By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
I’ve recently been on a mission to blog about modes of transportation. I love this seemingly random theme because once I delved into it, I began to see the ways transportation methods could affect collecting efforts.
This time, I investigate collecting by boat. A fair portion of disciplines require collecting via boat, and collectors with the Smithsonian have been collecting at sea since the United States Exploring Expedition (1838 – 1842). So how does traveling by water affect specimen collecting? There are three important aspects that immediately become apparent in field notes – space, speed, and access.
On the water, space is at a premium. Ships take advantage of every crevice. Often spaces serve multiple purposes. Depending on the time of day, a seating area may become a sleeping berth, dining area, or a specimen preparation zone. Many of the vessels referenced in the field books were constructed as commercial or recreational vessels, not for scientific work. Many collectors in the early twentieth century and prior struggled with vessel designs that did not suit their needs for work space or storage of specimens (live and prepared) and supplies. Waldo Schmitt, Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at the National Museum of Natural History (and frequent blog topic) exemplified this challenge in a note he left for readers of his field book for work in the Society Islands  on the sailing vessel Mureva:
Whoever reads these mixed up notes must realize that I scarcely had time to write any, and some done at 2 a.m. only time and place to write. [?]’s bunk space in bow of ship. Jack Randall sleeps in dining alcove bunk so no table available. Captain in pilot house with [?] on “floor” (deck) and Chuck and Tom in state room. No place to write, less to spread papers out.
Making due was necessary until organizations like the US Bureau of Fisheries started constructing vessels specifically for scientific work, the first of which was the Albatross. Vessels like the Albatross could store supplies and personnel efficiently and had dedicated lab space. The Albatross proved so well suited to scientific collecting that it was used for decades and was referenced in scientific literature. It even has its own Library of Congress Subject Heading.
Traveling by boat may be the best travel option for some collectors, but every vessel must contend with winds and prevailing currents. In one of the more humorous accounts, Waldo Schmitt wrote about the lack of forward progress through the West Indies in 1937:
Last evening it was getting windier and windier and with tide, current, wind and waves against us, the Captain was for taking in the sails and proceeding under power alone, saying we could make better headway. Hunt likes to sail and wants to. There was some talk back and forth, and I put in my oar. “If you save time here, you’ll have more later.” Hunt then said to the Captain, “if you furl the sails and got with the engine, we’ll have to call this cruise ‘Gone without the Wind’”. It would be a good title for a book on our experiences […].
If the boat must stop and find an anchorage to gain access to a collecting site, the boat will be limited by water depth and underwater terrain. When finding a place to anchor a ship, you must be cognizant of the water depth (too shallow and the vessel can run aground at low tide), how well sheltered the area is from winds and currents, and challenges of undersea terrain like reefs or rocky bottom that will not allow the anchor to attain a good hold. Watson Perrygo mentioned some of these challenges during the Parish-Smithsonian Expedition to Haiti, 1930.
[February 16 ] […] Anchored in a small cove surrounded by reefs. Had been in bed a short time when the storm hit us with a terrific force. Our anchor started to drag so the engine was started to get enough slack in the anchor chain to take up the anchor. We then went out about fifty (50) yards and dropped the anchor.
[February 17] About three (3) pm we pulled up the anchor and started on. The heavy sea soon made us wish we had stayed anchored behind the reefs at Gun Cay.
Space, speed, and access are just a few of the factors that have affected collectors going out to sea. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to address the more pleasant aspects of collecting at sea like the sunsets on the water, cocktails, and the fresh seafood. Each type of travel brings its own unique benefits and challenges; just wait until next time when we take a look at trains.