Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/October 1886/Life on a Coral Island

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By Professor W. K. BROOKS.

AFTER the discovery of the Bahama Islands, Columbus writes to Queen Isabella that "this country as far surpasses all other lands in beauty as the day exceeds the night in brilliancy"; and as the scientific expedition of the Johns Hopkins University approached these islands, and the beauties of the land and sea and sky of the tropics began to unfold themselves before our eyes, all the members of our party echoed, in words of their own, the impression of the great explorer.

We had been shut up for nineteen days in a little schooner, smaller than those in which Columbus made his first voyage, in a hold which did not allow us to stand erect, with no floor except a few rough boards laid on the ballast of broken stone. We had found an endless source of pleasure and profit in the examination of the marine animals which drifted by us in the floating sargassum of the Gulf Stream, and we had seen for ourselves what we had so often read, that the ocean is the true home of animal life, and that the life of the land is as nothing when compared with the boundless wealth of living things in mid-ocean. Still, our three weeks of tossing and pitching in a heavy sea had tried our patience until we were heartily tired of our narrow quarters, and ready to give a warm welcome to any land.

We sighted Abaco, the outermost one of the Bahama Islands, at daybreak on a beautiful Sunday morning, and we were soon in calm water, threading our way before a gentle breeze, which hardly ruffled the surface among the countless small islands which form a fringe or natural breakwater around the "mainland" of Abaco.

This island, which lies nearly north and south, is about a hundred miles long, and its eastern edge is bordered by a narrow sound from three to five miles wide, the outer shore of which is formed by a rim made up of thousands of small islets, or "keys," separated from each other by narrow, winding channels. Some of the keys are ten or twelve miles around, while others are no larger than a small house. They are high and well wooded, with bold headlands and cliffs, and long, winding bays and inlets.

Our first sail among them was an experience which will always remain fresh in our memories. As far as the horizon, before and behind us, was a series of bold promontories, one jetting out beyond another, and, as our vessel rounded one rocky point after the other, new stretches of land and water opened before us with new glimpses of the strange country we had come so far to explore.

We had read many glowing descriptions of the gorgeous beauty of the tropics, but these were all forgotten, and we felt that we were entering a land where everything was new. Our reason refused to put any limit to the wonderful discoveries which filled our imagination, and, as we sailed slowly past cliffs bathed in spray from the breakers which rolled in from the ocean, past the mouths of caves which the sea had hollowed out in the limestone rock, past deep bays and long, winding sounds which penetrated deep into the islands, our fancy peopled every cave and tide-pool with strange animals new to science, and we felt all the glow of enthusiasm which we experienced when we first entered a scientific laboratory and prepared to solve all the problems of the unknown universe.

Navigation among the sunken reefs and submerged islands, which are much more numerous than those above water, is very dangerous. A few miles away the ocean is more than three miles deep, with no land nearer than Africa, and the heavy sea which is always pounding upon the outer reefs soon puts an end to any vessel which deviates from the narrow, winding channels between the ledges of growing coral; but our pilot steered us safely through the crooked inlet between Whale Key and No-Name Key into the inner sound.

Here we saw, for the first time, that intensely green sea which has been so frequently mentioned by voyagers among coral islands. This vivid color soon became more familiar, but never lost its novelty, and it still holds its place as the most brilliant and characteristic feature of this highly colored landscape, and it is totally unlike anything which is to be seen anywhere except in a coral sea.

The water is so perfectly pure and clear that small objects, like shells and star-fish, are visible on the pure white coral sand at a depth of fifty or sixty feet, and the sunlight, which is reflected from the white bottom, gives to the water a vivid green luster, which is totally unlike anything in our familiar conception of water. The whole surface of the sound seemed to be illuminated by an intense green, phosphorescent light, and it looked more like the surface of a gigantic polished crystal of beryl than water. The sky was perfectly clear and cloudless, and overhead it was of a deep blue color; but near the horizon the blue was so completely eclipsed by the vivid green of the water that the complementary color was brought out, and the blue was changed to a lurid pink as intense as that of a November sunset. The white foam which drifted by the vessel on the green water appeared as red as carmine, and I afterward found in a voyage through the sounds in a white schooner that the sides of the vessel seemed to have a thin coat of rose-colored paint when seen over the rail against the brilliant green.

About noon we reached our destination, Green Turtle, a small town on a key of the same name, nearly a hundred and fifty miles from Nassau, the center of the civilization of the islands. As there is no town between Green Turtle and Nassau, and as the only regular connection in the summer-time between Nassau and the rest of the world is a steamer once a month to New York, and as no message from home could reach us in time for a reply by the same steamer, we were more remote from our friends and families than we should have been in the Sandwich Islands. Although one member of our party had been a traveler in Asia and South America, and all but two had lived in Europe, I think that, as we came to anchor in the little harbor at Green Turtle and looked back upon our long journey, our scanty fare and narrow quarters, and thought of the miles of water which lay between us and home, we all felt that we had never before been so far away. As the strict laws of the island do not permit the transaction of any business on Sunday, we were not allowed to disembark until the next day, and we had plenty of time to examine from the water the new land which we had been so long in reaching.

We came to anchor in the mouth of a beautiful winding bay, in water about thirty feet deep, but so clear that the vessel seemed to float in air, and the motions of the gigantic star-fishes and sea-urchins could be studied on the white bottom as well as if they were in an aquarium. The shores of the bay are high and rocky and well wooded down to the water's edge, where the vegetation ends in a fringe of mangrove-bushes perched above the pure salt water on their long, stilt-like roots, which arch up from the bottom like the ribs of a great umbrella to meet several feet above the water at the point from which the main stem arises. Behind us, several miles away, is the "mainland" of Abaco, separated from us by the green water of the sound, which stretches in both directions as far as the horizon. In front of us, on the shore of the bay, lies the town of Green Turtle, a much more prosperous and civilized place than we had been led to expect, with freshly painted two-story stone and frame houses, set side by side close to the straight, narrow main street, which is used only as a foot-path, as there are no horses or cattle nearer than Nassau. The main street, which is called Broadway, is hardly more than ten feet wide, while the cross-streets are just wide enough for two persons to pass. They are bordered by stone walls or high fences, and are perfectly level, as clean as the deck of a vessel, pure white, with a bed of solid coral limestone, the inequalities of which are filled with cement.

This description applies to only the better portions of the town, where the white natives and a very few of the negroes live. On one side of the harbor a long, low sand-spit separates this portion from the much more picturesque portion inhabited by the poorer people, most of whom are negroes. Here the little palm-thatched huts, without doors or windows or chimneys, most of them in the most attractive stages of picturesque decay and dilapidation, without any regular arrangement nestle in a thicket of aloe and cactus and bananas and castor-oil plant, which runs parallel to the white sand-beach, and is penetrated here and there by the narrow white foot-paths which lead to the huts.

This is by far the most distinctive and interesting portion of the town, and every feature of the landscape, the clear water, the white beach, the tropical thicket, the thatched huts, the towering cocoanut trees, and the dark-green leaves of the bananas, are all so thoroughly tropical that, as we lie on the deck of the little schooner floating on the glassy surface of the calm water under the deep blue sky, with great banks of white clouds piled up on the horizon, we have before us every feature which our reading has led us to associate with coral islands, and it is easy to imagine ourselves in the South Pacific.

Our subsequent exploration of the Bahamas showed us that nowhere else in the whole group are so many of the characteristic peculiarities of the tropics crowded into such a small space. We had very scanty information when we made our selection, but the choice of Green Turtle was a fortunate accident, for our first view of the islands gave us a more intimate acquaintance with coral islands than we should have gained in a month spent at Nassau.

Beyond the town the island ends in a bold, overhanging cliff, separated by a narrow inlet from a small, low island, Pelican Key, which is covered by a growth of cocoanut-trees. From our anchorage we can look out through this inlet, framed between the two islands, and can see the vivid green gradually fading as the water deepens toward the edge of the reef, which is marked by a line of white breakers, heaving and tossing as the swell rolls in from the deep blue water, which stretches beyond until it merges with the lighter blue of the cloudless sky.

Every outline is so sharply defined in the pure atmosphere, and so many elements are crowded into the brilliantly colored picture, that it is more like a landscape traced by fancy in the clouds at sunset than a substantial reality, and the whole is so much like fairy-land that we feel that if we should shut our eyes for a few minutes we should expect on opening them to find the picture dissolving into clouds.

Curbing our fancy, however, and returning to the solid facts about us, science tells us that the history of the country is far stranger than any fairy-story, and that, as the geologist measures time, this whole group of islands, stretching for six hundred miles across the map, and furnishing a home where thousands of people are born and pass their lives, and grow old and die, is actually as transient and unstable as a summer cloud. Only a few years ago, as years go with the geologist, every particle of the land before us was diffused through the ocean in invisible calcareous molecules, which have been gathered from the waves and deposited by microscopic animals, and everywhere about us we find abundant proofs that if these animals should cease their constructive labors the whole would soon be diffused through the ocean like the lump of sugar which is dissolved by our coffee.

After we had familiarized ourselves with this distant view, the custom-house officer came aboard and welcomed us to the islands in the name of the British Government, and told us that, although we could not be permitted to settle on shore until the next day, we were at liberty to land and explore.

All the members of our party will long remember the kind face of this gentleman, Mr. Bethel, with whom we soon became well acquainted. He is not only the custom-house collector, but also resident magistrate, postmaster, health-officer, superintendent of schools, and the general representative of the Government. I myself, as director of the party, was the only witness of the promptness and informality with which he dispatched our business at his office, but we all were made to feel that he is a warm and kindly friend, ready to be called upon at all times for help and advice, and pleased to welcome us at his home.

As soon as we received his permission to land, a party started off in the yawl, which we had brought from Baltimore on the deck of our little schooner, to visit an abandoned house which was pointed out to us upon a hill-side at a distance from the town.

The boat soon reached the mangroves, and, pushing in as far as possible, we found ourselves surrounded by the life of the tropics. As the tide was out, we could reach up from the boat and gather over our heads the oysters which were growing in great clusters on the roots and branches of the trees. The clear water was filled with fishes of strange forms and brilliant colors, and they were perfectly fearless, so that they could be examined without difficulty, as they chased and captured their food among the submerged roots. The bottom was thickly covered with beautiful sea-anemones, and everywhere, on the bottom, on the roots and branches of the trees, and on the rocks at the water's edge, we found a wealth of mollusks and Crustacea, which soon taught us to regard the mangrove-thickets as rich collecting-grounds. We were, however, unable to penetrate through it to the land until we discovered a little cove, where the bushes had been cut down. Pushing the boat into this, we reached an open, grassy landing-place, shaded by two or three cocoanut-trees, and surrounded by a dense forest except at one point, where a narrow path led up the hill to the house.

The front was at first a stronger attraction than the house, and one of the first objects to catch the eye was a great mass of epiphytic orchids on a dead branch close to our landing-place. The species is not one that is prized by orchid cultivators, but the plant, which was much more luxuriant than those which are seen in greenhouses, and in full bloom with flowers which diffused a delightful fragrance through the woods, was gathered just before our return to Baltimore, and was safely carried home, and is now here in full vigor and beauty, a living memento of our first landing on a coral island.

As we were unable to penetrate the thicket without great labor, the party soon made its way along the path up the hill to the old house, which was critically examined as to its fitness for a laboratory and home for our party of seven. It proved to be a one-story frame house, without windows or floor, but out-of-doors the surroundings were all that a naturalist could wish. The exposed side commanded a view of the island and harbor, while the other three sides were surrounded by a dense growth of shade and fruit trees, which had been planted by the absent owner. We also found a large stone cistern shaded by palms and tamarind-trees and orange-bushes, and filled with good water.

We had been informed that there were no vacant houses in the town, and, although this one was very small and not at all suitable for work with the microscope, a residence in this cool and elevated place in the heart of the forest seemed so attractive that the discovery that it swarmed with mosquitoes did not dampen our enthusiasm; and, even after the fine general view of the island, which we obtained from the hill behind it, had shown us that we were separated from the town and from the nearest house by a long, winding sound, and should be compelled to go three or four miles for our supplies, we still felt that the attractions of this retired spot would overbalance all the disadvantages in case no better house could be found in the town.

When the excursionists returned to the schooner, however, they found that another member of the party, who had also been house hunting, had found one in the town which was much better fitted for our use. The owner and occupant was willing to vacate and rent to us, but he could not talk business on Sunday. The next morning a satisfactory bargain was made, and after our business at the customhouse had been dispatched we took possession and prepared to land our apparatus and furniture. This work went on slowly, for our house is at some distance from the water, and, as there are no horses or carts, everything was carried up. We found labor very cheap, and, while our nickel cents and five-cent pieces are not regarded as money, a big copper cent is highly appreciated. The pastor of one of the churches kindly exchanged some of our silver money for a pocketful of them from the contribution-box, and a large force of natives was soon hired and set at work. They quickly picked out all the lighter and smaller packages, and a long procession of men and boys and girls was soon on its way to the house, marching like a column of ants along the narrow path from the landing, laden with tin buckets, chairs, nets, oars, and small bundles. The larger boxes required more deliberation, and after one or two journeys most of our assistants resolved themselves into advisory boards and escorts, and a procession was formed for each package, but nothing was lost or stolen or broken, and before night everything was in the house, our beds were set up, and our cooking utensils and provisions were unpacked. The only available stove in the town was rented and set up, a cook was hired, and we were able to rest and to examine our new house while waiting for our first meal on shore.

The house is small, but by using all the rooms as work-rooms, and putting our beds in corners which are of no other use, we have found room for all hands. It is a two-story house, with the walls of stone as far as the second floor, and of wood above, nicely painted and papered, in good repair, with plenty of doors and windows, a large stone cistern of good, cool water, and on the second floor a large veranda overhanging the street in front, for, like all the large houses, it is close to the street, which, as a sign on the corner informs us, is Union Street. It is a narrow pathway about five feet wide, of smooth white limestone.

We are near the corner of Broadway, and on one side of us all the houses are large, well built, and in good repair, with well-kept gardens. On the other side, the street gradually narrows down to an unfenced foot-path, which leads to the brush through a jungle of rank vegetation through which little thatched huts are irregularly scattered. We therefore have all the advantages and comforts of the better portion of the town, but, being on the border-line, we are sufficiently near the more primitive and interesting portion to establish a familar acquaintance with the people, and to get an inside view of their life. This we accomplish the better, as one of the members of our party, who is a physician, finding that there is no other doctor within a hundred miles, kindly allows the people to call upon him for gratuitous service in his profession. In a few days, as his desire to help those who need him has become known, we are besieged at all hours by patients, who stand in the street and call out, "Is the pill-doctor at home?" He is now so fully employed that his own studies are seriously obstructed, and he has been forced to establish office-hours.

His usefulness is seriously impaired by the fact that a merchant to whom the poor people take their prescriptions to have them forwarded to the apothecary at Nassau is apt to suggest as a substitute a purchase from his stock of strengthening-plasters, or from an invoice of liver-pills which he imported some years ago.

I am surprised to learn from Dr. Mills that in this delightful climate, where the temperature is almost uniform throughout the year, and the thermometer seldom rises above 85° or falls below 80°, there are many cases of consumption. A death from this disease took place in one of the little huts near our house a few hours after our arrival.

We are much pleased that, although our home is close to the street, there is no building opposite, but a vacant lot, planted with cocoanut trees and bananas, and surrounded by an open cast-iron railing, which does not obstruct our view, or cut off the cool sea-breeze which blows continuously.

Our first day on the island ended in a beautiful cloudless evening, with a gentle breeze and a full moon, and as we sat on our veranda and rested after our hard day's work, the sun set and in a few minutes the moon and stars were in full splendor, for we are so far south that the sun drops straight down, and we have no twilight. As we sat and listened to the mocking-birds, which were singing on all sides, and watched the long, graceful, fern-like plumes of the tall cocoanut-trees swaying against the clear sky in the breeze and reflecting the moonlight from their glossy surfaces, a feeling of perfect rest after our long voyage stole over us, and, while everything reminded us of the long miles of water between us and our friends in Baltimore, we felt almost at home in our new abode.

We watched the half-naked negro children at play in our street, and listened with great interest to wild music which came from one of the huts, and was, as we learned next day, the song of friends gathered at the bedside of our dying neighbor; and at last we ate our first meal of pineapples and bananas and sapodillas and fresh cocoanuts, and then turned in, happy in the thought that we could sleep without holding on, and delighted with our first experience of a coral island.

  1. This interesting sketch of what a party of enthusiastic working naturalists saw outside their laboratory, during a recent visit to the Bermudas, first appeared in the "Baltimore Sun." As it is well worthy a more permanent record than the columns of a daily newspaper can afford, we gladly reprint it from slips kindly sent us by the author.—The Editors.