Posted by: Rob Viens | August 23, 2012

“So Slow and Monotonous an Occupation”

August 23rd – a little insight into life on a survey ship:

“The weather continues most beautiful: a bank of clouds in the SW frightened us in the morning but now at night we are at an anchor with a calm.— No people have such cause anxiously to watch the state of weather as Surveyors.— Their very duty leads them into the places which all other ships avoid & their safety depends on being prepared for the worst.— Every night we reef our top-sails so as to lose no time if a breeze should force us to move.— Yesterday morning getting up the anchor & securing it & setting all sail only took us five minutes.— We have not made much progress during the day; for we have tacked all the time parallel to the coast.” (Aug 23)

I like how inclusive Darwin is here – everything is “we”.  I’ve said it before, but Darwin clearly feels a part of the crew. (Though I doubt that he personally does much to get the ship moving in five minutes!)

FitzRoy add his thoughts on surveying.  He may find it fulfilling work but not interesting enough to bore the general reader with details.  In the section of his Narrative referring to this week he notes:

“To relate many details of so slow and monotonous an occupation as examining any shore, of which the more interesting features have long been known, could answer no good purpose, and would be very tiresome to a general reader; therefore I shall hasten from one place to another, dwelling only, in my way, upon the few incidents, or reflections, which may have interest enough to warrant their being noticed in this abridged narrative, or are absolutely necessary for carrying on the thread of the story.” (Narrative, FitzRoy)

Coast of northern Argentina (posted in Google Maps by Garelli)

FitzRoy does add a few observations about the coastline. I imagine that though the survey work itself may be somewhat monotonous, the sights of a new landscape every day must be refreshing.  FitzRoy gives us a glimpse of the “new” environment from the deck of the Beagle:

“the sea-coast is sandy and low … behind the beach are sand-hills, and farther inshore are thickets affording shelter to numbers of jaguars.”

“We then stood out to gain an offing, rounded the bank, and hauled close inshore again nearly opposite to a large salt lagoon, called Marchiquito, which approaches the sea so closely as to have occasioned an idea that, by cutting through the narrow strip of land which separates them, a fine port might be formed. Some persons assert that there is always a communication between the lagoon and the sea; that cattle cannot pass along the isthmus on account of that opening; and that a boat might swim from one to the other. If this is the case, we were much deceived on board the Beagle; for when she passed so near the spot that the lagoon was overlooked by the officers at her mast-heads, nothing like an opening could be detected, though the beach was scrutinized with good glasses, as well from the deck as by those who looked down upon it from aloft as we sailed by.” (Narrative, FitzRoy)

The barrier beaches that FitzRoy describes sometimes do have openings to the sea (usually if there is a strong current or if the beach has been breached by a storm).  But they can also be completely separated from the ocean.  (For more on barrier islands see Lagoons, Beaches, and the Eternal Motion of Sand.)

The Beagle continues to survey the coast for another week or so. The next major stop – Bahia Blanca. (RJV)


  1. I assume this surveying was beneficial to future explorations, but I wonder if it was used that much and whether FitzRoy and crew ever got any feedback on their work (e.g., “Rate My”)…?

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