The Sea and the Cave: Naturalist at Large



SOME of the most delightful incidents of my life have happened at sea. I recall a still, calm morning off the west coast of Nicaragua. There was literally not a breath of air to stir the surface of the water. And far and wide, scattered to the horizon, were the images of white birds. They appeared miraged up so that they looked about twice as big as gulls should be. The answer was soon to see, for each gull was standing on the back of a basking sea turtle floating or swimming slowly upon the surface of the ocean. The effect was extraordinarily lovely, and I have always recalled it with the greatest pleasure.

A few days later, with the same good weather, we passed through great swarms of coral-red crabs swimming busily along the surface of the ocean, as if all bound upon an important errand.

I often think of the emotion and excitement, which I suppose has occurred for years and will occur until time ends, when a naturalist sees an albatross for the first time. On the wing — and you mighty seldom see them swimming on the surface of the sea — they look entirely unlike any other bird. Their wings are so long and so sharply pointed that you hardly see the body at all; you simply see this great, straight, unbending pair of wings. To see them at their best the sea should be stormy.

They don’t sail the billows as pelicans do, rising and gliding with their wings parallel with the surface of the water, but they cut and pivot and jibe about, and seem to be standing on end more than half the time. Indeed, they appear to stick the tip of one wing in the water and to use this as a fulcrum as they pivot to swing past the crest of a wave. On the voyage to South Africa you meet them shortly after leaving Saint Helena, and for a day or so before reaching Cape Town you may see great numbers. They are perhaps even more abundant off Southern Chile, and if by chance you should pass near the floating carcass of a whale you will see them in swarms, like herring gulls in the harbor of Key West after a bad cold spell in the north.

Porpoises are always diverting and, of course, are familiar to every traveler at sea. But on three occasions we were extraordinarily thrilled by seeing gigantic schools of porpoises that behaved in quite an exceptional manner. More than one species must have been involved, for once we saw what I am about to describe off the west coast of Costa Rica, once near Amboina in the Moluccas, and the third time nearing the Cape of Good Hope.

On each occasion the sea was calm and still. There may have been an occasional porpoise rolling lazily, as one is accustomed to observe them, but on each of these three mornings the sea became suddenly alive with porpoises — thousands upon thousands of them, rolling and jumping high in the air, jumping over one another, past one another, boiling and plunging. There seemed no question but that they were playing, as I saw no evidence that they were driving fish before them. After carrying on in this manner for perhaps half or three quarters of an hour, as if at a signal the whole school swam off. As they disappeared, the animals rolled gently in order to breathe, but they hardly cut the surface of the water.

Another morning I like to think about was when the Utawana lay anchored off the mouth of the Yaqui River at the head of the Gulf of Samaná in the Dominican Republic. The muddy water of the river pushed out into the clear turquoise-blue water of the Gulf, with the line of division sharply marked since the dirty fresh water did not readily mix with the clean salt water of the ocean. An extraordinary procession patrolled the boundary line. Giant rays went flying through the water, their great wings flapping, each one as big as the top of a grand piano, and some larger. They were so near the surface that their great fins came up into the air as they flapped their way along, and every once in a while one would leap high and land with a resounding whack. This kept on pretty much all day.

One would naturally suppose that they were feeding, and yet these great fish are normally bottom feeders. With their protrudable lips they pick up clams or conchs on the bottom and crush them with their curiously modified, flat, plate-like teeth. In the Oceanarium at Marineland, in Florida, they had a ray which picked hard clams off the bottom, and I could hear them crack. The crunch which ground them up was so powerful that the noise carried through the plate glass.

It is a pity that the Gulf of Samaná is not readily accessible to visitors. It is one of the loveliest spots in the whole world. On the north side the mountains rise, covered with a fine green forest. Down the mountain roads the peasants come riding their well-trained bulls laden with heavy packs to go to market in little towns like Santa Barbara de Samaná — quaint little Old World towns that date back almost to the time of Columbus.

The other side of the Gulf offers a complete contrast, for long ago this must have been a flat limestone plain which has been cut and eroded away to form a labyrinth of little rocky islands, each one deeply undercut by the surf, the rocks dripping with orchids and begonias and great elephant-eared aroids, and beset with tall slender palms. Their little stalks are strong as a long iron bar would be, for these palms are old and have stood against countless hurricanes. There are many caves in these little islands, in some of which fishermen live in primitive simplicity — a fairyland, if ever there was one.


In 1908 I went as a delegate to the first Pan American Scientific Congress, held at Santiago, in Chile. Because it was more convenient in those days, we went to Europe and sailed from Lisbon to Brazil. Then we visited Montevideo and Buenos Aires, and so crossed by the TransAndean Railroad. We stopped over at Puente del Inca and rode up to the Horcones Valley at the foot of Mount Aconcagua, where I had the good fortune to catch a series of the curious little lizard known only from that one spot, Liolaemus fitzgeraldi, named for the famous mountain climber.

A theft of jewelry from my wife, which required us to return to Mendoza to testify, prevented us from crossing the Andes with the American delegation to the Congress. The railroad had not been completed across the mountains in those days, and while our colleagues were transported from railhead to railhead in horse-drawn coaches, we followed, several days later, on horseback, reaching the Chilean side on a day when there was no train. By great good fortune we found that some of the railway engineers were going down to Santa Rosa in a gravity car and they took us “down the hill” with them.

We all sat bunched up on an open platform with nothing to hang on to •— and how we jerked as we took the curves! From Juncal down to Santa Rosa is a vertical drop of about 10,000 feet: we took it at a rush through tunnels and over trestles with nothing but a hand brake between us and the blue. There was a burro on the tracks near the end of a long tunnel, but we shouted him out of the way just in time. The engineers had broken all rules in taking us with them, and when at last we were safely down at sea level, Rosamond and I repaid them in champagne.

The festivities in connection with the Congress at Santiago were cordial and extremely well organized, but of more interest to us was the visit to Valdivia and Corral, in the south of Chile. Here we succeeded in finding not only some new fresh-water Crustacea but some extremely interesting frogs and toads.

One day when we had run out of containers I purloined Rosamond’s sponge bag and filled it with frogs, hung it up in our room, and went out to buy bottles. I hadn’t tied it up very well and when I got back the floor, furniture, and walls were liberally besprinkled with tree frogs hopping about and climbing with their little sucking toes over everything, including the windowpanes. As usual I was penitent and unpopular, but this didn’t catch the frogs.

We returned from the Congress with General Gorgas and his family: they were bound for Panama but we were going only as far as Southern Peru. We were together for two weeks on the old Chilean ship, the Limari. We hadn’t been on board long when Rosamond found that one of the two bathroom doors was always locked. This was extremely inconvenient, and she spent some time spying out the cause. After some conniving she got a look into the room and found that the bathtub was full of water in which were swimming a number of goldfish.

Bishop Pierola, the shepherd of the enormous Indian diocese of Huánuco in the Andes of Peru, had been to make his ad limina visit to the Sovereign Pontiff in Rome. He had acquired the goldfish, and his chaplain, being charged with their safekeeping, had simply bribed the bath steward and taken up one of the two bathrooms in the ship for the Bishop’s goldfish. They stayed there, too.

Later on General Gorgas, who did not speak much Spanish, came to me and asked me to tell the mozo in charge of the one remaining bathroom that he wanted clean water. The fresh-water supply was locked up and we couldn’t run our own baths as the supply was limited; hence the necessity of calling the mozo. (Gorgas had not learned Spanish on purpose, because, as he said, he had so many difficult duties and such unpleasant ones, in connection with the sanitation of Panama, the burning of buildings and worse, that he did not wish to be able to understand the frightful curses which were heaped upon him.) I spoke a little Spanish and approached the mozo, who answered, “Tell the General that the bath water is sweet and nice. Nobody has been in it but those two young North American ladies, and they use such sweet-smelling soap.” The General however, insisted that he preferred clean water, and finally he got it.

In 1910, with a number of others, I represented the Association of American Universities at the reopening of the ancient University of Mexico in Mexico City. This coincided with General Porfirio Diaz’s last inauguration as President. We were sumptuously cared for by the Mexican government. We American delegates had a house at our disposal, and motorcars at beck and call. The great banquet, given to all the assembled dignitaries, was one of the most extraordinary occasions of its kind that I have ever attended. The tables were set on the floor of an enormous cave near the pyramids at San Juan Teotihuacán, and not only were the silver and china— brought from the palace in Mexico — decorative in the extreme, but the entire floor of the cave was carpeted several inches deep with tens of thousands of gardenia blossoms. Of course these can be bought for a song in the highlands of Mexico, but the effect was amazing and the scent almost overpowering.

The inaugural festivities in Mexico ended with a procession in which General Diaz walked with the delegates, who wore academic costumes and made quite a show of color. The next day there was a military parade, and after seeing the ten thousand Rurales prance by on their beautiful horses and with their extraordinarily striking costumes one little dreamed that in but a short time Diaz would be leaving Mexico for Spain as a refugee.

Before returning north Professor Tozzer, Clarence Hay, Rosamond, and I visited the ruins of Xochicalco near the boundary of the states of Morelos and Guerrero. The things that stick out in my memory above all else are the buildings which the Indians at the village of Temisco in Morelos made to store their corn; the rock iguanas, big black lizards which decorated every stone wall; the dreary ride, and the uncomfortable night at the ruins. But topping all else, I remember the visit to a near-by cave in which, by the greatest good fortune, I managed to secure with my hat some specimens of a rare bat, Choeronycteris.


I became so interested in caves at one time that I suggested to Professor William Morton Wheeler that we start a Society of Speleologists. He was enthusiastic, but we finally concluded that there was not enough of an interested group to make it worth trying.

I have had some grand experiences exploring caves. In the spring of 1911, Dr. Carlos de la Torre, of the University of Havana, found among the notes which he had inherited from his old teacher, Felipe Poey, — a very great naturalist indeed, and one whose contributions to the natural history of Cuba are well known, — the statement that there was a cave near Cojimar which had red shrimps in it. Don Carlos and I took a guardaño — one of those little canopy-topped rowboats that ferry one about the harbor of Havana — and crossed over to Morro Castle.

On the little beach just by the battery of the Twelve Apostles there lived an old fisherman named Lesmes. He had been a collector for Poey and was knowledgeable in all sorts of ways. We questioned him and he said, “Yes, there is a cave back in the scrub, several miles from here, which has shrimp in it which look as though they had been boiled.” The upshot was we started out to find the cave. We wandered through the hot, dusty growth of beach-grape trees for a couple of miles and came to what had obviously once been a small cave, the roof of which had fallen in.

Sure enough, swimming about in the crystalclear water, which here stood quite near the surface of the ground, were to be seen fairy shrimps of the most heavenly crimson hue, slender and most delicately formed, with white tips to their appendages, as if they had stepped about delicately in white ink. We collected a number of these and in due season sent them to Miss Mary Rathbun, the famous carcinologist of the Smithsonian Institution. She wrote me that these shrimps were unique, the only members of the family Hippolytidae that had taken to cave life. The members of this family inhabit the deep sea and a vast number of deep-sea Crustacea are red. All other cave shrimps which I know of, like most other cavicolous animals, are pure white. She named this shrimp Barbouria poeyi, which pleased me very much.

I am going to digress for a moment at this point and say something about zoological names. There is always a generic name written with a capital, and a specific name, and sometimes also a subspecific, always written in lower case. The manufacturing or thinking up of generic names is not always easy, since you have to think of names which have not been used before, and the number of names that have been used mounts into many thousands. Therefore a person with a name which works up reasonably euphoniously is a good deal of a godsend to describers; so we have Barbourella, Barbourina, Barbouricthys, Barbourophis, Barbourula, and I think several other such combinations, all slipping off the tongue with reasonable comfort.

But consider the way Dybowski, for instance, has transgressed, and some of the names which he has proposed for free-swimming Crustacea in Lake Baikal: Leucophthalmoechinogammarus leucophthalmus, Stenophthalmoechinogammarus stenophthalmus, Cornutokytodermogammarus cornutus, and, the best one of all, Brachyuropushkydermatogammarus grewinglii mnemonotus. I call this dirty ball. Thank God these have all been outlawed by unanimous consent of one of the International Zoological Congresses.

Not long ago I had occasion to make some rather nasty remarks about some perfectly good friends of mine who perpetrated such a name as Photichthys nonsuchi. Think of declining nonsuchusi, o, um, o. Pretty terrible, for “nonsuch” can be translated into decent Latin. But my friends were not classicists; otherwise, in naming a fish seen and not heard — itself a mortal sin — they would not have used Bathysphera intacta and naïvely interpreted it as “the untouchable bathysphere fish.”


But to get back to our caves. Cuba, like many other limestone countries, abounds in caves and grottoes of all sorts, and I have explored any number of them. Three, however, stand out particularly.

There is a little range of limestone hills a couple of miles east of the Harvard Botanical Garden at Soledad in a pasture called El Portero de los Vilches. Here there is a shallow cave in the face of a cliff which was used years ago as a bivouac or lookout by both the Spaniards and the Cuban rebels — whichever happened to be in control of the area. This cave is known as La Cueva de la Macha. It is open to the light, a great domed chamber, the front of which fell off and crashed down the hill years ago. Wind-blown dust has been carried in in the course of the ages and the floor has been covered with a foot or two of dust.

We visited the cave often, as it was within walking distance of the Soledad plantation. Scattered over the surface of the dust in the cave were the remains of desiccated owl castings. These contained the undigested bones of introduced European mice and rats. It occurred to us that if we got down deeper in the dust we might find the remains of animals which existed before the coming of the Spaniards. This turned out to be the case, and we dug, sifted, and screened on many occasions. We found the bones of a number of extinct animals and, to top it all, the only absolutely perfect skull of the extinct rodent Boromys torrei which has ever been found anywhere.

A visit to a second Cuban cave also turned out to be extremely valuable. My young friend, Victor Rodriguez, and I set forth from Havana to Matanzas and there changed cars to a little branch railroad which ran down into the Black Belt of Cuba, the southern part of Matanzas Province. We got off the train at Alacranes, not far from the larger village of Unión de Reyes, and inquired for La Cueva del M.

We found it was in an area mostly planted out in cane and we chartered an old, brokendown victoria, drove as far as the road would allow, and then walked on. The cave was as easy to explore as any I have ever seen. We entered through a great open archway and descended by a gradual inclined slope until finally we came to a great body of water which completely covered the floor of the cave. There was no going beyond this point. We could not have done so even if we had had a boat, because the roof of the cave dropped down, so that there was only a very short space between the roof of the cave and the surface of the water. This subterranean lake simply swarmed with life. We got a wonderful collection of blind fishes, finding both of the known species living there side by side with blind shrimps.

When we reached the mouth of the cave on our return we were surrounded by rural guards and promptly arrested. But thanks to Dr. de la Torre, we had credentials from the Secretary of the Interior of Cuba and we were royally treated when the Rurales discovered our identity. They had thought that we entered the cave for the purpose of purloining treasure “known to be buried there.” But they were content to let us have our peculiar “treasure.”

A totally different sort of cave was that which a guajiro living near Madruga advised us to visit. This was one of those deep, dark caves whose presence is made evident by the fact that the roof of one of the underground chambers has fallen in. In this cave trees had grown up and it was possible to clamber down to the floor through the branches of a tall, scraggly jagüey. Once down, we found that the cave spread out more or less in all directions and here one needed a ball of string and candles. We took our shoes and stockings off, rolled our trousers up, and slithered off through the bat dung. My companions were Professor J. Lewis Breiner and Eliott Bacon.

We went on and on, stirring up myriads of bats, creeping along at times where there was only a threeor four-foot space between the surface of the guano and the roof of the cave. Then, farther along, we could just squeeze through a crack a couple of feet wide and forty feet high. Finally, when we were about tired out with the fetid heat and the mean going, we reached a deep, sluggish stream of water — water that had filtered down, most of it, through the lime rock, so that it had become supercharged with lime salts.

In the course of ages enough salts had been given up to form a crust on the surface of the water like thin ice on a pond in autumn in New England. We cracked this, carefully slipped the sheets of lime rock aside, and then could look down by the rather feeble light of our candles into a crystal-clear pool. There, to our delight, we could see numbers of pure white, quite obviously blind shrimps — new, too, to science! — swimming tranquilly about.

We collected a series of these in a dip net and then, to our delight again, found around the margin of the pool little sow bugs, or pill bugs, as we often call them here in New England. You see them here about Boston, slate-colored, swarming under brickbats or old boards in farmyard or garden. These, too, were pure white and completely without eyes. We bottled up a supply of specimens and then retraced our way, winding up our ball of twine and making a good collection of bats during the return trip. It was a pleasure to get back to the surface and to breathe fresh air again. We clambered up the strangler fig by which we had descended, mounted our horses, and rode back to Madruga.

Cuba is honeycombed with caves. There are innumerable places where streams disappear underground. After the most torrential rainfalls many areas show no standing water at all. And, of course, the story of the marvelous Bellemar Caves at Matanzas is well known. A Chinese was working here with a crowbar, making holes in a rocky area to set out sisal plants. All of a sudden, after a particularly lusty stroke, his iron bar slipped from his hands and disappeared. This is the way these famous caves were found, and now they are entered by a long iron flight of stairs lit with electric lights, and enchant with their beauty thousands of visitors from all parts of the world.