbing in the after part of the bag, the end being closed by a lashing. An extra-heavy, six-foot dredge, fitted with strong teeth on the lower beam, was also built for raking over the pearl oyster beds in the southern part of the archipelago, and this small dredge has also been used to good advantage in collecting over other unusually rough bottoms.

During the Philippine cruise, the largest beam-trawl ever used by the Albatross was made by connecting the usual iron runners with twenty-five-foot spars, and lashing to these a bag over sixty feet long. This net was handled with great success on a smooth ocean floor until, while dredging in Batangas Bay on Washington's Birthday, 1909, the dredge caught on some obstruction and, after a moment of severe tension, gave way. When the wreck was brought to the surface, it was found that both of the heavy pine spars had been snapped in two, and that only a few shreds of the long bag were left hanging to the remains of the frame. This, indeed, is the fate of many a good, deep-sea dredge.

Two models of nets have been used for trawling between the surface and the bottom. One consisted of a heavily weighted ten-foot iron ring to which was lashed a lined bag of fine mesh. This net was wrecked in a typhoon encountered off the coast of northern Luzon, as it stood lashed to the fore rigging, and was replaced by a net of Norwegian model. The bag of the latter was made with a shear board at each corner of its triangular mouth, set so as to draw the net down as it was towed, and at the same time to hold the mouth open for thirty feet on a side.

These dredges and tow nets are put over the starboard side of the ship by a heavy boom swung from the foremast. The steel dredging cable, five or six thousand fathoms of which are wound on a huge drum on the berth-deck below, passes over a sheave at the heel of this boom so geared as to indicate upon a dial the number of fathoms of cable paid out. To relieve the severe tension on the dredging cable, which often amounts to four or five tons, two sets of rubber buffers are inserted in the rigging of the boom. One of these, fastened perpendicularly to the foremast, moves a pointer over a scale, indicating roughly in tons the strain upon the cable. Fisherman's luck prevails on the Albatross, as elsewhere, and often the dredge is brought to the surface with a great hole torn in the side; or occasionally the whole bag gives way under a big load as the dredge is being lifted aboard, and the collector sees all his expected treasures float rapidly astern or disappear into the dark blue water beneath the ship.

A Set of Sounding Instruments. 1, water bottle; 2, thirty-five pound shot; 3, Thompson ball-cutting sounding rod; 4, bottom specimen cup; 5, sixty pound shot; 6, deep-sea thermometer. (Photograph by DeLong.)

Professor C. A. Kofoid, of the University of California, has designed a small, surface tow net, made of fine bolting silk, to collect the swarms of minute animals—salpæ, medusæ, arthropoda and the metamorphic forms of other groups—which are always found at the surface of the open sea or a few feet below it. While making a bottom haul, this small net is usually towed from the ship's side for half an hour, and the contents are washed out into a jar as a gelatinous, unrecognizable mass to be sorted over in the laboratory at Washington later.

Much of the collecting work of the Albatross has been done along clear beaches and in rivers with seines drawn by a crew of six or eight men. The boat used on these expeditions is a round-bottomed, keel-less shell of Norwegian model, called a "praam," a craft which is easily held against currents, but which drifts readily with the wind, and which shows on the whole a more unmanageable disposition than any other of the ship's small boats, until one has learned how to trim the boat and to pull it with even oar. Then one realizes how well suited this boat is for knocking about in swamps and rivers and on the beaches.

But more sweeping than any of these other methods of collecting is dynamiting the fish which congregate in great numbers on the coral reefs. Peering through a water glass, or glass-bottomed bucket, over the stern of a small boat, one plants a shot which is exploded by an electric fuse. The fish are either stunned or killed by the explosion and rise to the surface, dotting it with flecks of red, green, yellow, or chocolate brown. Many more fish sink to the bottom, the degree of the congestion of the internal organs due to the explosion and the bursting of the swim-bladder apparently causing the fish to sink. Amid more or less excitement the fish on the surface are speedily gathered in and the boat devotes itself to the more prosaic work of picking up the fish on the bottom with the aid of the water glass and an unweildy bamboo spear. Although one can not but regret the waste of many fish killed by dynamite for every specimen sent to the museum, this method is justified because it is the only means by which many species can possibly be taken, which must otherwise remain unknown.

There is, however, one small wrasse fish (Labroides paradiseus Bleeker) about as long as one's finger, which fearlessly flaunts its dark blue tail among the coral branches as the dynamite shot is being placed, and which even more saucily hovers near the jagged and broken coral after the shot has been fired. One's pride in his catch is humbled still further on meeting a silent, half-naked native poling his flimsy bamboo raft homeward with his basket filled with fish similar to those in the dynamite boat. The native has taken his fish in the early morning, before the breeze has ruffled the surface of the bay, without the help of dynamite or of water glass, and with only a slender, iron-tipped spear of his own rude contriving with which he has speared his fish alive.

The dynamiting work is, perhaps, the most fascinating of the collecting activities of the Albatross. Through the small, square, pane of the water glass, one sees the rough and jagged ledge of coral, gray or brown in the background, with encrusting forms of blue, purple, sea-green, brown, orange and varying shades of red and pink. The ledge is shattered and honeycombed into an intricate maze of crevices and pinnacles—a broken and rugged floor mottled with irregular patches of color. Huge masses of fluffy, gray soft-coral are mingled with beds of crinoids moving their long, chrysanthemum-like arms to and fro with the ground motion of the swell. Points of rock protrude among these uneven garden plots or are partially hidden by the waving masses of hydroids. Here, a delicate sea-fan stands erect upon a rocky corner; a spotted crab runs from one hiding place to another; and a great, blue starfish sprawls over a bare rock. There, a sea-cucumber, like a stout serpent, halts in the middle of a patch of sand; and among the rocks rest the giant clams with their wide open velvety mouths. A cluster of little anemones gaze upward in astonishment, and a sea-urchin huddles into a crack, like a porcupine searching for grubs among logs.

The coral usually grows out from the shore as a fringing reef, often forming a table or a coral shelf with only a few feet of water above it, and ending abruptly in a coral cliff. There are found the most luxuriant growths, as the bottom rapidly recedes from a depth of one or two fathoms to a depth of ten or fifteen fathoms, beyond which the eye, aided even with the water glass and the brightest sunlight, can not penetrate. These are the reefs of solid coral formation.

Around other islands, the coral is merely an incrustation on the rocky ledges which form the island. Occasionally a locality is found like that of the volcanic island of Kagayan Sulu, where the coral which once flourished has been killed, possibly by some change in the ocean currents or by a volcanic uplift of the island. The finer structures have been worn away and the bases of the clumps of coral stone are now covered with the slime of a fine, brown alga.

The next reef visited may be farther up the bay and bear a character very different from that of the reefs on the exposed points. Huge, goblet-shaped sponges of a living gray color stand up motionless on their thick stalks between great tables of spiny coral borne on pedestals, each little spine on these tables looking like one of the trees on a wide, pineforested plateau. Beautiful brown plate corals and shelf corals hang along the walls of the ledges.

Another type of coral, growing sparsely over a sandy bed, may be the last representative of the coral animal to be found well inside the bay. The growth consists of hedges and patches of the diffuse and intricate tangle of branching, stag-horn corals. Scattered among the brown sea-grasses between these hedges which parallel the shore are solid liead corals, large and small, fluted and knobbed, and often with their somber colors of brown and gray suggesting the head of some ancient monk half buried in the sands, while the coral branches still bear upon their tips the brilliant purple of the priest's altar robes.

It is a quiet scene. There is no glare. The colors are clear and living. It is a garden of animals, but few of which are capable of motion, though the currents and waves carry some of the slender forms to and fro in a semblance of voluntary activity. Other forms rigidly keep their one position. Never a sound is heard from these depths. Never comes a perfume or an odor from this garden. If we pluck one of these flowers from its home, it collapses and fades. We are allowed a glimpse of this new world, but never an approach into it, and we are left to marvel at Nature's lavish extravagance in creating life.

The active denizens of this luxuriant garden are the fish that dart from clump to clump of coral, or prowl among the broken rocks, or hover in swarms about some, single coral head, or listlessly rest in the hollows of the bottom. The bright colors of tropical fish are well known. Red, blue, green and yellow are painted on them in intricate and bizarre patterns. More striking even than their surroundings, most of these fish apparently do not seek protection by inconspicuous coloration. The reef fish form a class by themselves. Once in a while, a gray shark helps himself to the spoils after the disturbance of the dynamite shot has been forgotten; a sea-turtle flaps his way under the boat and, rising to the surface fifty yards away, thrusts his crooked head and neck out of the water for a more careful scrutiny of the intruder; and an eel searches through the holes in the coral or gracefully waves his ribbon-like form over the ledge into the next submarine gorge.

The patient drawing of the seine along the beaches yields an entirely different group of fish, most of them slender, swift swimmers and light or silvery in color. In the tide pools left among the rocks, are found grotesque little scorpion fishes and blennies and gobies. The seining party usually divides its time between the beach and a small river the tidal portion of which winds its tortuous way through a monotonous mangrove swamp. As the boat is pulled between the glistening, green hedges of mangrove trees which line the sluggish, muddy water-way, even the hum of gnats and mosquitoes, the harsh cry of a bird, the snapping of the oysters and clams in the mud left uncovered by the receding tide, and the occasional splash of a big lizard dropping into the water, add to the solitude of the dismal waste. In the southern party of the archipelago almost every bay and inlet is partly filled with mangroves and they often form a fringe three of four miles wide along the shore.

The results from dredging cover almost the full range of the marine animal kingdom. There is usually a great quantity of mud in the net, much of which can be washed out by towing the net at the surface of the sea for a few minutes. After the net is swung aboard, the load is dropped on the gratings of the washing table by taking off the lashing around the end of the net, and the hose is turned on to wash the mud away from the specimens. Most of these fish of the deep-sea are small but strange enough in comparison with the surface fish. Many are slate colored; a few partake of reddish brown; and some are inky black with a row of phosphorescent spots along each side which, in the utter darkness of their native depths, must glow like the portholes of a steamer at night. The other specimens in the net may show that the dredge has been drawn through a bed of siliceous sponges, of crinoids, or of Venus's flower baskets, or through a multitude of starfishes and sea-urchins. Still other dredge loads may yield small sea-snails and bivalves, weak and awkward spider crabs and many smaller crabs, the omnipresent shrimp, a few sea-cucumbers, squids, basket-stars, sand-dollars, beautiful sea-fans, hydroids and solitary corals, with jelly fish probably from intermediate depths. In the crevices of pieces of coral and sponge broken off by the dredge, are also found numbers of tiny fish, small crabs and worms. Finally, samples of the sand and shell fragments are dried and taken for specimens.

The routine of the dredging is sometimes broken by fishing for sharks with hook and line from the ship's side. Several blocks and chips of wood, which had been thrown overboard a few hours before, were taken from the stomach of one shark caught in this way, together with scraps from the ship's galley. Once a few small whales were seen spouting among the dazzling ripples of the early morning; and schools of porpoises have often lumbered past the ship, their huge bodies tumbling over and over one another in short, low curves.

In the evening, while the strains of the ship's phonograph and the thrumming of a Filipino mandolin or guitar drift back from the foreward deck, the fishing gear is brought out again, if the water at the anchorage is quiet, and often most interesting results are obtained by scooping up with a fine meshed dip-net the hundreds of little creatures which are attracted to a submarine electric light. Not only such fish as herrings, anchovies and half-beaks, with now and then an excited flying-fish, but many squids darting back and forth more swiftly than the fish, small crustaceans, jelly-fishes and phosphorescent worms are taken; and sometimes a water snake writhes across the edge of the outer shadow, or the dark form of a shark glides under the vessel.

The work of the Albatross has been thorough along the line which has been her specialty on this cruise. It is seldom that any region can be carefully surveyed by an expedition carrying the equipment of the Albatross and detailed for so long a time as this ship has been to the study of the fish and the fishery resources of so rich a collecting ground as the waters of the Philippine Islands. Still, this work has been that of a collector only, and its economic value will not appear until these results have been used for the greater development of the remarkable fishery resources of these islands than the native fisherman now make of them. These are fishermen who catch fish principally for the supply of the local community; who use for food nearly every kind of fish which is caught, with but little care for possible by-products; and who now preserve the fish, if at all, only by the crudest methods. Aside from the purely scientific additions to knowledge, the results of this Philippine expedition of the Albatross contain material which should benefit not only the fishermen as a class and many a Filipino who already uses fish as a staple article of his diet, but also a great number of the population, living inland from the coast, to whom the best species of fish properly cured would be a welcome and a wholesome addition to an often too restricted fare.