In the year 1816, two days before the vernal equinox, I sailed from Liverpool for Pernambuco, in the southern hemisphere, on the coast of Brazil. There is little at this time of the year, in the European part of the Atlantic, to engage the attention of the naturalist. As you go down the Channel you see a few divers and gannets. The middle-sized gulls, with a black spot at the end of the wings, attend you a little way into the Bay of Biscay. When it blows a hard gale of wind the stormy petrel makes its appearance. While the sea runs mountains high, and every wave threatens destruction to the labouring vessel, this little harbinger of storms is seen enjoying itself, on rapid pinion, up and down the roaring billows. When the storm is over it appears no more. It is known to every English sailor by the name of Mother Carey's chicken. It must have been hatched in Aeolus's cave, amongst a clutch of squalls and tempests, for whenever they get out upon the ocean it always contrives to be of the party.
Though the calms and storms and adverse winds in these latitudes are vexatious, still, when you reach the trade-winds, you are amply repaid for all disappointments and inconveniences. The trade-winds prevail about thirty degrees on each side of the equator. This part of the ocean may be called the Elysian Fields of Neptune's empire; and the torrid zone, notwithstanding Ovid's remark, "non est habitabilis aestu," is rendered healthy and pleasant by these gently-blowing breezes. The ship glides smoothly on, and you soon find yourself within the northern tropic. When you are on it Cancer is just over your head, and betwixt him and Capricorn is the high-road of the Zodiac, forty-seven degrees wide, famous for Phaeton's misadventure. His father begged and entreated him not to take it into his head to drive parallel to the five zones, but to mind and keep on the turnpike which runs obliquely across the equator. "There you will distinctly see," said he, "the ruts of my chariot wheels, 'manifesta rotae vestigia cernes.'" "But," added he, "even suppose you keep on it, and avoid the by-roads, nevertheless, my dear boy, believe me, you will be most sadly put to your shifts; 'ardua prima via est,' the first part of the road is confoundedly steep! 'ultima via prona est,' and after that, it is all down- hill! Moreover, 'per insidias iter est, formasque ferarum,' the road is full of nooses and bull-dogs, 'Haemoniosque arcus,' and spring guns, 'saevaque circuitu, curvantem brachia longo, Scorpio,' and steel traps of uncommon size and shape." These were nothing in the eyes of Phaeton; go he would, so off he set, full speed, four in hand. He had a tough drive of it, and after doing a prodigious deal of mischief, very luckily for the world he got thrown out of the box, and tumbled into the River Po.
Some of our modern bloods have been shallow enough to try to ape this poor empty-headed coachman on a little scale, making London their Zodiac. Well for them if tradesmen's bills and other trivial perplexities have not caused them to be thrown into the King's Bench.
The productions of the torrid zone are uncommonly grand. Its plains, its swamps, its savannas and forests abound with the largest serpents and wild beasts; and its trees are the habitation of the most beautiful of the feathered race. While the traveller in the Old World is astonished at the elephant, the tiger, the lion and rhinoceros, he who wanders through the torrid regions of the New is lost in admiration at the cotingas, the toucans, the humming-birds and aras.
The ocean likewise swarms with curiosities. Probably the flying-fish may be considered as one of the most singular. This little scaled inhabitant of water and air seems to have been more favoured than the rest of its finny brethren. It can rise out of the waves and on wing visit the domain of the birds.
After flying two or three hundred yards, the intense heat of the sun has dried its pellucid wings, and it is obliged to wet them in order to continue its flight. It just drops into the ocean for a moment, and then rises again and flies on; and then descends to remoisten them, and then up again into the air; thus passing its life, sometimes wet, sometimes dry, sometimes in sunshine, and sometimes in the pale moon's nightly beam, as pleasure dictates or as need requires. The additional assistance of wings is not thrown away upon it. It has full occupation both for fins and wings, as its life is in perpetual danger.
The bonito and albicore chase it day and night, but the dolphin is its worst and swiftest foe. If it escape into the air, the dolphin pushes on with proportional velocity beneath, and is ready to snap it up the moment it descends to wet its wings.
You will often see above one hundred of these little marine aerial fugitives on the wing at once. They appear to use every exertion to prolong their flight, but vain are all their efforts, for when the last drop of water on their wings is dried up their flight is at an end, and they must drop into the ocean. Some are instantly devoured by their merciless pursuer, part escape by swimming, and others get out again as quick as possible, and trust once more to their wings.
It often happens that this unfortunate little creature, after alternate dips and flights, finding all its exertions of no avail, at last drops on board the vessel, verifying the old remark:
Incidit in Scyllam, cupiens vitare Charybdim.
There, stunned by the fall, it beats the deck with its tail and dies. When eating it you would take it for a fresh herring. The largest measure from fourteen to fifteen inches in length. The dolphin, after pursuing it to the ship, sometimes forfeits his own life.