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AFSC Historical Corner:  The Albatross,  1882 - 1921

Early Pioneers
Research and Mgmt.
The Albatross, 1882
Early BOF Patrol Boats
FWS Vessels
Newer Research Ships
Pribilof Tenders
Launches/Small Craft
Charters/Other Boats
Vessel Links
The Albatross and one of her small steam-powered runabouts.  U.S. Fish Commission photo.

The Ship

In March 1871, Congress was persuaded by Spencer Fullerton Baird to establish the U.S. Fish Commission, which he then directed from 1871 to 1887. In the Commission's first ten years, Baird made use of the hatchery ship Fish Hawk in the northwest Atlantic, collecting numerous specimens while conducting both biological and physical surveys. During this time Baird felt the need for an improved deep-sea research vessel, which he convinced Congress of – the result being a $103,000 appropriation in 1881. After recieving construction bids, it was obvious that more funds were required and in 1882, an additional $87,000 was granted. This decision was influenced by Baird's list of significant benefits for building the new ship:

Vessel Details
Year built: 1882
Location built: Wilmington, DE
Builder: Pusey & Jones Shipyard
Designer: Charles W. Copeland
(New York naval architect)
Length: 234'
Breadth: 27.5'
Tonnage (tons): 1,074
Original engine: steam, twin screws
Speed: 8 knots (10 knots max.)
Cruising range: 3,200 miles
Known skippers:
(Alaska trips) 
Z. L. Tanner  (1890s)
LeRoy Mason Garrett  (1906)
Jefferson Moser  (?)
Alaska service: 1888-1914  (various trips)
Disposition: decommissioned in 1921
sold in 1924
  1. Exploration and study of known fishing areas.
  2. Location of new fishing grounds in the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, and off the Pacific coast.
  3. Major economic benefits would accrue to the nation's seafaring industry by increasing the yield of American fisheries.
  4. The development of U.S. fisheries could make use of the British North American inshore fisheries unnecessary.
  5. Albatross was a national security asset since, in case of need, she could be taken over by the Navy for use as a warship. In fact, this did occur during the Spanish American War and World War I
  6. And finally, Baird acknowledged his basic scientific interest when he stated: "As incidental to the economical inquiry, but of very great interest to the naturalist," the ship will collect "objects of natural history in large quantity otherwise unobtainable"
    (Allard, 1999 1)

"In August 1882, the United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries launched the first vessel built especially for marine research by any government – the steamer Albatross. Perhaps even more impressive than being the first government vessel equipped throughout with electric lights, Albatross has been credited with discovering more new marine species than any other research vessel.

Albatross was specially designed with 4,500 fathoms of 3/8-inch galvanized wire rope and a winch for dredging and collecting bottom samples and animals at any depth. Electric lamps attracted fish and other animals to night light stations, allowing scientists to make underwater observations of marine organisms at night. Two onboard laboratories were used to preserve and study biological materials and chemically analyze water samples."  ("NOAA's Fleet..." historical website).

Transfer to the Pacific

  Albatross' motor tender
Motor tender for the Albatross.
Photo from Pacific Motor Boat, Feb. 1918.

"The building, in 1882, of a staunch sea-going steamer, thoroughly equipped for the purposes of the U. S. Fish Commission, afforded, for the first time, the proper means for studying the extensive ocean fishing-grounds adjacent to the Atlantic seacoast of tho United States. Duriug the five years following her completion the steamer Albatross was actively employed, and with marked success, in this special field of work, the region covered by her operations extending from off Newfoundland to the northern shores of South America.

The interest aroused by these investigations, the utility of which had been fully deinonstrated, led to a demand for the transfer of the Albatross to the North Pacific Ocean, a proposition which met the approval of the late Commissioner of Fisheries, Prof. Spencer F. Baird, and was later sanctioned by Congress. Extensive arrangements were necessary in preparation for so long a cruise, but they were satisfactorily, completed in the fall of 1887, and on November 21 of that year the ship left Norfolk, Va., for San Francisco...

The program arranged for the steamer Albatross contemplated, in the beginning, a somewhat rapid survey or reconnoissance along the entire western coast line, with the object of ascertaining the contour and condition of the bottom wherever the depths were suitable for fishing, the positions and outlines of all distinctive fishing-grounds, and the character and abundance of the food resources...

The Albatross reached San Francisco in May, 1888, and within three years from that time she had completed these preliminary surveys from San Diego to the Strait of Juan de Fuca; along the southern side of the Alaska Peninsula, from Middleton Island to Unalaska; and in the southeastern part of Bering Sea, from Unalaska to the head of Bristol Bay and Cape Newenham."  (Rathbun, 1894 2).

"The U.S. Fish Commission Steamer Albatross made its first cruise to Alaska in 1888 primarily to research the Pacific cod, Gadus macrocephalus; however, Pacific salmon Oncorhynchus spp., was also to be studied, if time permitted. In 1889, concern for salmon overharvesting prompted Congress to authorize an investigation into the habits, abundance, and distribution of Alaska's salmon, and in 1890 the Albatross returned to Alaska. Over the next 20+ years the Albatross made many other productive and pioneering research voyages to Alaska, the last in 1914."  (Roppel, 2004 [abstract] 3).

Since June, 1891, the ship had also been used to investigate certain problems concerning the habits of the fur seals in the North Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea, and to conduct a survey for a potential cable route between California and the Hawaiian Islands."

The 1900s:

"[the iron-hulled Albatross] wrested the sea's secrets from Labrador to Tierra del Fuego on the east coasts of North and South America, sailed throughout the eastern Pacific Ocean and into the Bering Sea, down through the eastern islands and marginal seas of Asia, and as far south as New Zealand.

But the Albatross was more than a fisheries research ship. Out of 6,000 deep-sea soundings tabulated by Sir John Murray in the early 1900s, more than 800 were observed by the Albatross. The ship took water samples and serial temperatures throughout the eastern Atlantic, Caribbean Sea, and Pacific Ocean. It also spent a number of years patrolling the fur seal rookeries of Alaska's Pribilof Islands and Aleutians to protect the animals from poachers.

  Albatross in tow
After nearly 40 years of service the Albatross was decommissioned, a full decade past her planned retirement date.
Northeast Fisheries Science Center photograph archives photo.

The Albatross...benefited from the interaction of naval officers and civilian scientists. Its two most famous commanding officers were Commander Zera Luther Tanner, an inventive man who designed and modified much of the equipment on the ship, and Commander Jefferson Moser, who wrote a number of reports on the fur seals and salmon fisheries of Alaska. The most famous scientist to use the Albatross was Alexander Agassiz, who participated in many expeditions throughout the Pacific Ocean.

George Brown Goode's great work, Oceanic Ichthyology, drew heavily on specimens collected by the Albatross. Roy Chapman Andrews of the American Museum of Natural History, a man who many believe was the model for Steven Spielberg's 'Indiana Jones', sailed on the Albatross during its Philippine expedition of 1907-1910.

Hugh McCormick Smith, deputy director of the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (formerly the Fisheries Commission), led the Philippine expedition and oversaw the collection of more than 27,000 fish species from Philippine waters. This collection was the largest ever to be received by the Smithsonian Institution, and is now housed in NOAA's National Systematics Laboratory, co-located with the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. From the standpoint of oceanic exploration, the Albatross dwarfed all other U.S. efforts during the early 20th Century...

...Dr. Paul Bartsch, of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, included a eulogy for the Albatross in a commemoration of Dr. Hugh Smith, a former Director of the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries. He noted that 'Of all the ships devoted to biological explorations of the sea, none has surpassed the endeavors conducted on board the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries Steamer Albatross during her 39 years of service from 1882 to 1921'"  ("Breakthrough Years, 1866-1922...", Ocean Explorer website).

After her famous Philippine expedition, the vessel returned to continue the West Coast surveys and Alaska research. She was used for an intensive survey of San Francisco Bay from 1912-14, then resumed her West Coast dredging and hydrographic surveys. During World War I, when she was sent to Guantanamo, Cuba, under the U.S. Navy's control to patrol the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. After the war, the Albatross worked along the East Coast from Maine to Cuba.

Due to the excessive cost of coal and other operating expenses, the Albatross was decommissioned on 29 October 1921 at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, She was later sold at auction on 24 June 1924 to Thomas Butler and Company of Boston for $2,276. In July 1928 the vessel sailed for Europe as a training ship for nautical cadets and in October was detained in Hamburg, Germany, for indebtedness -- the crew's demand for unpaid wages resulted in a court decision to auction the ship. No record has been found, however, of an auction or her disposition beyond that time. The Albatross was undoubtedly scrapped for her metal if she was still in Germany at the beginning of World War II.

Albatross photos in the AFSC Multimedia Gallery.

Additional reading:

1 Allard, D. C. 1999. The Origins and Early History of the Steamer Albatross, 1880-1887. Mar. Fish. Rev. 61(4):2-21.  (.pdf, 3.5 MB).
2 Rathbun, R. 1894. Summary of the Fishery Investigations Conducted in the North Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea From July 1, 1888, to
July 1, 1892, by the U.S. Fish Commission Steamer Albatross, p. 127-201. In Bulletin of the United States Fish Commission, Vol. XII, for 1892. Wash. G.P.O.  (.pdf, 9.46 MB).
3 Roppel, P. 2004. The Steamer Albatross and Early Pacific Salmon, Oncorhynchus spp., Research in Alaska. Mar. Fish. Rev. 66(3):21-31.  (.pdf, 3.8 MB)
Joel W. Hedgpeth. 1945. The United States Fish Commission Steamer Albatross. Reprinted from The American Neptune, Inc., V:1. Salem, Massachusetts. 26 p.
Tanner, Z. L. 1897. Deep-sea Exploration: a General Description of the Steamer Albatross, Her Appliances and Methods, p. 259-428 + illustration plates. In Bulletin of the United States Fish Commission, Vol. XVI, for 1896. Wash. G.P.O. 428 p.  (.pdf, 51.7 MB).
Anonymous. 1999. The U.S. Fish Commission Steamer Albatross: a History - Papers from a Symposium. Mar. Fish. Rev. 61(4):i-vii.
(.pdf, 2.7 MB).
Tanner, Z. L. 1894. Report Upon the Investigations of the U.S. Fish Commission Steamer Albatross for the Year Ending June 30, 1892, p. 1-64 + index. In U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries, Report of the Commissioner for the Year Ending June 30, 1892, Part XVIII. Wash. G.P.O. 732 p.  (.pdf, 3.81 MB).
Schroeder, S. 2008. My Days on the Albatross. Mar. Fish. Rev. 70(1):30-39.  (.pdf, 2.65 MB).
R/V Albatross. NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center's "Fisheries Historical" website  (last accessed 6-22-11).
Summers, A. P., K. E. Hartel, and T. J. Koob. 1999. Agassiz, Garman, Albatross, and the Collection of Deep-sea Fishes. Mar. Fish. Rev. 61(4):58-68.  (.pdf, 9.3 MB)
Damkaer, D. M. 1999. A Century of Copepods: the U.S. Fisheries Steamer Albatross. Mar. Fish. Rev. 61(4):69-84.  (.pdf, 6.7 MB)


Moring, J. R. 1999. Cruises of the Albatross off San Diego and Other Parts of Southern California, 18891916. Mar. Fish. Rev. 61(4):22-30.  (.pdf, 7.5 MB)
Smith, D. G., and J. T. Williams 1999. The Great Albatross Philippine Expedition and Its Fishes. Mar. Fish. Rev. 61(4):31-41.  (.pdf, 1.2 MB)
Springer, V. G. 1999. Kumataro Ito, Japanese Artist on Board the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries Steamer Albatross During the Philippine Expedition, 19071910. Mar. Fish. Rev. 61(4):42-57.  (.pdf, 8.2 MB)

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