Swelling under a brisk westerly wind, Lake Nahuel Huapi hides folklore, a badly kept secret, a tradition and a symbol that represents the history of the changing face of Argentina.
From the continent that gave birth to the Magical Realist movement through writers such as Jorge Luís Borges and Colombian Gabriel García Marquéz, it was no surprise to me to stumble across the superstitions that surround the mythical creatures of Argentina and Chile’s southernmost region, Patagonia.
Clearly, the lines between the reality and the fantastic are blurred. There are many myths that hold their roots in both indigenous and post-conquest culture encapsulating Argentina’s hybridity. The myth of ‘Nahuelito’ is no exception. It surprisingly strikes an interesting chord in helping to understand the country’s past and its future in areas as diverse as politics, environment and ecology, and national – as well as regional – identity.
Nahuelito; named after the stunning Lake Nahuel Huapi, which lies across the border of Neuquén and Río Negro provinces, was apparently first sighted by Martin Sheffield, a North American in search of gold who raised the alarm in 1922. Descriptions vary, but significant features reoccur in eye-witness accounts such as its “swan-like neck”, “a series of fins” and “dark coloured humps.” These descriptions and dubious evidence in the way of photographs, some of which have now been declared fraudulent, have created the popular image of a plesiosaur-like monster.
Prehistory Making History
Plesiosaurs were sea-dwelling creatures that existed alongside the dinosaurs some 65m years ago. There are some rather vague explanations for how plesiosaurs could have survived in the lake, teaching us about the geological formation of the lakes in Patagonia. Geological experts at the local Paleontological museum in Bariloche have explained how the glacial lake used to be attached to the Pacific Ocean until about 30,000 years ago.
During several climate shifts, the lakes receded inland, creating the perfect habitat for trapped plesiosaurs by safeguarding them from predators. Not all agree on this theory.
Representatives from the Asociación Paleontologica Bariloche rule out the plesiosaur theory as a fabrication and nothing more than a local tradition. Using their small museum as a port-of-call for all those interested in the paleontological and geological interest of the area, the association provides a hub of local knowledge for the formation of the area and subsequently dispels the idea of a pre-extinct monster dwelling just beyond the shoreline. They believe in science and reasoning and point to environmental and “climate changes” to be behind the Nahuelito myth.
A Cultural Product of Climate Change
It is widely understood that climate change has started to be used as a theme in works of art, literature and culture in recent decades as a mode of expression that allows humans to deal with their latest challenge. But has the ‘myth’ of climate change literally materialised in the legend of Nahuelito? Is a scientific imbalance affecting the culture of Patagonia?
Many people claim to have seen the monster, including Fernando Galíndez, 60, a resident of Bariloche, who asserts that he has seen the monster twice. He sets the scene of the first time he saw the monster, “it was a very peaceful day, without any wind, in December, 23 years ago. At around 2pm, the lake was like oil, completely smooth and I was on my way to the town centre with my children. I was taking them to see the lake so still instead of going to work…all of a sudden, at about 200m from the shoreline a large wave erupted,[showing] three backs [of the monster]…it had a wide body, dark greenish in colour.”
There are many similar stories and accounts in Bariloche, but sceptics are just as common. Austin Whittall, author of the book ‘Patagonian Monsters’, tells me of a phenomenon related to climate, which could explain the surge in so-called monster sightings. “When the wind blows from the west it forces the water to the east and when the wind stops blowing, the water slops back and forth, especially along long narrow bodies of water like the arms of the lake. This can form whirlpools and vortexes – it is a phenomenon known as seiche.” Thus explaining the “large wave” in Fernando’s account.
This scientific theory which has been labelled the “bathtub effect” can be attributed to an increase in wind patterns, which are in turn stimulated by global warming. The idea that wind is affected by the emission of greenhouse gases is not a new one. With the increase of hurricanes and tropical storms around the world, Argentina’s climate should be no exception to the rule.
However, the mystery still remains. These disturbances caused by seiche do not fully explain away the countless people who claim to have seen the eerie creature’s form.
The Embodiment of Patagonian Ecological History
Having lived in Bariloche for many years, Whittall tells me of his experiences on the lake. These experiences, however, are rooted in science and logic rather than sensationalist speculation.
“Patagonia has changed a lot. It is still empty and beautiful but the ecology has changed,” he states, talking of the Europeans who “filled the lakes with trout and salmon which replaced the local fish. Otters had to hunt faster fish.” He implies that this could have upset the food chain for the local otter population and that now these particular species are becoming extinct in the area. “Perhaps this tipped the balance for other local animals before anyone had the chance to even discover them.”
To the inexperienced eye, rare otters that swim in groups could be mistaken for a more ominous creature. It i arguable that the myth of Nahuelito symbolically represents the modern Argentine reacting to forgotten aspects of ecosystems in Patagonia. It is possible that some of these unrecognisable aspects could be particular species of animals with which the locals are no longer familiar. This evokes the confused cultural heritage in Argentina due to changes made in the Patagonian environment by the European conquistador.
The Effects of an Uncertain Indigenous Culture
The changing environment is not the only contribution made to the myth of Nahuelito. Indigenous culture that spans back many centuries is important to the foundation of the modern myth. Whittall believes that there has been an “exchange” of folklore between the Indian groups of Patagonia and those in the Paraguayan Amazon. This is also supported by the sightings that claim Nahuelito could be a creature similar to the manta-ray. Although no freshwater rays live in Patagonia, they do exist in the Río Paraná in Paraguay and it is a possibility that they could have been appropriated to the lakes in Patagonia by nomadic natives. Whittall also thinks “it’s possible that when the Inca invaded Chile in the 1440s they brought their Amazonian myths with them.”
The Mapuche language and myths of ‘El Cuero’, a human-eating manta-ray, have been applied to Argentine Patagonia, in which case we are now looking at Chilean myths through an Argentine lens. This implies that Nahuelito stands as a symbol for regional identity in the Southern Cone, rather than purely an object of Argentine culture.
“I wouldn’t say they were eliminated but the natives [of Argentina] lost their culture. They worked on ranches and sheered sheep. What little we know about them comes from Chile, which still has a very large Mapuche population,” Whittall explains, implying a different cultural strand has been woven into the fabric of the myth.
Conspiracy Theories and the Monster of the Human Mind
The unknown always invites conspiracy. Some believe that Nahuelito is a mutant product of nuclear testing gone awry during the 1950s when Perón invited Nazi scientists to Argentina to compete with Russia and the USA in their arms race. In this Cold War context, Nahuelito was magnified by the sensationalism of the 1950s when the world was captivated by UFO sightings in Roswell and other such phenomenon. Whittall dismisses these ideas as “hot air” and states that the idea of radioactive material seeping into the lakes is “untrue”.
Cold War spy submarines have also been mistakenly reported as monsters off the Argentine coast, highlighting Nahuelito’s presence in the mainstream media and how the myth has even managed to permeate serious politics in the past. The adoption of this bizarre explanation implies a readiness to experience the supernatural rather than to employ reason. This suggests the importance of superstition and myths in South American perception and psychology.
Whittall agrees. “People want to believe in strange and mysterious things. Instead of believing in the marvels of the world such as how physics works, people want to believe in things like guys who can bend spoons with their minds and lake monsters. They look for the wrong explanations.”
Perhaps in a desperate search to find out what Nahuelito is, whether mix of imported myths, a product of climate or ecological change or an Argentine cultural symbol, the most obvious answer has been cast aside. Rather than drawing upon ancient myths and historic environmental changes, perhaps a more contemporary psychological explanation is more appropriate and that Nahuelito is purely a product of the mind.
Whittall believes that “based with the same stimulus we come up with the same explanation – there is something moving, it must be a monster. We’re in the forest, its dark, we’re frightened, there must be a monster…I believe the human brain works in a very similar fashion no matter where we are in the world.” In essence, fear of the unknown can create erratic belief systems, which foster conspiracy theories and monster sightings. Could Nahuelito be a product of Ar