by Larry Smith
There is a landmark book on the Bahamian marine environment that has become a sought-after collector’s item. Published in 1968 by the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, and some 15 years in the making, the 771-page first edition quickly sold out.
Their guide remains the “primary reference for the identification of West Indian fishes”. Most of the text covers Bahamian marine life, with a page devoted to each species. There are 58 additional species included in the second edition. along with a dedication by Charles Chaplin’s son, Gordon.
According to University of Miami marine biologist Dr Kathleen Sullivan Sealey, who has participated in many research projects in the Bahamas, "you have to consider the importance of such a complete study of Bahamian fish at that time. Very little research had been done, and there was a great deal of economic activity going on without any real documentation.
During the 1950s, the Chaplin family lived in a ramshackle beach house built by Morton Turtle Sr on the western end of Paradise Island, and as a boy Gordon helped collect many of the fish featured in his father’s famous book. He recently published an atmospheric memoir of those experiences, titled Full Fathom Five.
As the liner notes say, Full Fathom Five is an account of "personal and scientific discovery - a status report on climate change unlike any other, both a report from the field and an intensely personal reckoning."
Gordon Chaplin enjoyed a 15-year career as a journalist. But his "dreamlike" early years in the Bahamas were arguably the high point of his life. "In many ways my father’s original study is my sibling. I spent my childhood with it in the Bahamas, went on many collecting expeditions, watched it take shape and grow alongside me."
In the 1960s he was a reporter for Newsweek in Vietnam and then a staff writer for the Washington Post Magazine. Later he moved to California to work in marine conservation, before setting off on a round-the-world sailing cruise with his girlfriend, who tragically drowned during a Pacific typhoon in 1992. He now runs a grass-fed beef operation in New York state. I encountered him briefly last year in Nassau.
Chaplin’s more famous father was born in India, and raised in the United Kingdom. In 1937 he married a wealthy Philadelphia heiress and became an American citizen. An adventurer by heart, with the help of his wife’s money, his fortuitous presence in the Bahamas, and his interest in the sea, he was able to transform himself into one of the authors of a landmark scientific study.
Gordon’s mother was a Catherwood. Her brother, Cummins Catherwood, was an influential stockbroker who had many friends in Nassau high society during the 1940s. So he was able to arrange accommodation on what was then called Hog Island for his brother-in-law, who had been advised to spend time in a warm climate for medical reasons.
“My mother slid into Hog Island society as cosily as into a fitted glove,” the younger Chaplin wrote, “and the British colonials across the harbour opened their arms to my Old Etonian father.” At the time, Hog Island society revolved around a cadre of millionaires who congregated at a watering hole named the Porcupine Club, which much later was transformed into Club Med’s buffet restaurant.
In the early 1950s Chaplin and his young son Gordon began investigating and collecting marine life on their various boating excursions around New Providence. A close family friend named Radclyffe Roberts, of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Phladelphia,was a frequent visitor.
On one occasion Roberts remarked on the number of specimens collected by Chaplin that could not be readily identified: “There might be room for a handbook that includes all these discoveries,” he suggested. “A good two-year project at least. You’ll need a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed post-doc to work with you."
The Academy selected a young scientist named Jim Böhlke, and he and Chaplin became firm friends and research associates. Over the next decade and a half they collected over 5,000 specimens, including 500 species of Bahamian fishes, 65 of them never before described. Dr Böhlke went on to become curator of the Academy’s Department of Ichthyology.
And Chaplin was among a group of big-name conservationists (including Ilya Tolstoy and Robert Porter Allen) who promoted the establishment of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park in 1958, and then helped set up the Bahamas National Trust to spearhead conservation efforts in the islands.
As he wrote in his diary in 1957: “Had a long talk with Ilya, who is very keen on forming a preserve in the Exumas…Warderick Wells or thereabouts. I don’t quite understand how it will work, and it seems a bit far-fetched. However, one must look ahead these days, very far."
Each winter, Böhlke joined the Chaplins on Hog Island for a rigorous daily schedule: “Early tea at 7 am on the porch, then a trip across the harbour to pick up the household workers, and then a substantial breakfast at 9 am. By mid-morning, they loaded the gear into the boat and left to collect, returning to the house by 5 pm. After tea, they processed and inspected the day’s catch and cleaned the boat and gear."
Gordon Chaplin possesses a massive leather-bound collector’s edition of his father’s life work. And when the academy contacted him about undertaking a retrospective study of how the Bahamian reefs had changed since his father’s study - using the original archive as a baseline - he jumped at the chance. He hadn’t been back to the Bahamas in some 30 years.
The idea was to return to a series of locations where reliable measurements had been taken in the past, take new comparable measurements, and then study the ecological changes that had taken place. It would be the first such study ever made of Bahamian reef fishes, and to Chaplin “It seemed a logical evolution, building on my father’s platform and taking it in new directions.
In the mid-2,000s Chaplin’s old homestead on the western end of Paradise Island (then operated as a guest house by Ronnie and Joan Carroll) became his headquarters for the new study. Six years and five expeditions later the Chaplin project (as it came to be called) estimated that coral cover around New Providence, which had been 30 to 40 per cent pre-1970, was now now less than 20 per cent.
“The study includes a grim assessment of the fishes habitat,” Chaplin wrote in his book. “Only local fishermen seem unaware that Bahamian reefs are in as bad if not worse trouble than reefs in other parts of the world, especially the Caribbean. ‘Doomed’ was the verdict of one of our expedition coral experts who studies reefs off Fort Lauderdale.”
The causes of reef decline are many: global warming, disease, bleaching, pollution, rampant algae, hurricanes, overfishing and overdiving. "A recent report from the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network lists global warming as the top threat,” Chaplin explained. “A rise of more than one degree centigrade in your body will give you a fever. In the ocean it can kill coral.”
But regardless of the causes of reef mortality, dead coral will retain its structure for only a limited time, after which it will be eroded. The implications of this for the Bahamian environment and our way of life are ominous.
Species richness might have maintained itself against all odds over the last 50 years, but it is living on borrowed time, Chaplin says. And the conclusion of most scientists is that marine reserves like the Bahamas National Trust's Exuma park, are the best management tool for conserving coral reefs and other marine ecosystems.
“Reserves can’t reverse global warming, but they do foster healthy coral that can better withstand the effects of bleaching. Their fecundity produces not only bigger populations of adults but also more coral and fish larvae that can migrate to other areas.”
When Chaplin was in Nassau last year to attend the Bahamas Reef Environment and Education Foundation’s fundraising ball, he discovered that the house where he spent his happy childhood had been razed to the ground by its last owner, an investor named Kosoy.
In Full Fathom Five, Gordon Chaplin points out that the means of population regeneration are still there, until the dead coral that the fish inhabit crumbles away. "But In the end the collapsing reefs will be abandoned and the fish that lived in them will have no refuge. The world’s most diverse ecosystem will have been destroyed."