Self-taught Gilbert Klingel was my inspiration to become a marine scientist.
His article, “One Hundred Hours Beneath the Chesapeake” in National Geographic (May 1955) featured color photos by Willard C. Culver that were among the first taken from beneath a temperate estuary. These images were taken from inside the Aquascope, a diving vessel invented by Klingel that was lowered into the waters off Gwynn Island in the Chesapeake Bay. This Aquascope is on now display in the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, MD.
Earlier, Klingel’s book, “The Bay” (Dodd, Mead & Co, 1951), describes the Chesapeake as he’d known it all the way back to his childhood decades earlier, and would earn its author the John Burroughs Medal from the American Museum of Natural History.
In it, Klingel writes of being lowered by a chain hoist is his Bentharium—a predecessor to the Aquascope—to the bottom of the Chesapeake off Solomons Island. Small fish from shallower depths followed his electric floodlights 50 feet down into the darkness. They, and a big crab, fed eagerly and at length on a bag of bait tied outside the observing chamber.
There was no sign of either hypoxia (extremely low oxygen) or anoxia (the absence of oxygen) which today characterize summer water conditions below a depth of 30 feet, or the pycnocline, the barrier between the fresher water on the surface and the denser, saltier water along the bottom. This “dead zone" has made regional and national news and has become a political football, kicking blame about among regulatory agencies, journalists and Bay advocacy organizations.
In a passage about jellyfish from a July in the mid-1940s, he reports: “I was standing (in my diving suit) on the Bay bottom in about 25 feet of water. It was high noon and a heavy wind was blowing on the surface; whitecaps were breaking and spreading their froth in wide streamers. The boat from which I had descended was jumping crazily up and down but near the Bay floor there was no hint of the turmoil except for the light captured by the facets of the waves and focused downward in long yellow shafts.”
This description of water clarity—not remarkable for that time—was simply incidental to Klingel’s story. If there is such water column visibility in the mid-summer Chesapeake today, I’d love to experience it!
Klingel, who spent 24 hours listening to the sounds along 20 miles of the Middle Patuxent marshes, catalogs the progression of one group of avian, mammalian, insect or amphibian species to another along what he describes as “this lovely valley of wild rice and waving cat-tails.”
Between 3 a.m. and dawn, he notes, “For a long while I listened and there was no sound. (He drifts off to sleep)…When I woke again…the swamp was still invisible and was still silent. But as I listened there came from far out in the center one low, clear note. For a long time it was the only sound.”
Try to duplicate that today, wherever on the still beautiful Patuxent you may be amid the almost ceaseless background noise of military and commercial aircraft, the distant rush of highway noise and the roar of a semi downshifting.
The river’s once-abundant wild rice is now but a weak remnant, saved from complete eradication by citizen planting and predator control efforts. Greg Kearns of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center blames non-migratory Canada geese, unheard of in Klingel’s time, for much of the wild rice’s demise.
Back in the 1930s, at a boat shop in Oxford, MD, Klingel supervised the construction of a replica of Spray, the rotund sloop (or yawl, if her small, mizzen mast was used) in which Capt. Joshua Slocum became the first man to sail solo around the world in 1898.
Klingel, who was particularly interested in herpetology, named the vessel Basilisk, after genus of small American lizards with crests from their back to their tail. It was fitted out as a biological laboratory with the help of the American Museum of Natural History—the 1930s equivalent of a modern research grant—for an expedition to gater information on rare species in the West Indies, especially lizards.
Klingel set sail from Baltimore in late autumn, taking shelter from a gale behind Sharps Island (which had not yet eroded away), and passing “a fleet of milling oyster boats dredging on the bars.” There were, that late in the year, still jellyfish in the mid-Bay as he and a friend, Wally Coleman, sailed in a dense fog.
Departing Hampton Roads for the Atlantic, Klingel and Coleman encountered a four-masted trading schooner, Purnell T. White, near the Virginia Capes. This ship would be wrecked eight days later in a storm that would also harry the Basilisk.
The two explorers made shift to navigate his robust vessel through the Caribbean. They survived the storm at sea, only to be shipwrecked on the then primitive Bahamian island of Great Inagua.
Pretty much without money and with only what possessions they could salvage from the wreck, they lived in a shore-side ruin and successfully completed much of their natural history agenda, as well as learning to relate with a suspicious local population that was sometimes exploitive of outsiders.
Klingel’s voyage, fate and accomplishments are graphically described in “The Ocean Island” (Doubleday Anchor, 1940).
He returned to Maryland around the time of World War II. It was difficult to make a living as a writer, so Klingel taught himself enough metallurgy to snare a job with ARMCO Steel in Baltimore, eventually becoming their chief metallurgist. While the art of Klingel’s life may have been writing, the spine of it would become metallurgy.
Perhaps the fate of the Basilisk had a hand in his later expertise building metal boats, which often handle reef and rock encounters essentially unscathed. While in Baltimore Klingel built nearly a dozen boats. He later co-authored “Boatbuilding with Steel: Including Boatbuilding with Aluminum” with noted yacht designer Thomas Colvin (International Marine Publishing Co., 1973).
I wrote to Klingel in 1978, hoping to meet him and get his pulse on the Bay. I received an enthusiastic reply: “I am sure there are a lot of subjects about our wonderful Bay that we can hash over. If you come by boat we have a mooring stake for you to tie to or a good anchorage just off the yard in Milford Haven just a short distance past the Gwynn Island Bridge.”
Klingel’s Gwynn Island Boat Yard had started as a weekend operation—an avocation almost—but he was soon turning out hull after hull.
After his book on steel and aluminum boat building became popular, people from far and wide came to his boat yard on the mouth of Virginia’s Piankatank River for advice. This big, generous man obliged all comers—a friend in Solomons, hearing I was to visit Klingel, sent greetings and thanks for counsel given long before.
My visit that December was a momentous one for Klingel, who that day launched what he planned as his final steel boat, the Green Heron.
Her design was an experiment, and incorporated the design of two shallow draft, flat-bottomed “gundalow” and “radeau” hulls which fought on the northern lakes during the American Revolution. Her bow and stern featured the symmetry of the gundalow, and the shovel form from the radeau. Unlike its historical predecessors, the Heron was, of course, welded steel and tough as a nail. This compromise enabled him to cruise the Chesapeake’s thin and labyrinthian tributary waters, as opposed to the open ocean.
For Green Heron’s rig, Klingel incorporated the lateen sail, which was used on dhows in the Red Sea, Christopher Columbus’ Nina and Algerian xebecs of the Mediterranean Barbary pirates. Its short mast is helpful both with low, fixed bridges, and in heavy chop, where tall spars cause an accentuated roll.
The sail is triangular and raised on a very long yard which peaks with one end far above the masthead and the other carried low and near the forward deck. It behaves quite like a modern fore and aft sail, allowing the vessel to point quite close to the wind.
For the christening and launching of this little vessel, he and his wife, Virginia, had gathered what were certainly the boating cognoscenti of Eastern Neck Virginia. These included his co-author Colvin, and boat designers Pete Culler and Roger Moorman. The latter, in 1951, had built the first fiberglass one-design, a class racing boat known as the Mobjack.
In dedicating Green Heron, Klingel invoked ancient history yet again to remind his audience that the breaking of a champagne bottle across the bow of a new vessel, which his wife, Virginia, was about to perform, harks back to pagan times when other sacrifices were made to appease the unknown forces a new ship was about to face.
Afterward, Klingel took us to his office, where the walls were dotted with photos of his adventures. There was an etching which he had received from actor Lionel Barrymore on meeting him once in Baltimore.
“These sketches have some value now” Klingel mused, “and were more important to Barrymore than his acting.”
He reminisced about the Chesapeake Bay of previous decades, starting with his time around Solomons, where he said that between Cove and Drum points, he personally knew of 30 bald eagle nests. Today, this area is home to thousands of people, but no bald eagles.
When he and Virginia arrived at little Gwynn Island, at the mouth of the Piankatank, there were six nests; by 1978, the male of the sole surviving pair had been shot dead.
Klingel said that he strongly believed that the Bay was in “exponential” decline. My logbook of the visit records: “He represents the careful integration of 60 linked sequential years observation at Gwynn Island. One must seriously consider such judgment against the feeble perspective (of my own monitoring off Calvert Cliffs, then concluding after four years).”
When asked if the rich natural resource harvests frequently referred to in the Chesapeake’s past were simply chance events recorded because they were unusual, Klingel said no. He added that on any summer’s day he could go out and fill a basket with croaker or spot. The best of the lot were cooked; the rest used to slop the hogs. Regularly, using just a dip-net, he could fill a bushel basket with crabs.
Klingel recalled that during his childhood, stakes were driven into the bottom of Gwynn Island’s shallows, and allowed to foul with barnacles and other marine growth. As this growth amplified, the stakes assumed the role of artificial reefs and attracted sheepshead porgy, which used their beaklike jaws to feed on the mollusks and crustaceans growing over such substrates. While feeding, they could be taken on a hook and line, a 20-pounder not being unusual. By 1978, Klingel said, virtually none remained.
Klingel’s observation is supported by Samuel F. Hildebrand and William C. Schroeder in their 1928 book, “Fishes of the Chesapeake”: “Some years ago this fish was an important commercial species in the Bay…but at the present time the species has almost entirely disappeared…In some sections of its Atlantic Coast range this fish furnishes much sport for the angler, as it is said formerly to have done in Chesapeake Bay.”
Derek Orner at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office says that Maryland’s commercial harvest of sheepshead porgy from 1995-2000 totaled 500 pounds. The Virginia catch of 600–1,000 pounds annually near the Bay-ocean confluence is minuscule on the scale of other fisheries.
Dr. Ed Houde at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory on Solomons Island says that sheepshead—hard bottom feeders—were a staple in the Native American diet, based on evidence in pre-colonial middens.
He and Dr. Dave Secor, also at Solomons, say that the sheepshead’s decline accompanied a major ecosystem shift as extensive hard substrates like oyster reefs disappeared. They view this as a signal event for the Bay’s overall decline.
Klingel also had an early appreciation for the ecological significance of Chesapeake forage species, small schooling fish preyed on by many sport and commercial species. He described how during dives in the 1940s, he regularly passed through dense horizontal bands of bay anchovies 1.5–3-feet thick, at depths of 5–20 feet. He said this abundance did not exist in his more recent descents.
Few people dive and make such observations in the Chesapeake today, especially given the reduction in water clarity. Dr. Steve Brandt, in the 1990s, though, used recently developed acoustic imaging techniques and also saw horizontal banding in the bay anchovy distribution.
Bay anchovy are still the most abundant fish by numbers in Chesapeake Bay. Houde thinks they may sense the density change which signals the pycnocline and aggregate there instinctively. Below that depth, when oxygen gets below 3.0 parts per million, fish and crabs begin to swim away from it.
On menhaden, arguably the Bay’s most important forage fish, and certainly its largest commercial harvest species, Klingel was equally firm. Menhaden used to occur, he noted “in schools acres in extent (and) now rarely exceed room size, as a result of fishing pressure.”
This certainly reflects my own observations over 30 years in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake.
Commercial menhaden harvests still rose in the late 1970s because of better gear and the use of spotter planes, which help to locate schools that former fishermen could not see from the crow’s nests of their ships. The result, Klingel said, was fewer and especially smaller menhaden to filter microscopic plankton from the Bay’s waters.
He further hypothesized that the once-abundant menhaden might have filtered out enough juvenile sea nettles to permit the general summerlong swimming he remembered. Even so, this wasn’t always enough—Klingel, in “The Bay,” and others from the mid-18th century on wrote about incidents when the abundance of nettles posed a serious impediment to being in the water.
Klingel’s interest in wildlife was not limited to the Bay and the man was full of suprises that afternoon. “Look at this,” he said, walking over to a credenza, and opening a lepidopterist’s collection kit. In an adjacent case were scores of beautiful, mounted butterflies he’d collected over the years. He would carry the kit aboard while sailing and flex his follow-the-wind cruising style to add to his collection. He would also detour to take in an opera, he allowed, with a twinkle in his eye...if he held advance tickets!
We parted with an agreement that this contact would be the first of many to share observations. But the pressures of a new job and the purchase of our home intervened. Before we could meet again, Klingel became ill and died in May 1983. All those memories and insights he’d not written down gone forever.
The Gwynn Island Museum, which contains memorabilia related to Gilbert Klingel, is open 1–5 p.m. Friday through Sunday. For information, call 804-725-7949.