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On the bustling docks of New Orleans, Louisiana, just before he boarded the merchant ship Delos and left to cross the Atlantic, John James Audubon purchased a baby alligator for a dollar. He likely thought the animal would be fun to draw, and the live specimen might impress the naturalists of Britain when he delivered his paper “Observations of the Natural History of the Alligator.” If his baby alligator, long hair, or French accent did not attract curious looks from the crew and fellow passengers, surely did his additional luggage of an enormous wooden portfolio, lined with tin to protect against shipboard rodents, which held over 300 drawings and paintings of birds. No one on deck at the time, including Audubon, could know that as a result of this voyage and that portfolio, he would go on to be a celebrity in his day and not only one of the most famous painters of wildlife in North American history, but the namesake, some two centuries later, of hundreds of birding societies and nature centers and a near synonym across the continent for environmental conservation.
The Delos pulled away from the dock in the early evening of May 17, 1826. Its primary business was to carry cargo, and Audubon, traveling alone, was one of the few passengers. His mission was to find and convince both a quixotic publisher and a group of deep-pocketed patrons to purchase on subscription his book of paintings of all the birds of North America, printed life-size.
At age 41, Audubon had enough experiences on the sea to recognize that he far more enjoyed traveling and drawing in the forest and the field than he did on boats or ships. Yet it was the coasts and oceans that shaped and enabled so much of Audubon’s life and work, a fact that has been largely breezed over by biographers. Even today, as his racist writings and actions require a new reckoning, Audubon’s art and observations about marine life and human life at sea remain rare and compelling accounts from the 19th century, useful for today’s environmental historians, ornithologists, literary scholars, and environmentalists.
“In a few minutes I found myself severely afflicted with seasickness,”* Audubon wrote in his journal about first entering the open water of the Gulf of Mexico. He had suffered seasickness on his previous crossings of the Atlantic, and it would be a malady that plagued him for the rest of his life whenever he was on the ocean. This time, though, Audubon scribbled that it didn’t last long because there was little wind and, though it was the middle of the night, he stayed on deck eating, drinking, and “forcing [himself] to exercise constantly.”
Audubon’s journal aboard the Delos, filled with emotional daily entries and several ink and pencil drawings, is the only primary document that remains from his time at sea. Yet before he died in 1851, he would make a total of 12 ocean crossings and dozens of coastal trips around England, France, and North America, from Galveston, Texas, to the Strait of Belle Isle between Newfoundland and Labrador. All his saltwater travels, sketches, and observations found expression in his dramatic and accurate paintings of birds: about 40 percent of the 435 plates in The Birds of America are seabirds, shorebirds, and waterbirds. He also included his observations of life at sea in his Ornithological Biography, a five-volume tome of descriptive essays to accompany the paintings. Audubon’s biographies are lively, lofty, anthropomorphic accounts of individual species structured around his adventures killing and then painting the given bird. These often-brutal hunts were common practice among naturalists in his era interested in baseline anatomy before the age of photography. In Ornithological Biography, Audubon also published stories that included, for example, accounts of the tides in the Bay of Fundy, cod fishing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, turtle hunting on the Florida Keys, and a yarn about the death of an unrepentant pirate in the Everglades.
The voyage aboard the Delos provided Audubon exceptional material. Although their progress was maddeningly slow at first and the heat stifling, the conditions allowed Audubon time to observe, write, and draw. He shot a peregrine falcon that had alighted on one of the ship’s yards. He drew a noddy tern, which a crew member captured when it landed on the ship. Around his sketch of this tern, Audubon scrawled notes on the colors and relative dimensions for his future painting. On another day, with a telescope, he watched a magnificent frigate bird soar impossibly high in the thermals.
Birds were Audubon’s first love and the focus of his career at the time, but his natural history interests were far-ranging. Aboard the Delos, he measured and drew a barracuda they captured. The crew harpooned a dolphin, which they kept overnight so that Audubon could dissect it the following morning. He noted the squid inside the dolphin’s stomach and how the still-warm intestines resembled those of a hog. True to his era, Audubon wrote of the marine mammal as a warm-blooded, air-breathing “fish.” His captain and cabin mate, Joseph Hatch, Jr., surely ordered it cooked and served, since, as Audubon wrote later in his journal, the captain loved to eat dolphin, preferring this “flesh to the best of veal, beef, or mutton.”
On another day, Audubon drew a female sandbar shark, and his observations reveal that even in the 1820s sailors and naturalists had a particular antipathy to sharks. He and the men opened up the 2.1-meter-long shark’s abdomen, chose one of the 10 living fetuses they found inside, and threw it into the ocean to see if it could swim away: it did. They then cut another fetus in two and watched the “head half” swim off before finishing things up by cutting the mother and her pups into strips to use as bait for mahimahi.
As the sailors fished for mahimahi for both food and sport, Audubon observed, drew, and dissected these fish, too, all described later in his essay “A Long Calm at Sea.” Here he wrote polished prose about the mahimahi’s abundance and how he watched them “gleaming like meteors” as they swam through bioluminescence at night. He described the mahimahi’s style of hunting, diet, and predators, and, as they died, the famous fading of their colors, “a blaze of all the hues of the rainbow intermingled.” These behaviors and traits, if romanticized and anthropomorphized by Audubon, all match modern observations of these fish, which he knew as dolphinfish. In one mahimahi’s stomach he found 22 fish, each 15 to 18 centimeters long, “like so many salted herrings packed in a box.” From the orientation of the fish, he concluded that mahimahi “always swallows its prey tail foremost,” presumably making the emphasis because this, to an ornithologist, seemed rare, since seabirds usually try to swallow fish head first to manage spines going down their throat.
Becalmed, the Delos drifted in the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida for five weeks, an excruciating amount of time to sail from the mouth of the Mississippi to the open North Atlantic, but the slow path continued to offer the artist a stable platform in a prolific area for marine life, providing inspiration for his paintings that would transform wildlife art on both sides of the Atlantic: seabirds soaring, diving, swimming daintily on the sea’s translucent surface, or veering aggressively in storm-tossed troughs. Before Audubon, nearly all published illustrations of seabirds tended to be static, lifeless representations. This passage on the Delos also inspired Audubon’s pen: he would craft stories set in the Straits of Florida with a naturalist’s specificity that few American authors would match in this region for over a century, arguably not until Ernest Hemingway sent his old man rowing out of Havana, Cuba, in 1952.
Audubon’s art has undeniable verve and staying power. His writings and observations, if fanciful and often skewed more toward a good yarn than hard analysis, still provide anchoring points for marine science and conservation. A large proportion of his bird biographies end with appendices, probably co-written with the Scottish naturalist-artist William MacGillivray, which discuss taxonomy, measure dissected organs and skeletal parts, and illustrate with woodcuts the viscera and bones of specimens. Jean-François Rail, a seabird biologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, explains that he and earlier scientists have used Audubon’s observations of northern gannet colonies on Bird Rocks in the Gulf of St. Lawrence as a baseline to examine population shifts and even coastal erosion over time. Audubon provided information that is anecdotal, but, according to Rail, his descriptions of what was then the largest northern gannet colony in the world are accurate and detailed, including useful information on the timing of nesting and the weight of juveniles.
Storm petrels, the smallest of open-ocean seabirds, are another good example of the utility of Audubon’s accounts for a range of audiences today. Storm petrels seem to have been Audubon’s favorite seabirds. He painted three different species—the Wilson’s storm petrel, the Leach’s storm petrel, and the European storm petrel—and he wrote biographical accounts of the first two.
Sabina Wilhelm, a colleague of Rail’s who monitors storm petrel colonies in Newfoundland and Labrador, calls Audubon’s records “pure gold.” Even two centuries later, Wilhelm says that Audubon’s details on storm petrels are fascinating and surprisingly accurate given he never actually set foot himself in a storm petrel colony. “He was obviously very observant—and brilliant,” she says.
Audubon left careful descriptions of storm petrels, in part because he observed in an era when slow, quiet time under sail was nearly the only option for ocean travel. (At times, though, his storm petrel watching wasn’t so relaxing, such as when he once hunted them from a small boat and became so seasick he needed to be hoisted back aboard the ship, slumped in a chair.) He wrote in detail of the Wilson’s storm petrel at sea, noting its range from land, feeding behaviors, and kee-re-kee kee call. Audubon put this storm petrel’s shape and action in flight to words, explaining that it is “more lively” and flies with “wings nearly at right angles with its body,” traits that can still be useful to distinguish this species from the other two storm petrels in the North Atlantic.
Audubon welcomed knowledge from sailors, naturalists, fishermen, and anyone who could help him build a picture of migration routes and rookeries. His description of the breeding range of the Leach’s storm petrel matches what scientists have observed today, that is, until he (or MacGillivray) threw in a record of breeding far to the north beside Baffin Bay, which almost certainly could not have been true. Still, Audubon’s writings provide researchers like Wilhelm with rare information regarding range, general abundance, and diet in the early decades of the Industrial Revolution, since there are just so few historical records accessible today. Because they spend so much time offshore and require isolated, mammal-free islands for breeding, seabirds, and in particular storm petrels, were poorly studied, which makes Audubon’s records all the more precious. Wilhelm explains that it hasn’t really been until the last few years, with the development of tracking devices, that we’ve learned the full picture of the daily and winter ranges of these seabirds.
Audubon’s writing on storm petrels is perhaps most significant today as a cultural record. Although he wrote that these birds or their eggs were not a commodity for feathers or food in 19th-century Atlantic Canada, storm petrels have a long history of being demonized by Anglophone sailors and those ashore, who depicted them as little dark birds, little witches, or the Mother Carey’s chickens that brewed bad weather. Yet both he and Captain Hatch felt a certain kinship with storm petrels, believing them to be helpful, serving as harbingers of heavy weather. Audubon described them as small and vulnerable during gales. He liked to feed them off the stern (even though he was just as happy to shoot them if the seas were calm enough for retrieval). Wilhelm explains that in Newfoundland and Labrador today, it’s easy to get community members to help out a puffin when it gets stranded ashore, but many people will not touch a storm petrel. Wilhelm says, “People think they’re stinky birds. They think they’re maggoty. They treat them completely differently.” The folklore behind storm petrels, she says, has surely crafted some of today’s negative response to these particular birds and people’s unwillingness to help them.
Earlier than most colonial observers, Audubon recognized the negative impact of early 19th-century hunting on seabird populations. One of the hooks upon which modern readers have hung their ideas of Audubon’s progressive environmentalism was something he wrote in 1833, when he was aboard the schooner Ripley on a collecting voyage. Here, predicting the demise of seabirds like the common murre, Audubon was exceptionally critical of the egg harvesters and fishermen raiding the islands of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. He depicted the harvesters as drunken, filthy, “destructive pirates” who heedlessly trampled the nests and chicks as they gathered eggs on these remote rookeries and massacred the birds for feather, food, or fish bait. Audubon urged the enforcement of British laws in the hopes of protecting seabirds so little known to the general public.
Through his 19th-century eyes, Audubon’s accounts help us understand the history of our relationships with marine life. His textual and visual observations capture a time for which we have few wildlife records, and his skills as an artist, storyteller, and naturalist continue to inspire, providing utility not just to marine science, but also to modern conservation movements and campaigns, especially for species like storm petrels that receive less public attention. Yet if environmentalists want to elicit empathy for seabirds with careful readings of Audubon’s art and prose, and ornithologists want to mine his work for past observations, Audubon’s personal record regarding race and ethnicity needs careful scrutiny. As he crossed the North Atlantic aboard the Delos, for example, he wrote in his journal about the ship’s steward, a Black man, whom he mocked for his superstitions about judging the edibility of certain fish and his attempts at speaking French. Audubon’s descriptions and tone are particularly racist and harsh here, describing at one point the white men in the cabin having a laugh at the steward’s expense when he had a stretch of red shirt sticking out of his fly like a phallus. There is a long history of mistreatment and racist representations of minority cooks and stewards aboard ships, which still lingers today, but Audubon’s private entry here was not just him being swept along with this attitude aboard the Delos.
Audubon’s Ornithological Biography and his private writings are occasionally pierced with painful descriptions of Black Americans and Indigenous people, at times with a condescending noble-savage tone, while at other times Audubon used hateful, dismissive language about entire cultures. When he was sailing on that collecting voyage around the Gulf of St. Lawrence, showing sympathy for murre populations, he observed a small group of Mi’kmaq people in Newfoundland. “We found them, as I expected,” Audubon wrote in a journal later edited and published by his wife, Lucy, “all lying down pell-mell in their wigwams, and a strong mixture of blood was perceptible in their skins, shape, and deportment: some were almost white, and sorry I am to say, that the nearer they were to our nobler race the filthier and the lazier they were. The women and children were particularly disgusting in this respect.”
Nor were these views limited to his writings. Audubon was born in Haiti as the illegitimate son of a French chambermaid who died only months after his birth. His father, a French merchant, captain, and slave trader, later brought young Audubon and his half-sister, Rose, to France to escape the Haitian Revolution of 1804. After Audubon emigrated to America and later married Lucy Bakewell, they moved to Kentucky, where they purchased and sold nine enslaved people to help them run their household, a store, and a steam-powered flour and lumber mill. Later, after that business failed and they moved to Louisiana, Lucy enslaved a mother and her two sons while Audubon was overseas. Much of the hunting and exploring for birds that Audubon conducted throughout the American South, for over a decade, was as a guest of plantation owners. He was often accompanied by enslaved people who helped him hunt; they at times fed Audubon and rowed and sailed the naturalist around. Although he was deliberately deceptive and embarrassed throughout his life about his illegitimate birth, Audubon led a life of opportunity. He accepted, acted on, and benefited from the racist views and policies of his time. A certain sad irony seeps into the detail that Audubon’s Delos was carrying 924 bales of cotton from New Orleans to Liverpool, harvested and surely loaded by enslaved people.
“His complicity, even participation in slavery, doesn’t discount Audubon’s art, or what he contributed to ornithology,” says J. Drew Lanham, ornithology professor at Clemson University, South Carolina, and author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature and other works. “But we ultimately have to ask who was this man who we’ve elevated to an ornithological god: the cofounder—with Alexander Wilson—of Western-style American ornithology. Audubon, like any human being, had his flaws. To me it makes for a more interesting story to understand who people are.”
In all his roles as professor, writer, and birding guide, Lanham feels that it’s essential to look at the natural world within a historical and contemporary human context. He’s been involved in the current debate about removing Audubon’s name from bird species and conservation societies. Lanham tells me that when he looks at, for example, the painting of the long-billed curlew, he imagines the lives of Black people that Audubon did not depict. “I’ve read Audubon’s essay about the bird, and I think, who were those ‘servants’ that went off to fish for dinner when they were all out camping,” says Lanham, “and what was happening to Black people in Charleston, in the background of that painting? Nature lovers need to know about their heroes.”
After a weary and anxious Atlantic crossing that took 64 days, Audubon arrived at the Liverpool docks on a rainy Friday in July 1826. He hustled off with his luggage and portfolio. His baby alligator had died because, Audubon admitted privately, he had not realized the animal needed fresh water. Audubon went right to work—part naturalist, part artist, part Barnum-like salesman—socializing and exhibiting and selling his Birds of America project. This magnum opus with English engraver Robert Havell would take over a decade to complete and require multiple trips across the Atlantic and dozens of coastal passages under sail. In Britain, Audubon also presented a few papers to scientific societies, including that one in Edinburgh on the American alligator, in which he conveniently did not mention his lethal mistake with the salt water.
One of the most compelling moments of that voyage occurred out at sea about a week before Audubon arrived in England. The passengers and crew had their first good views of whales. Audubon described one sighting with the enthusiasm and reverence we’d more expect from a 21st-century tourist: “A Whale! a Whale! … I ran up and lo! There rolled most majestically the wonder of the oceans.” He wrote that its body was dark brown and longer than their ship. “One might have thought it was the God of the Seas beckoning us to the shores of Europe—I saw it and therefore believed its existence.”
This profound delight at the sight of a whale belies the reality that Audubon’s ocean ethic, his relationship with the most critical global ecosystem, was not the same as ours today. He died almost a decade before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species and a century before scuba and underwater color photography. He glorified and carefully described mahimahi, storm petrels, whales, and a range of other aquatic animals, but in most cases, this was for the sake of art, a personal pursuit of natural history, which was, in part, a celebration of a Christian god, filtered by white privilege. Audubon lived in an era that could never conceive of human impact on the open-ocean environment, even if he saw, earlier than most, our expanding and destructive dominance on land and coastlines. The records of our shifts in perceptions of the natural world left by our artists and writers is valuable in itself. And however flawed the man, the cultural artifacts that John James Audubon left about the ocean—his paintings and his purple prose—continue to be perceptive sources to learn about human relationships to saltwater spaces and the history of the marine life that inhabits them.
* Some idiosyncrasies of spelling and punctuation in Audubon’s original writings have been altered slightly for clarity.