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Follow in the Footsteps of Charles Darwin


“There are several other sources of enjoyment on a long voyage… The map of the world ceases to be blank; it becomes a picture full of the most varied and animated figures” 

On the 27th of December 1831, after poor weather conditions and a post-Christmas hangover delayed departure, the crew of the HMS Beagle set out on a voyage to conduct detailed hydrographic surveys of the South American coastline and to collect flora, fauna and fossil specimens. Five years later the Beagle would return to England having collected a vast array of natural treasures and surveys of the continent, but something would return with it, stowed away. An Idea. An Idea that would challenge humankind’s understanding of the natural world and its place within it. This idea belonged to a failed medical scholar who had been hired as the ship’s naturalist, Charles Robert Darwin.

This blog entry will follow the voyage of the HMS Beagle, exploring the rugged and striking landscapes of the South American continent and its unique plant and wildlife that Darwin studied, helping form his theory of Natural Selection.

Argentina Cattle herder in Patagonia

Perhaps a landscape that one would not think as important to the development of Darwin’s evolutionary ideas as, say, the Galapagos Islands, is Patagonia. This, however, is not the case. Of the roughly two years that the Beagle spent in Atlantic waters, surveying the eastern coast of the continent, most of Darwin’s time was spent on land, exploring Patagonia’s plains and shorelines. It is in these lands that Darwin uncovered mysteries and began to ask questions that, in time, would become the foundation upon which he built his theories and ideas.

Shared between Chile and Argentina, -although you will find the majority of it in the latter- Patagonia is an expansive area of roughly one million square kilometres home to a great variety of biomes. The landscape of Argentinian Patagonia features vast swathes of arid grassland and desert. Separated by the Andes Mountains, Chilean Patagonia features more temperate forests and great glaciers.

“When standing in the middle of one of these desert plains and looking towards the interior, the view is generally bounded by the escarpment of another plain, rather higher, but equally level and desolate; and in every direction the horizon is indistinct from the trembling mirage which seems to rise from the heated surface…”
A notable discovery was made in the coastal town of Puna Alta. Whilst digging away at the soft red cliffs, Darwin found, imbedded, the skull of a giant ground sloth called a Megatherium, now extinct. He pondered, why, whilst on his expeditions in Argentina, had he not found any creatures that resembled the Megatherium? And what caused this animal to become extinct?
Perhaps, being a naturalist, Darwin had a vested interest in areas rich in flora and fauna, and that is why he did not warm to sparse Patagonian plains in the same manner he did many of the other areas. He did, however, comment on the striking and magical nature of this landscape and how it stuck with him for many years.

“They can be described only by negative characters; without habitations, without water, without trees, without mountains, they support merely a few dwarf plants. Why then, and the case is not peculiar to myself, have these arid wastes taken so firm a hold on my memory?”

ChileFlamingo in the lakes of Chile

After two years years in Atlantic waters, the Beagle rounded the cape and entered the Pacific Ocean on the 11th of June 1834. The ship and her crew arrived at Valparaiso, Chile, on the 23rd of July. It was from here that Darwin began his first expedition into the Andes Mountains.

The mountains form one of the longest mountain ranges in the world, spanning across Ecuador, Chile, Colombia, Perú, Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela. To explore the Chilean portion of the Andes is to enjoy unparalleled views of the some of the finest geological formations on the planet.

Darwin’s expedition took him many hundreds of kilometres into the high Andes stopping at San Felipe, Santiago, San Fernando and Navidad.  Finding himself sat among the towering hills near the Campana Mountain, Darwin comments on the beauty of Chile’s mountains and ponders the geological forces that went into making them.

“We spent the day on the summit, and I never enjoyed one more thoroughly… Who can avoid wondering at the force which has upheaved these mountains, and even more so at the countless ages which it must have required”

Questions of under what timescales did such geological events occur can be found throughout much of Darwin’s journal entries in Chile. Whilst climbing into the Andes, he had noticed that were many beds of sea fossils found hundreds of metres above sea level, suggesting that the western coast of South America was being forced upward.

“My object in coming here was to see the great beds of shells, which stand some yards above the level of the sea, and are burnt for lime. The proofs of the elevation of this whole line of coast are unequivocal: at the height of a few hundred feet old-looking shells are numerous, and I found some at 1300 feet.” 

To explorers of the present day, wandering the Andes as Darwin did, the idea that mountains are millions of years old might seem rather blatant. It must be remembered that the widely held view of the time was that all of nature was a part of God’s design, and that our world was no more than six thousand years old.

Mount Darwin, ChileToday, Darwin’s legacy can be found across Chile’s stunning landscape. In the southerly limits of Chile, near the islands of Tierra del Fuego, lies the Cordillera Darwin. It is an extensive mountain range crowned by Mount Darwin, a high peak named after Darwin on his twenty fifth birthday by the captain of the Beagle, Robert Fitzroy.

It was on the return leg of his expedition that Darwin began to grow sick. His condition only worsened as he neared Valparaiso and would end in him spending a month bed bound. It was during these uncertain days that he learned of the ill fortune of the Beagle and captain Fitzroy.

The laborious surveying work and painstaking note taking had begun to take its toll upon Fitzroy. Suffering a nervous breakdown, he had resigned his command of the Beagle, making lieutenant John Wickham captain. Fitzroy’s final orders were to finish the final surveys of the coastline and return to England.

Fortunately, Wickham refused the position and Fitzroy was eventually persuaded to take back up his captaincy. It was in these days that the course of history was changed forever.  Once the Beagle’s surveying of Chile was complete, she and her crew would set sail for volcanic islands found west of the continent, the Galapagos. 

The Galapagos Islands 

On September 15th 1835, the Beagle and her crew caught their first sight of land,  Mount Pitt, a modest hill found on Chatham Island. They had reached the Galapagos Islands.

“Considering that these islands are placed directly under the equator, the climate is far from being excessively hot; this seems chiefly caused by the singularly low temperature of the surrounding water, brought here by the great southern Polar current. Excepting during one short season, very little rain falls, and even then it is irregular; but the clouds generally hang low. Hence, whilst the lower parts of the islands are very sterile, the upper parts, at a height of a thousand feet and upwards, possess a damp climate and a tolerably luxuriant vegetation” 

The islands are part of a volcanic archipelago found near the equator. They are, perhaps, not as picturesque as one might imagine equatorial islands to be, formed of jagged volcanic rock with little in the way of plant life in the lower parts of the island. But what the Galapagos might lack in natural splendour it more than makes up for when considering its biodiversity. A staggering percentage of the wildlife that calls the islands their home are endemic to the Galapagos [80% of land birds, 97% of marine reptiles and land mammals and 30% of plants]

It is upon these volcanic shores that Darwin would be greeted by one of the most iconic residents of the Galapagos.

“As I was walking along I met two large tortoises, each of which must have weighed at least two hundred pounds: one was eating a piece of cactus, and as I approached, it stared at me and slowly stalked away; the other gave a deep hiss, and drew in its head”

Giant Tortoises became a useful foodstuff for the crew, perhaps that is why the tortoise’s’ reaction to Darwin was so tepid. Whilst staying at a prison colony on Charles Island, the colony overseer, Nicholas Lawson, told Darwin that it was possible to identify which island each tortoise came from by it’s shell. In the moment, Darwin failed to realise the significance of what Mr Lawson had told him.

Giant tortoises played a definite part in the formulating of Darwin’s theories, but it was the birds of the Galapagos that captured his imagination.

Darwin's Finches study“Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.” 

It was the close study of wildlife on these islands that gave Darwin the final piece needed to develop his theories on the origins of life. The discovery of fossils in Patagonia had allowed him to question the notion that each species of animal was created with purpose by God. If there were species of life that no longer existed, why was it that these particular species died out? His expeditions in Chile had reinforced the inconceivable timescale under which geological activity took place. What might happen to life over such long time spans? And it was in the Galapagos that Darwin noticed and questioned the small differences in plant and animal life that he found more noticeable upon the islands he visited.

“I industriously collected all the animals, plants, insects & reptiles from this island. It will be very interesting to find from future comparison to what district or ‘center of creation’ the organised beings of this archipelago must be attached” 

In the spring of 1839 Darwin published the notes from his Journal he kept whilst on board the Beagle. It would be nearly twenty years until he published the work for which he is best known, “The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”. Darwin had the outline of his theory near complete not long after his return home to Shrewsbury, but the fear of religious persecution had caused him to push back the publication by many years.

Darwin’s theory would, in no small words, redefine humankind’s place in the world. No longer above or outside the natural world by God’s design, the human race exists as one of the many million of branching and diverging lines of mutation in a challenging all-encompassing struggle for life. In the closing lines of the Origin of Species, Darwin defines the beauty of this process, quite elegantly.

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Make it happen

If you are interested in following in the footsteps of Darwin yourself, South America’s wild, rugged, and ancient landscapes are the perfect places to see, first hand, the challenges that causes life to adapt, evolve and thrive. Be it taking in the sweeping vistas of Argentinian Patagonia, marveling at the clear skies of the Chilean Andes, or witnessing the incredible biodiversity of the Galapagos, South America is guaranteed to inform your own understanding of the natural world, much as it did Darwin’s. Why not make an enquiry?

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