Posted by: Rob Viens | January 30, 2012

Science is Everywhere

On route to the Cape Verde Islands Darwin began to study the critters of the oceans surface using a plankton net that he made himself. (Interestingly, according to the footnotes, this was only the second recorded time such as net had been used. The first time was by plankton-collection pioneer J.V. Thompson in 1829.) Darwin’s pride in his creation, along with pure enthusiasm for discovering new sea creatures comes through clearly in the journal:

“I proved to day the utility of a contrivance which will afford me many hours of amusement & work. — it is a bag four feet deep, made of bunting, & attached to [a] semicircular bow this by lines is kept upright, & dragged behind the vessel. —this evening it brought up a mass of small animals, & tomorrow I look forward to a greater harvest.” (Jan 10)

Image of a modern plankton net from NOAA:

Modern plankton net

I am heartened by the image of Darwin, filled with curiosity, looking for things to observe and study while out in the middle of the ocean.  Up until this point he has described the feeling of being on the ocean (for better or for worse), and spots the occasional porpoise, bird or rogue cricket (lost at sea). This is the first time in his journals that he actively collects specimens for study, and the results are just as colorful (in a microscopic way) as the native vegetation of a tropical island.  He states:

“I find sea-life so far from unpleasant, that I am become quite indifferent whether we arrive a week sooner or later at any port.” (Jan 12/13)

Considering his bouts with seasickness, that says a lot. He also notes that:

 “Many of these creatures so low in the scale of nature are most exquisite in their forms & rich colours. — It creates a feeling of wonder that so much beauty should be apparently created for such little purpose” (Jan 11)

Little purpose?  Without these little guys, many of whom photosynthesize and form the basis of the food chain, there would be no larger animals.  But I do like how he can find beauty everywhere – even in the smallest plants and animals.

Image of phytoplankton through a microscope from Wikipedia commons:


I was particularly amused to see Darwin, the young man, come through, when he does something (like all young men) without really thinking about it.  From the footnotes:

“In CD’s zoological notes, a description of a Medusa caught this day is followed by: ‘Caught a Portugeese Man of War, Physalia. — Getting some of the slime on my finger from the filaments it gave considerable pain, & by accident pulling my finger into my mouth I experienced the sensation that biting the root of the Arum produces.’”

Having tried to talk after receiving Novocain, I can just imagine young Mr. Darwin trying to communicate with his shipmates with a numb tongue.  I’m sure the sailors were laughing at the crazy academic. A Darwin award perhaps?

For more on the topic, you can view selections of Zooplankton of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts: A guide to their identification and ecology by Walter Johnson and Dennis Allen (2005) on Google Books.

Interestingly – the first month of the voyage – up till the arrival at Cape Verde constitutes one paragraph in Voyage of the Beagle – One of the reasons that reading the journal is in many ways more rewarding. (RJV)


  1. […] (at least somewhat) from seasickness on the first leg of the journey in the North Atlantic (see Science is Everywhere).  It seemed fitting as he returns to sea. Plankton by Ruth […]

  2. […] comment suggests that Darwin was also having some fun with his home-made plankton net (see Science is Everywhere). In the entry from Dec 5/6 he […]

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