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Patagonia with the Falkland Islands & Cape Horn 2016 Field Report

Ingrid Nixon|May 4, 2016|Blog Post

Friday & Saturday, March 11 & 12, 2016 - Santiago, Chile / Stanley, Falkland Islands / Embark Sea Adventurer: Coming from all parts of the world, we gathered tonight in Santiago to begin our journey together. Over pre-dinner cocktails, we had quick staff introductions before heading to dinner. Based on the level of chatter, it seemed obvious that this group of strangers would soon be friends, partners in a grand adventure.

From Santiago to Punta Arenas, relatively clear skies meant we had striking views of the Andes Mountains, including massive ice fields and a glimpse of the peaks in Torres del Paine National Park. We also had a clear view of the many islands that make up the Falklands, as we flew into the Mount Pleasant airport. Greeted by the ever-present wind, we boarded buses to travel to the islands’ capital, Stanley. Once aboard the Sea Adventurer we had an opportunity to meet our Expedition Leader, Russ Evans, who grew up in the Falklands. Later that night, the ship slipped her lines and we sailed out into the night.

Sunday, March 13 - Saunders Island / Steeple Jason Island: Just about everywhere you looked on Saunders Island in the West Falklands, something was going on: nesting black-browed albatross; molting gentoo penguins; punked out rockhopper penguins; king penguins with chicks—including some with eggs on their feet. Commerson’s dolphins garnered everyone’s attention for a time as they surfed the green-tipped waves close to shore. Among the hearty clumps of sea cabbage on the shore, striated caracaras watched our every move. Our afternoon landing at Steeple Jason was thwarted by very strong winds, but the seabirds and the waves danced in a way most memorable as we cruised just offshore.

Monday, March 14 - Scotia Sea: We managed to dodge the strong winds and rough seas predicted as we sailed southwest toward Cape Horn. Seas were kind, which made it very pleasant to be out on deck or up on the bridge. Royal and wandering albatross, and giant and white-chinned petrels were among the birds that soared effortlessly around the ship. It was also a good day to rest from long travels, listen to lectures, and get to know our vessel.

Tuesday, March 15 - Cape Horn, Chile: Not many make it ashore at Cape Horn, the “continental corner” for ships traveling between the Atlantic and the Pacific, as well as the northern boundary of the infamous Drake Passage. A narrow wooden walkway with a gazillion steps led from the landing site up to the top of the island. Once atop, boardwalks made for easy walking to the albatross sculpture, a monument to sailors who died rounding the Horn. We were also welcome to visit the small chapel and lighthouse/residence of the Chilean naval staff and family who live there year-round. After our time ashore, the ship dipped her bow briefly into the Drake Passage for a closer look at the cape itself. This evening we turned out in our finery as Captain Denis Radja hosted welcome cocktails and dinner.

Wednesday, March 16 - Ushuaia, Argentina: At sunrise, we came alongside in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. Departing on our various tours had an interesting twist, as the locals protesting a government pension issue were blocking access to the port. Once aboard the buses, many headed off for Tierra del Fuego National Park for hiking and birding. Others toured closer to town, getting a sweeping view of the town from the Martial Glacier, as well as going to prison—the museum, that is. There was free time in the afternoon to stroll the main street and waterfront, and many took advantage of our evening alongside to experience an Argentine dinner ashore.

Thursday, March 17 - Ushuaia / Beagle Channel / Glacier Alley: It seemed like all day we were sailing from bright sun into a wall of clouds and rain, only to have that wall continuously receded. Always being on the edge of the weather meant rainbows galore. In the late afternoon, we entered the channel north of Gordon Island known as Glacier Alley for the numerous rivers of ice flowing toward the sea from the Darwin Cordillera. Several Peale’s dolphins played with our boats as we went to shore for an evening walk and cruise near the Alemania Glacier.

Friday, March 18 - Agostini Fjord: The face of the Hyatt Glacier at the head of the Agostini Fjord was crumbling—much to our delight. A thick ring of brash ice immediately in front of the glacier revealed just how active it had recently been. After cruising up the fjord all morning in bright sunshine, we hopped in the Zodiacs to get up close and personal with the ice faces. The kayakers took to the water and, during their paddle, happened upon a leopard seal resting on an ice floe. Then another was discovered nearby. We had great looks at this apex predator both from the Zodiacs and from the ship, which was able to cruise quite close.

Saturday, March 19 - Kirke Canal / Puerto Natales: Just after lunch, the williwaws whipped across the water as we waited for high slack tide that would allow us to safely transit the Kirke Canal. This channel is one of two that provides sea access to Puerto Natales; both are tricky. The small pilot boat bobbed in the waves alongside. At the right time we were all on deck as the captain and pilot “threaded the needle,” expertly guiding the ship through the narrow twisting passage. Sea lions roiled on shore and in the waters around small islands at the far end of the passage as our immense ship passed by. With sunshine and relatively calm winds, we made time for a Zodiac cruise around a small island group en route to Puerto Natales, which afforded excellent views of black-necked swans and ringed kingfishers.

Sunday, March 20 - Torres del Paine National Park: From the east side of the park, we paused repeatedly for exquisite views of the Paine massif, and the granite towers from which the park gets its name. Mountain vistas stayed with us throughout the day as we wound through the park, though the wind intensified and dark gray clouds were always on the horizon. We passed innumerable groups of guanacos, a wild relative of the llama, as well as rheas, large ostrich-like birds. It was hard to find a part of the sky that did not have at least one condor or rainbow, or both. Epically strong winds made our post-lunch walk at Lago Grey an exercise in balance and endurance, and a truly immersive Patagonian experience.

Monday, March 21 - Puerto Natales / Canal Santa Maria: We awoke to see fresh snow on the mountains in the direction of Torres del Paine. Many took the morning excursion to the Cave of the Mylodon, an extinct giant ground sloth. Archaeological finds reveal that this enormous cave, excavated by waves of an ancient sea, provided shelter for both this enormous animal and humans through eons. It was in the forests around the cave that we finally caught sight of Magellanic woodpeckers. Score! (Who couldn’t be intrigued seeing that huge scarlet head?) We departed the Puerto Natales area via Canal Santa Maria, the other narrow channel that must be transited at high, slack tide. Only this time many of us were in Zodiacs, winding among the smaller islands accompanied by Chilean dolphins, imperial cormorants, and condors.

Tuesday, March 22 - Pio XI Glacier: The face of the Pio XI Glacier is two and a half miles long, much of it intensely blue. Originating in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, this glacier surged in the 1970s to block the end of the fjord. From the Zodiacs we could hear the occasional boom, like that of a cannon shot, often followed by an enormous piece of ice collapsing into the water. Kayakers paddled among the ice chunks, which were many and some quite blue. Ashore, we had the chance to admire an enormous arch of topaz-colored ice; fabulous, fragile, and likely collapsed within hours of our visit.

Wednesday & Thursday, March 23 & 24 - At Sea: In the pre-dawn darkness we gathered on deck to watch the short, but spectacular passage through the English Narrows. As light strengthened, we could see the navigational beacons that lead through the narrow winding channel. The seas picked up considerably throughout the day as we bounced into the evening, crossing the open waters of the aptly named Gulf of Sorrows.

By breakfast the next morning, we had tucked back among the islands and the seas had calmed down significantly. Innumerable sooty shearwaters rested on the glassy calm seas that reflected the mountains around us. After lunch, we lowered the Zodiacs one last time to cruise among a small group of islands at the southern end of the Moraleda Canal. Bird highlights included whimbrels, Franklin’s gulls, and hummingbirds. But the capper for the cruise was a huge group of South American sea lions we discovered hauled out on a small rocky island. Though they quickly moved into the water, the sea lions stayed close to land—a roiling mass of animals, with individuals pausing to extend their heads out of the water to take a long look at us.

Friday, March 25 - Chiloe Island: At sunrise we were threading our way up the channel, past salmon, oyster, and mussel farms to the city of Castro, where we would come alongside to tour this charming island. Colorful weavings, sleeping dogs, the lush forest of the national park and oh, so many churches were highlights of the day. Over 150 churches of varying sizes dotted the rolling countryside, most made entirely in native timber with extensive use of wood shingles. We wrapped up the day and our trip with cocktails on the foredeck at sunset, then time for packing, final photos, and farewells.

Saturday, March 26 - Puerto Montt: We had dolphins playing in our wake as we came into port this morning. Luggage packed and passports in hand, we disembarked for a brief tour to Puerto Varas and lunch before heading off in myriad directions. Fair winds and following seas until we meet again.

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