This article was taken from our archives. It first appeared in the Winter 2009 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
Since 1928, the Bermuda Aquarium on Flatts Inlet has been a magnet to Bermudians and visitors alike. In its first four decades of operation it attracted more than 1.25 million visitors. But in the dark years of the First World War, the prospect of a world-class aquarium in Bermuda seemed distant. The colony’s first attempt – on Agar’s Island — to create an artificial aquatic world where man might gaze on the fish of the sea had succumbed to the harsh reality of war. One man – Bermuda-born, self-taught zoologist Louis L. Mowbray – would change that outlook. But before he would make his mark on Bermuda Mowbray would first stamp his vision on the world of American aquaria in Boston, New York and Miami. Only then would he turn his attention to building a “fish house” on his native shore.
The South Boston Aquarium was architect-designed, intended by the city fathers to beautify their harbour’s marshlands and to act as a civic entertainment. Mowbray shared this ambition, but also expected the aquarium to serve as a place of scientific inquiry. Friction soon arose. The city government proved parsimonious and Mowbray characteristically strong-minded. In 1914, the city’s Parks Department accused Mowbray of misspending monies allocated for the purchase of tropical fish and summarily fired him for “inefficiency and conduct injurious to the discipline” of the department. Mowbray demanded that the charge of “inefficiency” be withdrawn. It was and the Bermudian headed for the New York Aquarium, where a chum from his years at the Flatts station, Charles Townsend, ran the show. The Boston Aquarium limped onward, progressively hobbled by civic stinginess.
Mowbray’s association with Townsend in New York honed his professionalism. The New York Aquarium was probably the largest in the world. Townsend oversaw an aquarium that boasted almost a hundred display tanks, pumped over 300,000 gallons of seawater through them every day and regularly imported fish from Bermuda and Florida. There were laboratories and collecting expeditions. An average of 5,000 visitors daily came to its Battery Park location. “No other form of public institution,” Townsend would write, “is of greater interest to the public.” Mowbray became a disciple of Townsend’s belief that aquariums “should be more than an exhibit of interesting things. It has undeveloped possibilities for educational usefulness and has long occupied an important position in the field of scientific research.” By the late 1920s, Townsend’s New York Aquarium was attracting over two million visitors annually; it would eventually move in 1957 to Coney Island.
New York served as Mowbray’s springboard to Miami, where in 1919 he was recruited by Indianapolis millionaire James A. Allison to oversee the construction of a new aquarium and then to manage it. Allison’s wealth was rooted in his passion for practical invention – designs for fountain pens and auto headlights plus founding the Indianapolis Speedway all filled his coffers – but he also liked fish and fishing. The Miami aquarium would flatter this love, make money by drawing tourists and give Allison the patina of a philanthropist. Situated on the edge of the tropical ocean, wrote The National Geographic, the Miami Aquarium was the “treasure house of the Gulf Stream.” Mowbray flourished there. The facilities were state-of-the-art – 50 large tanks, a collection boat, a laboratory and expeditions to the Caribbean in search of new specimens. Mowbray named a hitherto-unknown species of yellowfin tuna in his patron’s honour – neothunnus allisoni. He was by now a regular contributor to zoological journals. Aquaria, Mowbray also understood, had to appeal to the broader public. In 1922, for instance, he published a description of his Miami endeavours in The National Geographic. Here he painted a dramatic, almost Darwinian, scene. The sea and its microcosm the aquarium offered a “battle of fish against fish – furious, quarterless, to the death…everlasting.” Extolling on the mighty tarpon, Mowbray wrote that beneath the balmy waters off Florida there was a “never-ending Armageddon of the finny world.” In a bizarre tip-of-the-hat to 1920s fashion, Mowbray noted that a svelte dress for a flapper might be made out of the shingled scales of a battling bonefish. The dress, he claimed, was “a thing of beauty”. (The National Geographic declined to publish Mowbray’s picture of the dress until 2008.)
If Boston taught Mowbray that municipal sponsors might not wholly share his vision, Miami would now teach him that private patrons were equally fickle. Allison saw his aquarium as a tourist draw and as an adjunct to sport fishing. Mowbray saw it as a place of spectacle and investigation. Relations became strained. In 1923, Mowbray quit and moved back to the friendlier precinct of Townsend’s New York Aquarium. The next year, Allison cashed in on the Florida land boom of the roaring twenties and sold the Miami Aquarium, which was demolished to make way for seaside apartments.
Back in Bermuda, there was agitation to revive Bermuda’s aquarium. Early in 1922, Professor Edward Marks of Harvard approached the Trade Development Board, the overseer of island tourism, with a request that it sponsor a top-of-the-line aquarium. The Board “cordially approved” of the proposal, noting that it coincided with their wish to develop “special attractions” which were “not gaudy” for the growing tide of tourists coming to the island. Marks suggested that Flatts, not Agar’s, would be a perfect location. It would offer “easy access” to the tourists and was well situated for research and starting a fish hatchery.
From Miami, Mowbray sent the plans of Allison’s new establishment, pointing out that it had already attracted 76,000 visitors since its doors opened ten months before. A Hamilton barrister, H. Villiers Smith, began to orchestrate local pressure for a new aquarium. At this juncture, the old association of aquarium and biological research station ended. American academics, backed by the Wood’s Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and money from the Rockefeller Foundation, campaigned in the late 1920s for a separate site for a biological station dedicated to oceanographic research; a 1927 act of the colonial government fulfilled their wish and in 1931 Bermuda Biological Station for Research opened at Ferry Reach.
In the mid-1920s, Bermuda thus began to link its image to the sea around it. The Trade Development Board adopted the slogan “Come to Bermuda, Mid-Ocean Playground”. To flatter this image, the Assembly in 1925 voted £12,800 for the construction of an aquarium at Flatts. The facility would be a tourist draw and, as Stanley Spurling told the Assembly, would be part of “an educational process.” Mowbray applied for the job of curator. The £500 salary was less than he had been earning in the US; it was a standard civil service salary that could not be negotiated. There was a tinge of patriotism in Mowbray’s decision to take the job and come home. “As a Bermudian,” he wrote, “I would like to show the world what Bermuda can do in this line.” His only stipulation in taking the job was that he would be undisputed master of the finny world he was about to create.
From left: Staff of the Aquarium circa 1940. Susan Constable, Louis S. Mowbray (assistant curator), Joan Higinbothom and Louis L. Mowbray outside the aquarium.
The aquarium opened on February 1, 1928. The Governor lauded the Department of Works for so closely obliging Mowbray’s desire to give the colony a state-of-the-art facility. The Royal Gazette praised Mowbray’s “artistic housing” of the aquarium’s fishy “inmates” in spacious 8x7x4-feet tanks. Gardens were soon added and an expedition boat, the Iridio, was christened. A staff of seven, including an all-important engineer to keep the pumps going 24-7 and Mowbray’s son Louis S. as assistant curator, went to work. In June 1928, as if in homage to Philip Gosse, the new Bermuda aquarium dispatched angel and trigger fish to the Regent’s Park Aquarium in London.
The aquarium was an instant success. By 1930, it had welcomed 40,000 visitors. Advertising for Bermuda tourism prominently featured the island’s newest attraction as place where a “riot of marine animals may be seen under the most favourable conditions.” Outside experts were also impressed. Harvard’s Edward Marks told The Bermudian that he thought it was “the best I have ever seen, not even excepting the one in Naples.” A profile in the Chicago Tribune noted that Mowbray was “as plump and cordial as the typical scientist is anemic and solemn, [and] that his institution is characterised by quality, not quantity.” Local hotels celebrated this prestige by serving an “aquarium cocktail,” a mixture of Barbados rum, lime juice and Cointreau.
Like Bermuda tourism as a whole, with its emphasis on quality over quantity, the aquarium grew through the Great Depression. Finally, Mowbray was indisputably in charge of his own show. He instinctively knew how to hold the public’s attention. Helmet diving was introduced on Harrington Sound, allowing tourists to descend into the marine world wearing a crude underwater breathing apparatus. In 1936, the Assembly voted funds for the addition of a natural history museum and zoo to the aquarium.
All the while, Mowbray maintained his reputation as a professional zoologist. He published his Fauna Bermudensis, the culmination of decades’ of observation of Bermuda birds. Journals published Mowbray articles on the behaviour of the Pacific whale shark and the Bermuda large-eyed tuna. He toured European aquaria, noting with dismay that the great aquaria in Naples and Monte Carlo were feeling the pinch of Depression hard times. He successfully agitated for a law to limit the hunting of sea turtles around Bermuda. In these years, Mowbray shared the publicity stage with American marine adventurer William Beebe, who in 1934 descended a remarkable 3,026 feet into the Atlantic off Bermuda in his bathysphere. Beebe became a sensation, quite literally shedding light on an aquatic world hitherto unknown to man. Mowbray was cool towards Beebe’s showmanship, regarding his discoveries more the result of imagination than scientific discipline.
But it was in building the aquarium’s collection that Mowbray left his greatest mark. Here his ambition was to make the aquarium not just a window on the seas that surrounded Bermuda, but on the oceans in general. So, while the aquarium showcased local sea turtles and spiny lobsters, it also became home to marine life from the seven seas. In some ways, Mowbray and his ilk in the thirties saw themselves as zoological engineers, intervening in nature by moving fish species out of their native habitats. The aquarium boasted a fish hatchery where fish could be incubated for display or introduction to local waters. In 1932, Mowbray, for instance, imported species of fish from more northern waters in an attempt “to augment the food producing varieties in Bermudian waters.” Other tropical fish were transplanted from Florida waters. At the same time, he freely sent Bermuda fish to other aquaria and to be introduced into alien waters. In many of these cases, the transplanting failed; even Louis Mowbray learned that nature often knew best.
Mowbray and Vincent Astor (seated) with friends on board Astor’s yacht Nourmahal, 1938.
But it was as a collector of exotic species that Mowbray excelled. By 1941, when it began styling itself the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo, visitors to Flatts might gaze not just on fish, but on exotic birds, tortoises, reptiles and animals. Mowbray acquired a reputation for arriving home in Bermuda from his globetrotting with, as The Bermudian styled it, his “live loot”. In this, he had a generous and active patron to thank: the American millionaire Vincent Astor. The aquarium existed on a closely-regulated government stipend; indeed Mowbray frequently complained about the fiscal limits placed on him. But the government did respect Mowbray’s autonomy and his ingenuity. He had come back from the States not only an ichthyologist, but also a skilled seeker of assistance from patrons. In Vincent Astor, Mowbray found both a lover of nature and a lover of Bermuda.
Astor was born rich. His family was entwined with America’s capitalist ascendancy. Fur trading, railway development and urban real estate had made the Astors one of America’s blue ribbon families. The Astors famously controlled the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, but also owned the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and many high-end Manhattan office buildings.
Born in 1891, Vincent had control of this empire unexpectedly thrust upon him when his father, John Jacob Astor IV, went down with the Titanic in 1912. Vincent quickly proved a different kind of Astor, styling himself simply as Vincent Astor. He was not oblivious to the dictates of business – in the 1930s he gained control of New York’s St. Regis Hotel and Newsweek magazine – but his real passion lay in social reform and philanthropy. He befriended “New Deal” President Franklin Roosevelt, backed New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s attack on the slums and lent his wealth to good causes. The Bermuda Aquarium became such a cause.
Like many rich Americans, Astor saw Bermuda as a haven from the pressures of plutocratic life. In the early 1930s, he built a sprawling home at Ferry Reach, connecting it to the nearby Bermuda Railway with his own mini-railway (modeled on the Baltimore & Ohio). He would arrive in Bermuda in grand style on his magisterial 265 foot yacht, the Nourmahal. But the Nourmahal was more than a floating palace; Astor had her fitted with special tanks that could transport living marine life. And he put her at the disposal of aquaria eager to diversify their collections.
A team of men carry a 200-year-old Galapagos tortoise in a sling, 1928. The tortoise is headed for Astor’s yacht to be taken to the aquarium in Bermuda.
Within months of the Bermuda aquarium’s opening in 1928, Astor delivered a shipment of Galapagos turtles to the aquarium. The world’s largest land turtle, the Galapagos turtle, had fascinated Charles Darwin because he could detect slight evolutionary differences in the turtles depending on which of the Galapagos Islands the subspecies had developed. Some years later, Astor delivered a mature male turtle from the Galapagos and the Bermuda aquarium was able to breed their own turtles. The plodding behemoths became an instant tourist attraction. Mowbray fancifully prophesied that he would soon be able to distribute offspring to Bermuda households “to aid in dispersing of waste vegetable odds and ends”.
In Astor, Mowbray found the perfect patron: well-heeled and not bent on having his own way. As such, Astor’s beneficence gave the Bermuda Aquarium a financial and zoological reach it could never have expected from the humble colonial government it served. In return, Mowbray gave Astor the thrill of being part of a biological adventure, of helping to connect man and nature, of making himself socially useful. Mowbray found other ways of showing his gratitude to his patron. When Astor installed a huge glass-walled aquarium in his Ferry Reach home, Mowbray regularly stocked it with fish.
In February 1933, Mowbray and Astor set off on their grandest adventure. The Nourmahal had just taken newly-elected President Roosevelt on his pre-inaugural cruise. It quickly became a scientific vessel and sailed for Havana, then through the Panama Canal for Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos. There, Mowbray and his staff collected penguins, cormorants and iguana lizards. En route home, they stopped in the remote Cocos Islands south-west of Costa Rica, where tropical fish were gathered. Astor pulled strings with the American-controlled Panama Canal Authority to enable the Nourmahal to sail at speed through the Canal so that the salt-water fish tanks on board would not be contaminated by canal freshwater. The 6,000-mile voyage ended triumphantly in St. George’s harbour, from where the aquarium launch ferried the “live loot” to its new home. The penguins soon produced offspring. In his passion to acculturate new species to Bermuda, Mowbray released some of the iguanas on Charles Island in Castle Harbour When letters to The Royal Gazette complained that the free-ranging lizards were bad for tourism, Mowbray gathered up his reptiles.
By 1939, annual visitorship to the aquarium reached 34,500. Mowbray’s grandson Louis remembers being trotted over to the aquarium for a photo-op whenever prestigious visitors came for a visit. The 1938 visit of Astor and child star Shirley Temple got the grandson into The New York Times. Canada’s Prime Minister Mackenzie King came to call on Mr. Mowbray’s fish.
Through all this, there was never any doubt that this was Louis Mowbray’s aquarium. Today, we would say that he had a controlling personality. From the day he first took charge on Agar’s Island he had devoted every waking moment to his aquarium and its fish. When war came in 1939 and took the tourists away from Bermuda’s shores and reduced the aquarium’s staff and budget, Mowbray redoubled his energy. Wartime military personnel now came to see the fish. Mowbray offered free admission to anyone who had survived a ship sinking, perhaps implying that his was a better way to see the marine world.
In 1943, it all caught up with him. Mowbray suffered a devastating cerebral hemorrhage. He never returned to his work. His son Louis took over the curatorship in 1948 and carried it forward into the late 1960s. Louis senior spent the last decade of his life an invalid at his home at the head of Flatts Inlet. One imagines that he longingly watched the aquarium’s expedition boat setting out from the inlet to the ocean that had so long drawn him to its mysteries. When he died in June 1952, The Royal Gazette praised him as “one who always worked hard in the public service of the colony and brought credit to her shores”.
So when you next gaze on the tortoises, squirrelfish, morays, slippery dicks, octopi, puddingwives and seals at the Bermuda aquarium give a thought to the man who taught Bermudians that there was more to the sea than menace and mystery.