Saturday, 30 May 2015

Rovinj Marine Biological Laboratory in 1964

A marine biology field trip was part of every zoology degree in the 1960s. For those of us in second year at Sheffield in 1964 we were not to enjoy the delights of the Robin Hood’s Bay Marine Laboratory—the usual venue—and the temperatures of the North Sea in March. Instead we were going Yugoslavia and the Marine Station at Rovinj on the Istrian coast. The Adriatic seemed much more appealing than the North Sea.

How the trip to Rovinj came about was, we recall, down to a former Sheffield student married to a Yugoslav who had become manager of the new hotel a short walk from Rovinj. Visiting Sheffield she persuaded John Ebling (1918-1992) of Rovinj’s possibilities not only for the marine life but also for side visits including the nearby Limski ‘fiord’, the Roman amphitheatre at Pula and, just within reach for a day, Venice.

When I scanned all my old slides a few years ago I came across the photographs I had taken on the Rovinj trip. I also realised that I knew nothing of the history of the Rovinj marine laboratory, or indeed whether it had survived to the present century. I do recall that the Sheffield staff (faculty for American readers) found it difficult to make contact with the inhabitants of the laboratory, of which I remember seeing only two, both dressed in those immense white labcoats that nearly reached the floor and favoured by Central and East European scientists of the time. We were asked not to wander from the large laboratory into the nether reaches of the building but one day John Ebling did venture back there to make some degree of contact with the locals and on his way seen a very large glass tank containing a shoal of cuttlefish. He managed to persuade those in charge that we lesser mortals should see that sight and it was one not to be missed. The shoal moved as if joined by invisible thread with the individuals changing colour and pattern in a display that was not only bewildering but also in unison.

Here is my photograph of the Rovinj Marine Biological Station taken in late March 1964 (my old passport shows entry to Yugoslavia on 17 March and exit on 1 April):

Rovinj Marine Biological Station. March 1964

I now find that the Rovinj laboratory is a constituent of Croatia’s Rudjer Boskovic Institute and still operating as a marine biological laboratory. I then found papers on its history. It was founded in 1891 as a field station of the Berlin Aquarium Unter den Linden (1869-1910), a commercial operation that also displayed non-aquatic animals including the first gorilla in Germany. Rovinj as a town in Istria was then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. After the First World War Istria was under Italian rule and the laboratory came to fall under the aegis of an Italian-German consortium with a co-director appointed from each side by the Royal Italian Oceanographic Committee and the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesselschaft. At the end of the Second World War, the laboratory was closed for three years. Istria became part of Yugoslavia and the national academy took charge. That was obviously the state when we were there in 1964. With the breakup of Yugoslavia, Rovinj became part of Croatia in 1991. With such upheavals it is hardly surprising that the laboratory, its library and its reference collections suffered. The books, papers and specimens were moved to Italy in 1943 and it would appear that the building was wrecked.

The original purpose of the Rovinj marine station was to supply living organisms to the Berlin Aquarium. It also came to supply living and preserved materials throughout Europe. The histories shown below explain how it came to acquire a research function through the activities of Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902) famous as the ‘father of modern pathology’ and for cell theory but infamous for his opposition to Darwin.

In 1964 the laboratory had a small boat, Bios, shown here at Rovinj. She took us on a cruise up the Limski ‘kanal’, a ria where oysters and mussels were grown in large numbers. On a cold, damp day light relief was provided by the exploration of the set of the not-worth-watching movie, The Long Ships, which had recently been filmed there.

Bios, the laboratory's boat. March 1964

We all stayed at the Hotel Jadran. It had been built before the First World War to attract tourists to the town. Much Prošek (a name now banned by the EU) was consumed after dinner. On Easter Sunday (29 March) we were given boiled eggs for breakfast that had been died a deep, virulent purple. The lurid eggs put some of the ladies who may have consumed too much Prošek the evening before off consuming them but a male student who obviously loved eggs worked his way through them; I lost count after he got to six.

Rovinj with Hotel Jadran (centre). Photographs were Agfacolor
slides now notorious for deteriorating with time
The pace of marine biology was not taxing and we had an afternoon trips to Pula with its Roman amphitheatre as well as a whole day by bus to Venice. The countryside was alive with lizards warming themselves in the spring sunshine and breeding amphibians. The chorus of hundreds of tree frogs in the bushes surrounding a pond was unforgettable. The reptiles and amphibians of Istria were little known in the English-speaking world at that time and we published a note* on what we had found.

One of the lizards, Algyroides nigropunctatus; a male

Other photographs I took can be seen on Flickr.


These two papers describe the history of the Rovinj marine laboratory and include references to earlier descriptions:

Lucu, Č & Marsoni, SS. 2013. Tribute to Professor Massimo Sella - former scientist and Director of the Marine Biological Station in Rovinj - on the occasion of the 120th anniversary of marine research in Rovinj (1891-2011). Periodicum Biologorum 115, 105-108.

Zavodnik, D, Zavodnik, N & Iveša, L. 2001. The 110th anniversary of the marine research station at Rovinj (Adriatic Sea, Croatia). Reference collections. Nat. Croat. 10, 53–60.

*Peaker, M & Peaker, SJ. 1968. Spring herpetofauna of the Rovinj area (Istria, Yugoslavia). British Journal of Herpetology 4, 36‑37