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the origins and early history of the steamer albatross, 1880 - 1887
by Dean C. Allard

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plans showing engines
Figure 11. - Compound twin-screw engines of the Albatross.

The Albatross’s primary mission during her first regular cruise in April 1883 was to study the movements of Atlantic mackerel, Scomber scombrus; Atlantic menhaden, Brevoortia tyrannus; bluefish, Pomatomus saltatrix; American shad, Alosa sapidissima; and other pelagic species during their spring migration northward of Cape Hatteras. At this time, the mackerel fishery had special importance(5) because of its great economic value and due to the fact that the mackerel was the major species caught by Americans in British North American waters under the controversial fishing treaty of 1871. But the mackerel was notorious, as Sabine (1853:184) commented, for being a “capricious and sportive fish, and continually changing its haunts and habits.” Hence, any assistance that the Albatross could offer in locating schools of mackerel, particularly in U.S. or international waters, would be of value to American fishermen. The ship resumed her study of pelagic species in the fall of 1883 by attempting to track their southward migration from New England to the point where they disappeared for the winter in the deep waters off Cape Hatteras (Tanner, 1885:119–120, 154–165).

Another applied program of the ship was its effort to rediscover the tilefish, Lopholatilus chamaeleonticeps. In 1879, this previously unknown species was discovered by a Gloucester fishing captain in relatively warm New England waters 60–150 fathoms deep along the inside edge of the Gulf Stream Slope. Baird(6)
once expressed private reservations about the taste of the tilefish, but, nevertheless, he and his Fish Commission colleagues touted it as a valuable food species comparable in quality to the Atlantic cod, Gadus morhua. Baird also asserted that the appearance of the tilefish demonstrated the value of exploratory fishing.

drawing of albatross lab
Figure 12a. - Lower laboratory, looking from aft forward.

However, during the spring of 1882 there was a massive die-off of this species, apparently due to the intrusion of cold water into its grounds as the Gulf Stream slightly shifted its course. It was not until the early 1890’s that the tilefish reappeared (Bumpus, 1899). Fortuitously, the tilefish grounds were in the Gulf Stream Slope region that was of so much basic scientific interest to Baird and his associates. After 1882 Baird could state that, in addition to his scientific agenda, the Fish Commission’s investigations of that area were an attempt to relocate a valuable commercial species or at least to understand the reasons for the tilefish’s disappearance (Bumpus, 1899:321–333; Herdman, 1923:178–181).

During the summer of 1883, the Albatross moved her base to Woods Hole. The ship’s deployments from that port revealed the fascination that the Gulf Stream Slope and the adjacent oceanic abyss held for the Fish Commission’s scientists. In July, during the Albatross’s first cruise of the summer, the investigators on board included Edwin Linton, a young specialist in marine parasites. Linton gave a dramatic description of a night scene on the stern of the Albatross as the first trawl, which had been in the water for 6 hours, was hauled in from a depth of 1,400 fathoms under the illumination of the ship’s electric lights.

None of the scientists present had seen deep-sea fauna, and they strained their eyes to detect the moment when the Albatross’s trawl broke the ocean’s surface.

Publication of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOAA Central Library.

Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

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