Sunday, March 11, 2012

Beagle Channel and a boat ride

The Beagle Channel is one of three straits the provide access from the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans. The others are the Straits of Magellan and Drake Passage. It is about 240 kilometers (150 mi) long and is only about 5 kilometers (3 mi) wide at its narrowest point and extends from Nuevo Island in the east to Darwin Sound and Cook Bay in the west. The channel was named after the ship HMS Beagle during its expeditions of the coasts of the southern part of South America which lasted from 1826 to 1833. The second was the famous Darwin expedition under Captain Robert Fitzroy, when Charles Darwin, the naturalist was given the opportunity to explore the area. Darwin had his first sight of glaciers when they reached the channel on 29 January 1833, and wrote in his field notebook "many glaciers, beryl blue, most beautiful contrasted with snow”. There are quite a few options for sailing the sights and we chose one that lasted about 3 hours. Sailing the islands in the Beagle Channel is a definite “must-do”. We were lucky, today is partly cloudy and fairly warm and hopefully there won’t be any rain. The trip starts by travelling out past the bay and enjoying the views of Ushuaia. Our first stop was at Bridges Island where you can get off the boat. There are still remnants of the indigenous inhabitants of the Tierra del Fuego Island, the Yamana with massive concheros (shell deposits). We then hiked to a viewpoint near the western end of the island along a path of flora with hundreds of seabirds wheeling in the air, to get a different view of the channel. Facing west, you can see Chile on the left and Argentina on the right. Straight ahead Antarctica is only 600 miles away. One plant in particular which grows in profusion is the cushion plant. Cushion plants look like large solid clumps of moss, but are actually a plant. They grow at a rate of approximately 1 millimeter per year which made some of the plants we hiked past a few hundred years old based on their size. Next stop: Isla de los P├íjaros (Bird Island). Here we were able to observe hundreds of birds including Fullman and Giant petrels and the Magellan and Imperial Cormorants which look remarkably like penguins until they flap their wings and fly. We then continued on to Isla de los Lobos, where there are sea lions on just about every surface of rock and in the water. The boat circled the island for about 20 minutes which gave plenty of time to watch the sea lions push each other around trying to find a more comfortable piece of rock! Our final stop was the iconic Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse (French for “The Enlighteners”). Standing on a small island in an archipelago of the same name, it has signaled to ships in the Beagle Channel since 1920. The lighthouse guarding the sea entrance to Ushuaia is still in operation but now it is remote-controlled, automated, uninhabited and not open to the public. Powered by solar panels, the light emitted can be seen up to 8.5 miles away. The red and white windowless lighthouse is topped by black housing the lantern and is 33 feet (10 meters) high. Probably the most photographed lighthouse in South America, it is a spectacular sight. It was then time to head back, through the beautiful glacial waters and past the massive mountains of the southern end of the Andes and the reigning silence emphasizes the impression that you might be truly at the end of the world. An amazing experience.

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