Saturday, December 10, 2011

Whales of the Atacama; Plus, Patagonia Winners

Though Chile is one of the world’s most cetacean-friendly countries, the crumbling ruins of an old whaling station on the southern outskirts of Iquique are an historical reminder that commercial whaling continued here as late as 1963. A recent discovery, though, has put all this in perspective – near the coastal city of Caldera, another Atacama desert beach resort, paleontologists have discovered a graveyard of baleen and other whales dating back at least two million years.
Ironically, were it not for the tourist industry, the discovery of these fossils might have taken decades or even centuries more. That’s because Caldera is the beach getaway for the regional capital of Copiapó, about 80 km to the southeast, and has been since 1851, when Chile’s first railroad connected the two towns. The train last ran in 1961, but a project to widen the narrow Ruta 5, the Panamerican highway that replaced it, recently unearthed remains of the whales. So far, according to researchers from Caldera’s own paleontological museum and the Smithsonian Institution, about 75 whale skeletons have been uncovered, more than 20 of them in perfect condition.

Much research remains to be done, but South America’s west coast is one of the world’s most tectonically active areas. So far, speculation is that a landslide or seismic event isolated a shallow lagoon and that, unable to return to the ocean, the animals died in situ. The lagoon then filled with sediments and, eventually, plate tectonics lifted the fossilized remains to their present hilltop location, half a mile inland.

I haven’t visited Caldera since I last updated Moon Handbooks Chile, a couple years ago, but this extraordinary discovery has me looking forward to my return there in March.

We Have Two Winners!
In the spirit of the holiday season, even though I’d rather be in the vastness of the Atacama, I decided to give away two copies, rather than one, of the new third edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia to readers who answered Wednesday’s quiz correctly. I had a couple more correct answers as well, but I had to draw the line somewhere.
Both Suzan Apaydin of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and Eric Curtis of Kealakekua, Hawaii, correctly identified the wool industry as the source of Patagonia’s economic boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of the region’s sprawling sheep farms, known as estancias, still exist today, as do the mansions of Punta Arenas, then southernmost Patagonia’s de facto capital during the wool boom.
To families like the Menéndez dynasty, who built their fortunes on exports that built mansions like the one above and tombs like the one below, the international border meant little – just as it may to the residents of Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego and Chile’s Magallanes region with the new “free movement of peoples” initiative.
I hope Suzan and Eric will be able to make good use of their books; for those whose answers arrived too late, and other readers, keep an eye for future quizzes.

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TimB said...

JUDI Dench, please!

Wayne Bernhardson said...

A groveling apology to one of the finest actresses of our era. I have corrected the error above.

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