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North RockNorth Rock juts out of the Bermuda platform about an eight mile boat ride from the Bermuda Biological Station for Research (now the Bermuda Institute for Ocean Sciences). Seemingly remote, the ancient rock and its modern navigational beacon mark a coral reef stretching out a kilometer in diameter. Besides the great diving, North Rock was the inspiration for a song.

Not a new song, mind you. Officially the song is an old sea chanty dating back to at least the mid 1700s. While the title is technically “The Mermaid,” to the 15 of us budding marine biologists on our semester in Bermuda it was the “North Rock Song.”

North Rock is a great location for scuba diving and snorkeling on the coral reefs. The number of fish and coral species there is tremendous. There are also many shipwrecks, too numerous to count. Ironically, many were drawn to North Rock’s beacon, only to be dashed upon the shallow reef. Other captains mistook the beacon for the more distant St. David’s lighthouse, realizing too late that the deep water they thought they were in was actually a reef. Most died with their mistake.

Taking advantage of the long, slow cruise back to shore after a day of diving, several of the women members of our group slathered on the baby oil (this was pre-skin cancer scare days) to heighten their tans on the foredeck. Eric, one of our group and from a wealthy family of sailboaters, decided to teach us the song that would become our Bermuda anthem.

‘Twas Friday morn when we set sail,
And we had not got far from land,
When the Captain, he spied a lovely mermaid,
With a comb and a glass in her hand.
Oh the ocean waves may roll,
And the stormy winds may blow,
While we poor sailors go skipping aloft
And the land lubbers lay down below, below, below
And the land lubbers lay down below.

The refrain was quite catchy, and we sang it full-throated much of the way back to shore. [Note that “sang” is a relative term. I don’t recall any of our group going on to a career in music.] As each stanza unfolds, we hear from the Captain, the Cook, and the Cabin-Boy “of our gallant ship” as they race toward danger, repeating the refrain with each mournful verse. The last stanza has the gallant ship sinking to the bottom of the sea, suggesting that we were focused more on the refrain than the idea of imminent danger during our long run on open waters. 

Oh the ocean waves may roll,
And the stormy winds may blow,
While we poor sailors go skipping aloft
And the land lubbers lay down below, below, below
And the land lubbers lay down below.

As I think about this semester all these years later, a reunion of sorts at BIOS sounds like a great idea. Most of my fellow students went on to more lucrative careers (marine biologists do not fall into the Forbes “Top Twenty” career choices for accruing wealth). I worked in marine biology until an arsonist burned down my laboratory, then moved to aquatic toxicology and on to environmental consulting. Now I flip back and forth between science and Abraham Lincoln history.

But my mind often leaps back in time to the North Rock song. Today it was because I have a sailing cruise scheduled in the not-so-far-away future, so the refrain started rattling around in my head begging to come out. That said, maybe I should skip the last stanza and focus on my upcoming sailing ship remaining fully upright on the high seas.

David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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