Once a thriving seaweed farm on Patagonia’s Atlantic Coast, Bahia Bustamante was a ghost town by the 1990s. But now, the former owner’s grandson has transformed it into an eco-retreat and conservation project. Mark Stratton heads to Argentina to find out more.
There’s a briny smell of kelp in the air—I’m imagining the sweat and toil of halcyon days when Bahia Bustamante was the world’s largest seaweed harvesting operation. In 1954, one Lorenzo Soriano created a seaweed empire on the fringe of the remote Patagonian steppe on Argentina’s Atlantic coast.
“At its peak, 400 algueros (seaweed harvesters) were living here,” explains Matias, the grandson of Lorenzo Soriano. “It was a thriving community with a schoolroom and church. But by the time I inherited it in the late 1990s, it was a ghost town”.
He says his family called him crazy to even consider restoring the property. But like Matias, they had no idea what Bahia Bustamante would become: A lodge at the heart of a bay that the New York Times had once called… ‘Argentina’s Galapagos’.
We meet at Bustamante’s old general store. Matias wrestles with his posse of pet dogs while I’m distracted by two rheas (large flightless birds native to South America) crunching along the shingle beachfront.
There’s a set of red weighing scales on the counter where breakfast is now served to guests and around the walls are fading sepia photographs featuring tanned algueros pitchforking long rows of seaweed to dry in the sunshine.
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“My grandfather came here out of necessity,” Matias continues. “After World War II, Argentina’s government pursued protectionism and closed our borders to international trade. He could not import the seaweed he needed for agar-agar, which he needed for a haircare product he manufactured, so he came here in his jeep after hearing of this place called ‘Rotten Bay’. It smelled bad because tonnes of seaweed washed up here. To him, he had discovered ‘green gold’”.
The writing had been on the wall for seaweed production since the 1980s. “Two big oil-spills offshore in 1982 and 1985 and the shrimp-fishing industry had a devastating impact on the seaweed beds,” Matias tell me. “But in truth it was overharvested, and Bustamante was finished by 1995.
Returning from Buenos Aires, Matias was unsure what to make of the site, but set about renovating four sea-facing stone-and-wood cabins—in their heyday, they were the homes of the Bahia Bustamante’ management, including his grandfather.
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His first travelers arrived in 2004, including visiting biologists from the World Conservation Society. “They told me the offshore wildlife was special so I began taking my boat out to learn about it,” says Matias. “Eventually, we proposed it as an International Bird and Biodiversity Area because there are so many migratory species. Later it became part of a marine national park”.
Accessing the park’s future offshore riches takes planning. “Winds and tides rule our lives here,” says Matias, taking me out into Malaspina Cove. It’s perishingly hot.
We exit a narrow sinuous creek at high tide on his launch and head out among nine small islands of Jurassic-era limestone, desolate in appearance—yet all I can think of upon sighting an almost biblical abundance of animal life is the Galapagos.
In royally blue sea, a Pretorian guard of young South American sea lions swim out to inspect us, their eyes wide with curiosity. Beyond them is the ruckus of their colony: the roars, barks, and groans of thick-necked bull sea lions, squaring up and fighting over harems of females like pub drunks who’ve left their brains in their beer. The new-born pups meanwhile are whining and wriggling closer to their mothers.
At dusk, as the thermal wind transitions to numbing cold, I stroll down the shoreline from my cottage. The rheas are still pecking away at the shingle and an adult sperm whale, that died at sea, has washed up on the beach.
Giant petrels with scimitar-sharp bills and turkey vultures are tearing at the carcass and will, in time, leave the whale’s colossal vertebrae bleaching beneath the Patagonian sun.
This is life and death at the margins of survival on the Patagonian steppe, amplified with visceral force. The ghosts of the algueros were but a brief chapter in Bahia Bustamante’s ancient timeline, where the only constant has ever been, aquatic gold.