Posted by: Rob Viens | February 10, 2012

Mail “Trucks” and Flying Fish

February 10th brought a little excitement in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean:

“In the morning a vessel was in sight. We chased her all day & have just come up to her this evening. — She is a Packet bound for Rio” (Feb 10)

I suppose the shipping lanes were more or less highways, so the odds were far better than random, but the thought of coming across another ship in the middle of the ocean still seems fantastic.  It must have been a little unusual since Darwin’s entry has an exited tone about it, and everybody seemed to have a good time visiting with the other ship, forgetting that Cholera could be afoot (lucky it was not). (I’m pretty sure that this is what is meant by Darwin’s comment that “It is rather unaccountable the extreme interest that is universally felt at speaking a ship in ‘blue water””.  If anyone can confirm that this is the mean of “speaking a ship”, please comment.)

Fitzroy was also excited about the encounter, but for completely different reasons.  In his report he notes that the Packet (called the Lyra) delivered a box to the Beagle “containing six of Massey’s sounding-leads, those excellent contrivances which we frequently found so useful.” (Fitzroy’s Narrative, Feb 10)

From what I’ve read so far, it is pretty clear that Fitzroy was a bit of a “techno-nerd” for his day, totally into the latest and greatest “gadgets” for surveying. (I have no doubt, that had he lived today, he’d have been an early iPad adopter – especially since it actually contains aps that could be used for surveying!) Sounding leads are essentially  a heavy weight that was attached to the end of a long rope (a sounding line).  Sailors could drop the line over the side of the boat until it hit bottom, and use the length of the line to determine the depth.  (“The word derives from the Old English sund, meaning swimming, water, sea; it not related to the word sound in the sense of noise or tones” (Wikipedia))

Sounding Lead from the National Maritime Museum (see a good blog post on the subject at Age of Sail)

sound lead

Mr. Massey was apparently the designer of the leads, and Fitzroy admired his work:

“These machines, as formerly made, did not answer for a much greater depth than one hundred fathoms; because their hollow cylinder yielded to the pressure of the water: but Mr. Massey has since remedied that defect in their construction.” (Fitzroy’s Narrative, Feb 10)

By the way, in the spirit of yesterday’s post, Packet ships were fast, lightly armed ships that were used to deliver the mail (“packages”) throughout the British Empire . The Beagle had effectively ran into a mail truck.

Although still frustrated by feeling sick, Darwin mentions:

“There were plenty of flying fish round the vessel but no large ones.” (Feb 10)

Flying Fish (from National Geographic):
flying fish

I’ve never had the pleasure of sailing the tropics amidst flying fish, but I imagine it must be pretty magical the first few times that you encounter them “flying” past the ship.  Flying fish are a family of marine fish (Exocoetidae) that consists of over 60 different species.. These species are spread out around the world – most commonly in the warm waters of the tropics. (I don’t believe Darwin would have been exposed to any before the voyage.) They are able to propel themselves out of the water by swimming rapidly towards the surface (up to about 40 mph according to some sources). They then extend their large pectoral fins (their “wings”) and glide through the air  before dropping back into the water.  So they are more like a “flying squirrel” than a bird.

Of course Darwin did not know it at the time but this “flight” is an adaptation to predation.  These fish escape their predators by going someplace the predators cannot go (much in the same way the first fish to come on land could escape predation or early bird/dinosaurs learned to glide from a running start).  Overall, an excellent example of natural selection at work.

For those so inclined, here is a short YouTube clip of flying fish (presumably from Life):


Give the evolutionary process a few more million years – their descendants may be true flying fish!  (RJV)


  1. Thanks for the blog, Rob. I woke up way too early this morning and ended up reading the latest issue of Discover, including an article on flying silver carp in the midwest, the part of the country I grew up in. Many of the rivers and streams are being overtaken by these silver carp, flying a bit like the fish in your blog today. The carp are a variety of Asian carp and are threatening to invade the Great Lakes. Many of the rivers of Indiana, Illinois and Michigan are affected and scientists are trying to figure out what to do…There is an annual Redneck Fishing Tournament in Bath, Illinois, devoted to snagging these critters in mid-air…YouTube “fishing carp” for an up-close look at the action.

    DuraMater 48

    • Thanks Jim – the footage of these fish is pretty crazy. They are sort of like flying fish “wanna-bees” – they can jump but don’t have the pectoral fins to fly. Their invasive nature is disturbing. Unfortunately, it seems to be the norm for carp species.

  2. Thanks for including me Rob. Having spent some years as a young U.S. Naval Officer on Destroyers in the Pacific, I had lots of training in Naval History which included the history of the Royal Navy. Much of our Naval tradition comes to us from them. I just finished reading, “Decision at Trafalgar”, probably the best history of Lord Nelson’s battle and death there. It reiterated my knowledge of Navy ships of the time including “ships of the line”, frigates, sloops and the sort. I’ve spent many hours on the bridge or the fantail of three different Destroyers watching “flying fish”, whales, sharks, etc., etc., and have many stories to tell about Naval experiences. One of my favorite movies was “Master and Commander ” with (what’s his name, Crow (the actor)) which somewhat fictionally follows a theme similar to “The Voyage of the Beagle” with some great scenes of Naval Battles of the time. Naval History has been a hobby since my Midshipman days. I’ve never used a sounding line but threw plenty of “monkey lines” (small lead weight on a quarter inch nylon line) that is used to run a line from one ship to another, and then drag larger and larger lines over in order to tie up, transfer mail, people or fuel lines from one ship to another. Four years of schooling in Naval History, Naval Engineering, Naval Leadership, and Naval Tactics plus the years following on ships left me with a great appreciation for all things marine. Then adding a terrible case of “science junkie” to that really gets my juices up. Judy and I have a 32′ SeaRay cruiser and my sons and I scuba dive, mostly for sightseeing and foraging. I’ve shot or caught and eaten lots of fish, clams, oysters, crabs and even an ocaisional octupus. One of our other hobbies has always been to raise birds. Right now we have pigeons but for many years we had a special room in our house that was all finches. Darwin would have been happy to watch the behaviors on our 8 different sub-species of the pretty little critters. Pat Beatie

    • Thanks for your insights Pat – you really have a lot of Darwin connections yourself! I remember “Master and Commander” – in particular the “Darwin” character who was always trying to convince the captain he needed more time to complete his studies.

  3. Having just finished “Decision at Trafalgar” by Pope, you’ve pushed me to get out “The Voyage of the Beagle” and reread it.

  4. The thing about flying fish is that while it is truly a spectacular wonder to see them flying around during the day, it is quite another experience to lie awake all night in the your berth listening to the “thud, thud, floppity, flop, flop, thud” of flying fish landing on the deck in their ill-fated attempts at evading seals.
    Then of course spending your morning plucking their carcasses back into the sea.

  5. […] From following Darwin’s diary entries, it is clear that time at sea consists of some very busy days (such as in the Abrolhos Islands) interspersed with a lot of slow days (where Darwin arranges collections, writes letters, watches the sea, and describes the weather.) Today was one of those slower days. (For more on the sea life Darwin notes today see posts on Mother Carey’s Chickens and Mail “Trucks” and Flying Fish.) […]

  6. […] from back home  – and that was by Packet (which, if you remember, are relatively fast ships (see Mail Trucks and Flying Fish).  Like letters from home, word of the political situation back home was probably very welcome […]

  7. […] (commanded by a Capt. Cooke). (Recall that Packets are effectively fast sailing mail carriers (see Mail Trucks and Flying Fish.) In his diary he notes: “In the afternoon we sent on board the Packet some parcels &c […]

  8. […] The leadsman is the sailor who determines the depth of the water using a “sounding lead”. These are the long cables with a weight on the end that are dropped in the water to measure depth – a staple of a survey vessel. You may recall FitzRoy’s excitement in getting new leads back in February (see Mail “Trucks” and Flying Fish). […]

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