Sunday 5 December 2010

In Darwin's wake

All last night and all day today we have been following Charles Darwin’s wake: we have navigated the full length of the Beagle Channel, named after HMS Beagle, the vessel on which the famous British naturalist explored these waters in the early 1830s. Darwin was a towering intellect and would have been quite at home discussing evolutionary theory today, with all our modern advances in this most exciting science. In the 1800s he was unparalleled and is remembered as the greatest biologist to have ever lived.

And like Darwin described in his best-selling account of his adventures “The voyage of the Beagle”, we have navigated all day between high, steep mountains separated not by valleys but by seawater. Some of the mountains are covered by dense, almost impenetrable forests; others are completely naked, stripped bare of their vegetation by glaciers. Winding our way through snaking waterways, in the early afternoon we arrived at a much wider expanse of water: the Straits of Magellan.

This globally significant waterway connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean and is used extensively by ships of all sizes. Indeed, even the gargantuan Nimitz US aircraft carrier has transited the Strait. Chile controls the waterway and requires pilots to be onboard from one end to the other. There are some tricky narrows with strong currents that have to be navigated at the Pacific end of the Strait. There is a cost to using the Strait which depends on ship size but this cost is usually offset by the savings in fuel and time compared to rounding the Horn- the only other alternative at these latitudes (farther north the Panama Canal serves this function, and even farther north, the Canada's Northwest Passage connects the two oceans). 

In the early evening, we arrived at the port of Punta Arenas, where most passengers stepped onto Chilean ground – some to travel to Torres del Paine National Park; others to take in the sights of the place, and why not, some of its gastronomic offerings.

And, finally, timing is everything as they say, and our Swedish friend and colleague Olle Melander left the Fram too early! As we approached Punta Arenas today, we passed the famous Swedish icebraker "Odin" lying off the harbour. The Odin was built in 1988 and was the first non-nuclear, surface vessel to reach the North Pole. She is currently conducting research in Antarctica.