Apr 272010

The first detailed scientific account of Lake Chapala was written by Henri Guillaume Galeotti. It was based on a visit to Chapala in February-March 1837, and published in French in 1839.

Galeotti (1814-1858) was born in Paris and  studied natural history at the Establissement Géographique de Brussels, founded in 1830 by Philippe Vandermaelen, a very famous Flemish cartographer. Vandermaelen produced an extraordinary world atlas, published in 1827, with 400 maps in six volumes, covering the entire world at a uniform scale of about 1:1,600,000.

Galeotti arrived in Mexico in December 1835; it turned out to be a visit which lasted several years. Galeotti was primarily a botanist, and was responsible for the first scientific descriptions of scores of plants, including a wide variety of cacti, for which he had a particularly fondness.
In his account of Lake Chapala, Galeotti starts with a detailed description, before providing some personal observations of storms:

“We have observed in the lake the phenomenon of occasional waves (seiches) which are in the habit of lasting plenty of time, with one part of the water remaining calm next to the rough part. This usually occurs at about five in the afternoon. We noted several of these singular effects, on February 27 and 28, and in March of 1837: the weather was calm and the temperature between 18 and 22 degrees Centigrade. The phenomenon is visible on the southern shore and in Tlachichilco and Chapala. The flood water rises from one to four feet (from 33 centimeters to 1.33 meters)…”

“From time to time, very strong whirlwinds or cloudbursts agitate the lake, snatching fish from their hideouts, and hurling them onto the nearby mountains. Some have been found on quite a high mountain near Ixtlahuacan, two leagues from the lake.”

Early map of Lake Chapala (Galeotti, 1837)

Galeotti goes on to provide a rich account of the varied flora and fauna, especially the birdlife, around the lake, including:

“(the) water sheep or pelicans (Pelecanus) which live on the island of Chapala, and fly in flocks of 50 or 60 individuals, at about five in the afternoon, to search for food on the shores, where some little fish called javai are abundant. The pelicans are very fierce and plump, and have white feathers with a yellowish green tint at the tips of their wings.”

“There is a great diversity of fish in the waters of the lake. The whitefish and the bagoc are very well-liked for the table. A great quantity of fish is caught in Easter week. The inhabitants of the vicinity subsist on little else apart from the product of this fishing, for which they prepare by building reed shacks on the shores of the lagoon, and lighting large bonfires between 6 and 7 in the evening to attract the fish.”

All in all, his article is a remarkable achievement for its time, and a true testimony to the powerful pull that Lake Chapala has had on so many foreign visitors.

Source: Galeotti, H. G. 1839 Coup d’oeil sur la Laguna de Chapala au Mexique, avec notes géognostiques. Translations by the author; all rights reserved.
Note:  This is an edited version of an article originally published on MexConnect, and based on chapter 21–“The natural history of Lake Chapala”–of  Tony Burton’s Lake Chapala Through the Ages, an anthology of travellers’ tales (Sombrero Books, 2008) – click here for the original article.

The hydrology of Lake Chapala is discussed in chapters 6 and 7 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. A case study of ‘residential tourism’ in the villages on the northern shore of Lake Chapala is discussed in chapter19 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.

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