Part 4

By Carol L. Bowman

Straits of Magellan and Beagle Channel


straits-of-magellanWith the clang of anchors dropping, we witnessed our first view of the magnificent Darwin Mountain Range Ice Field. Ainsworth Island, where a colony of elephant seals gathers every spring to birth their pups, waited in the distance. We headed to the stern of the ship, clunked in rubber boots down three slippery flights to the lower deck, grabbed the hand of the Zodiac team expert and jumped the leap of faith into the bobbing rubber boat. We would repeat this harrowing process-ship to zodiac, zodiac to land, land to zodiac, zodiac to ship-four more times over the next 3 days.

Disembarking on the island, massive male seals raised their backs, barking with annoyance at our intrusion. Skirting their territory, we hiked through a sub Antarctic rain forest, as a splendor of delicate lichens, moss and frozen droplets of mist unfolded.

During the hike, ship staffers transported hot chocolate, bottles of Red Label Scotch, crystal glasses and crates of glacial ice collected from the bergs for ‘rocks’ to the island via zodiacs. We sipped liquor laced cocoa with the Marinelli Glacier as a back drop. Staff supplied the ship’s freezer with pure untouched glacial ice for onboard cocktails during these land excursions.

The afternoon’s zodiac run took us to Tucker Island, a fragile ecosystem in Whiteside Channel, which serves as a spring breeding ground for Magellanic Penquins and permanent nesting for Cormorants, Dolphin Gulls and Chimango Caracaras. The penquins’ antics stole the show.

straits-of-magellan-2We pulled up anchor, heading for Beagle Channel, named for Darwin’s ship on which he embarked on his five year voyage to South America in 1831. With the angst of maneuvering zodiacs over, we eased into life aboard an expedition vessel. Discovery lectures offered by the naturalist team and history lessons about Magellan, Darwin and Shackleton, filled down time while sailing.

The next morning, we gaped at huge chunks of floating ice, which the boatman dodged enroute to our landing site. He turned into an area resembling a gigantic, outdoor amphitheater and jaws dropped at the sight of the Pia Glacier. The group, now trained in proper ‘viewing behavior’, stood mesmerized, like statues, staring. The glacier’s sounds- moans like that of an old man’s movements, the rush of glacial melt flowing within the ice pack and the thunderous clap of compacted ice plunging into the water, replaced the drones of human voice. Solitude broken, the crew landed with the hot chocolate and scotch.

Back on board, the captain ordered everyone to the 4th deck, glass lined, cocktail lounge at 5pm. “Bring binoculars and a hearty appetite,” he announced. The Via Australis would sail through the Avenue of the Glaciers, five distinct ice masses, each named for a country, during the next two hours.

The Romania Glacier appeared. While onlookers spewed expletives, waiters darted about serving Russian Caviar topped crackers and shots of vodka. ‘Happy Hour with a View’ began. As we passed the Italy Glacier; waiters served goblets of red wine and slices of pepperoni pizza, while an avalanche of snow broke from the mass, ice crystals flying in the air.

straits-of-magellan-3The captain directed us to the France Glacier. Waiters trays filled with champagne flutes and brie pranced to the tables. The German Glacier brought out mugs of Grolsh beer and sausages, and finally, the Holland Glacier—what else—bottles of Heineken and potato balls. Nature’s parade, with its combination of feast for the eyes and the stomach, ranks as the most spectacular procession I have witnessed.

After all this merriment, it was time to get down to business, Cape Horn business, End of the World business. The captain prepared us for the unthinkable. At next day’s dawn we would sail into the channel of mythical Cape Horn at 55 degrees 56 minutes South and 67 degrees 19 minutes West between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Atmospheric conditions here can be so intense, the seas so rough, the danger so great, that landing with Zodiacs at Cape Horn has been prohibitive on several past expeditions.

Conversely, if the weather and sea gods were on our side, we would experience a privilege like no other. The zodiac team held one last briefing on instructions for a 7AM Cape Horn landing. The captain encouraged the excited bunch to get a good night’s rest. Was he kidding? We were like wired kids on Christmas Eve.

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