Posted by: Rob Viens | September 6, 2012

A White Day in Bahia Blanca

On September 6th, with the help of a sealing vessel captained by a “Mr. Harris”, the Beagle arrived in Bahía Blanca. Darwin tells the story:

“In the morning we stood into the bay; but soon got entangled in the midst of shoals & banks; we came again to an anchor.— At this time a small Schooner passed near to us.—an officer was sent on board to procure information about the bay &c: The Schooner was a Sealer, bound from the settlement at Baia Blanca to the Rio Negro; south of which she intended fishing for the Seals.— Mr Harris, a half partner & Captain, volunteered piloting us into the bay on condition of being carried up in a boat to the Settlement; where there was another Schooner bound for the same port, & in which he intended taking a passage.— By Mr Harris’s assistance we arrived in the evening at a fine bay; where sheltered from all bad weather, we moored ship.— Mr Harris gave us a great deal of useful information about the country.— Baia Blanca has only been settled within the last six years: previous to which even the existence of the bay was not known.— It is designed as a frontier fort against the Indians & thus to connect Buenos Ayres to Rio Negro.— In the time of the old Spaniards, before the independence, the latter was purchased from the native chief of the place.— The settlers at Baia Blanca did not follow this just example, & in consequence ever since a barbarous & cruel warfare has been carried on:— But I shall mention more about this presently.” (Sept 6)

Google Map of Bahía Blanca – (note the shallow water of the bay and that you can zoom in or out for details):

It is worth noting that the name Bahía Blanca in Darwin’s time referred specifically to the bay itself.  The settlement on the northern shore was called Nueva Buenos Aires. In time the settlement grew, and it too took the name Bahía Blanca – thereby providing confusion for amateur geographers to the present day.

Today the city is a major economic port of more than 300,000 people.  In Darwin’s day it was a coastal outpost – literally a small fort built in 1828 (actually less than 6 years old, as Darwin suggests). The town was established by the Argentine revolutionary Juan Manuel de Rosas, as a fort to protect the (Spanish) locals from the (native) locals and to secure this part of the coast from invasion by Brazil.  (If you recall, Uruguay and Argentina at this time were more or less establishing their independence and kicking out Brazil and other interests.) The smaller town to the east of the city of Bahía Blanca – Point Alta – never lost its defensive importance, it is still the home of the Argentine Navy.

Bahía Blanca from satellite (NASA):
Bahia Blanca from Space

Like the Rio de la Plata to the north, the first explorer to “discover” Bahía Blanca was Ferdinand Magellan – who was on his way to “discovering’ the Pacific Ocean in 1520. The bay later got its name from white salt deposits that line its shores.

Both Darwin and FitzRoy wrote quite a bit about their adventures meeting the local officials in Nueva Buenos Aires / Bahía Blanca over the next couple of days.  I’ll use the weekend to share their colorful stories. (RJV)

PS – After my last post – Darwin’s Shrimp – I discovered an awesome lecture on mantis shrimp, where I learned, among other things, that they have the fasted recorded strike velocity of any animal. I highly recommend watching this short TED video, which along with some great footage and info has a recording of the sounds of the mantis shrimp.  These little fellas may be my new favorite marine organism!  (Watch – TED Lecture: Sheila Patek Clocks the Fastest Animals for all the exciting details.)

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