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A Flash of Green
by Walt Mills

There is a storm swept group of islands 70 miles beyond Key West called the Dry Tortugas. The Spanish found them almost 500 years ago and named them after the sea turtles that waded onto the sandy shores to lay their eggs. Tortugas is Spanish for turtles. Many ships were wrecked on the reefs until a lighthouse was built there sometime in the 19th century.

From 1904 to 1939, the largest of the islands housed the Western Hemisphere's first tropical marine biology station, run by the  Carnegie Institution. The leader of the research station was a scientist named  Alfred Goldsborough Mayor, who was known as an authority on coral reefs and Medusae, or jelly fish. I recently received a copy of a book about his life, titled Seafaring Scientist, that tells about the founding of the Tortugas Marine Biology Laboratory and Mayor's adventures traveling the world in search of the mysteries of the coral reefs of Samoa, Fiji, and other South Pacific islands.

My grandfather went with him on a number of voyages as his engineer, usually in charge of the ocean drilling into the coral reefs. He was also chief engineer of the research station on Tortugas, and every year from March until September, when the hurricane season came, my grandfather worked on the island, sailed and maintained the research vessels, rebuilt the buildings after storms, and made the equipment the visiting scientists needed for their work.

I have heard stories and legends all my life about my grandfather's trips to the South Seas with the scientists from the Tortugas Station, where he was captain of the research vessel Anton Dohrn, a 70-foot motor yacht he helped to build. It is one thing to hear the stories as a child of headhunters in New Guinea, and hurricanes at sea; it is something else to come across these stories written down in a book, stories in which my grandfather is at best an incidental player.

The book ends in 1922 with Mayor's death. Mayor, who was dying of tuberculosis, got up from bed and wandered out to the beach where he was found lying facedown in the water. My grandfather erected a memorial in the form of a large concrete block with a plaque memorializing his achievements that still stands on the island. Nothing else except some low retaining walls remains of the once famous laboratory, according to the authors.

But the story of the research station on Tortugas does not end there. A scientist named William Longley who had visited the station for many summers took over as director. One of our family legends claims my grandfather built the first underwater camera. That isn't possible, but a little research shows that William Longley did indeed take the first underwater color photographs at Dry Tortugas in 1922. The photographs can be seen on the National Geographic website.

When my father and uncle Bill were boys, they went with my grandfather for summers on Dry Tortugas. I've seen photos of them as young boys in the 1920s and '30s, posing on the dock with fish they caught that are twice as big as they are. In a journal from 1929 kept by a visiting marine biologist named Charles Breder, he mentions on several entries the fish that Capt. Mills' son Billy had caught off the dock. In another entry he writes about seeing the phenomenon of the green flash, the rare illusion of a flare of green light over water after the sun has sunk below the horizon.

History forgets all but a few of us. We get at best a few lines in a book, a tantalizing entry in a journal. For me, those few allusions to my grandfather's life add substance to childhood stories, changing the myths into history. The rest is washed away by time, like the lonely research station on the Dry Tortugas, gone in a flash of green.

(The above column originally appeared in the Centre Daily Times copyright © 2009 by Walter Mills. All rights reserved worldwide. ). 

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