the aquarium: an unveiling of the wonders of the deep sea

I just received an interesting facsimile ordered from Amazon: ‘The Aquarium: an Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep Sea’ by Philip Henry Gosse, first published in 1854. In it, Gosse describes his rock pooling and dredging trips around the Devonshire coast and his experiences with keeping animals and seaweeds in his marine aquarium. I actually do not know of any other book on temperate marine aquariums, so although it is a century-and-a-half old, it might still be the most current source available (not counting writings on the internet of course). It’s a very interesting read; in the early Victorian era, scientists had only just began to realize that plants and seaweeds produced oxygen for instance.

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Of course I first looked up his description of my favourite, the Bushy rainbow wrack Cystoseira tamariscifolia. He was able to have this seaweed survive ‘for some time’ in the aquarium, tying branches of dredged up individuals to pieces of rock. He describes how submerged ‘their pale olive branches become invested with a most brilliant flush of iridescent light hue varying in intensity according to the play of light that falls upon it’, but that this remarkable gorgeousness of colour is not visible out of water (although it kind of is):

“Thus, it may be compared to some Christians, who are dull and profitless in prosperity, but whose graces shine out gloriously when they are plunged into the deep floods of affliction.”

They sure don’t write like that anymore! Gosse’s aquarium was small (2*1.5*1.5 feet), with glass plates set in grooves in a slate bottom and corners of birch-wood. He used ‘white-lead putty’ to fasten the glass, which meant that when he first started up his aquarium, everything died within the first day (except for the mullet fry and beadlet anemones). Lucklily, after proper rinsing, lead poisoning could be prevented in the remainign attempts. Of course he had no pump, filter, chiller or lighting. He however had deviced a means to ‘purify’ the water: a ‘drip-glass’ hung above the aquarium, dripping down two or three gallons a day thus aerating the water. All in all his experiences of which organisms do well in the aquarium and which do not, descriptions of rock pooling adventures and animal behaviour and even musings on the spiritual use of natural history make for a very interesting read.

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