Bittern is a kind of salt, found in sea water or brine. Chemically, it is better known as magnesium chloride, a compound with a wide variety of uses – a fertiliser, an anti-icing agent and a hydrogen storing substance, to name but three. But it was the sheer concentration of it to be found at the site now named for it that was remarkable.
The bay on which Bittern sits is a shallow one, sheltered to the south by Crib Point from the worst of Bass Strait’s storms and tides. The particular shape of it forms a sort of natural salt pan, where a small amount of ocean water can wash in at high tides and cover a wide area to a very shallow depth, to then evaporate in the wind and sun between times, and leave behind its deposits of salts.
When Western Port Bay was first discovered (and named for the resemblance of its shape to the head of Dame Lucille Western in profile), Bittern appeared like a horizontal version of the cliffs of Dover, described by one of the exploration party as a “white silver plain” when seen from a distance with the afternoon sun reflecting off it. Upon landing, however, the landscape was as barren and desolate as that of post-temper tantrum Sodom. But if their hopes for agriculture were dashed, at least the land could serve as a salt mine (although plans to have it worked by convicts eventually came to nothing, much to the disgust of the Russian military advisers who urged this plan).
In time, the nearby naval base would mine away all the salt, exposing the bare plain beneath for use in (unusually salt-tolerant) farming. For many years, the area served as the home of Melbourne’s pig farming industry, boasting numerous interesting cuts of pre-salted pork.
Suburbs near Bittern: