Posted by: Rob Viens | April 28, 2013

Discomfort for the Sake of Geology

While Darwin made his way from Argentina back to Uruguay, I spent the last couple of weeks busy with my own (much more mundane) adventures.  So let me take a couple of days to get caught up with the Beagle’s adventures before it arrived in Maldonado, Uruguay on this day (April 28) in 1833.

When we last left our heroes, they were cruising along the coast of Argentina in search of Mr. Wickham and Mr. Stokes and the survey boats La Paz and La Lièvre.  On the 15th, they thought they might have found their crewmates, but alas, it was just a small trading vessel:

“Whilst we were beating up to our station at the mouth of the Rio Negro; a small Schooner was seen beating down to us. — Every one immediately declared, they knew by the cut of her sails, that she was Wickham’s. It turned out differently; she was a trading vessel to Rio Negro & brought news of our little Schooners. They were all well a week since & were then ready to sail to the South to the Bay of St Joseph. They had suffered one loss in Williams, the marine, who fell overboard in the river & was drowned.” (April 15)

No specific details remain of the marines on board the Beagle, but this would have been the 5th fatality on the voyage after the 3 men killed by malaria last year and the recent drowning in the Falklands of Edward Hellyer.

The Beagle continued on in search of the schooners.  Although Darwin was uncomfortable on board, he was willing to suffer in the name of geology:

“As the distance at present is under 100 miles, the Captain determined to run down & pay the Schooners a visit. Mr Wickham will go in the Beagle to Maldonado & Mr Stokes will remain in command. — This arrangement has materially affected me as the Captain has offered that one of the little Schooners, should take me up to the Rio Negro, after staying a few days in the Bay of St Joseph. — For the sake of the geology this is of the highest interest to me; otherwise the passage in so small a vessel will be sufficiently uncomfortable.  (April 15)

The next two days brought more of the same – the search of the schooners and geologic temptations – glimpses of interesting strata along the shore.  The Beagle traversed what is shown on maps today as the Gulf of St. Matías on it’s way to San José Bay.

The large embayment in the middle of the image is Darwin’s Bay of St. Mattias – the small inlet on the southern side of the gulf is what (I believe) Darwin refers to as the Bay of St. Joseph; to the north of the bay is the Rio Negro (from Google Maps):

“We have been standing, during the day, across the great Bay of St Matthias; as the place is unsurveyed we heave to at night:— The weather has been beautiful but too light; the mild warm climate & blue sky is most throughily enjoyed by all of us after our boisterous cruize in the South. What we saw of the coast consisted entirely in horizontal cliffs; in these, the divisions of the strata run for miles together exactly parallel to the surface of the sea. — It looks an El Dorado to a Geologist; such modern formations must contain so many organic remains.” (April 16)

“We reached St Josephs Bay, this is a grand circular expanse of water, opening by a narrow mouth into St Matthias. the crook of land which forms it is a remarkable feature in a chart of the coast of Patagonia. — It was expected that Mr Wickham would have been here, but to our sorrow, & more especially to the French passengers, who are very anxious to arrive at M. Video, the little Schooners were not to be seen. The wind being very light & a strong tide setting into the bay, we were obliged to let go a stream anchor. This gave me a most delightful opportunity of taking a glimpse at the cliffs. — They abounded with fossil shells & were in many respects very curious & interesting. My visit was so short that there was only time to see how much was missed. At night, as soon as the tide turned, the anchor was weighed & we proceeded in pursuit of Mr Wickham. ” (April 17)

Image of the strata exposed on the southern shores of the Gulf of St. Matías near San José Bay  (from Jose Pavoni on Panoramio)

strate in the Gulf of St. Matias

Given the vicinity and nature of the deposits Darwin describes, it is likely that these were similar in age and type to the strata in nearby Bahia Blanca where Darwin discovered his ground sloth last fall – relatively young marine sediments.  Knowing the riches that these deposits had yielded earlier, I can only imagine how excited Darwin must have been to explore these new exposures and all the potential they held.

Did he uncover a new species? Did they find Mr. Wickham?  Alas, the  story will have to continue tomorrow… (RJV)

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