Patagonia: At 9 in the evening, with trepidation tinged with excitement we board our trusty ice-breaker ship – our home for the next four nights on a journey from Puerto Natales up to Puerto Montt. Walking up the gang plank in line with the few other travellers making the long trip, it takes us a little while to find our beds. The difficulty is that we booked the cheapest bunks on the off-season price list, which are supposed to be located in the ship’s noisy corridors between the fire doors and the toilets. It turns out, though, that Nick’s charms have won over the guy at the ticket counter and managed to get us upgraded to a private cabin for two with a window!
While Nick hunkers down in our cosy cabin, I go for a wander around the ferry and get chatting in broken Spanish-broken English with the ship’s supervisor, a guy in his 60s who tells me stories of how he spent 15 months in Antarctica in the 70s, when he worked for the Chilean airforce (which was anxious to stamp its claim on the white continent before Argentina took too much). Juan Vargas runs eagerly back to his cabin to fetch black and white photos of his time in Antarctica, and others of his time working in Easter Island. They’re pretty incredible pictures. “Back then, there was no TV or internet,” he explains. “We had to entertain ourselves.” But wasn’t it terribly cold, I ask him, looking at snow-covered images. “At the beginning, I couldn’t stand to be outside for more than a couple of minutes,” he admits. “But by the end, I was walking around outside in just a T-shirt.”
Juan tells us that due to the dodgy weather – driving snow and a stiff wind – el capitaine has decided that we will delay our departure until 7am. There is a very narrow strait that we need to pass and from there, a choice of two tricky channels, and the captain wants to make the decision during daylight.
We pass a comfortable night in our little cabin – everything in its place, and a place for everything – floating stilly in port. The only disturbance is the bizarre farmyard soundtrack to the night, courtesy of three open truckloads of cows being transported with us and located just metres from our window.
Our journey begins bang on 7, and we leave heading south first to head for the narrow channel below the impassable mass of the great southern ice field. It’s the third largest source of freshwater after Greenland and Antarctica, although it’s lost 17% of its mass in the south face, due to warming, since 1970. The only anomalies are Argentina’s Perito Moreno glacier (which is in equilibrium) and Chile’s Pio XI glacier, which continues to advance by an average 73 centimetres per day – in 2007, in one day, it advanced by a massive 20 metres. These two are the highest and biggest glaciers in the field – there are 1872 glaciers in Chile alone – which seems to have protected them from warming to date. And they are growing bigger out of the carcasses of their cousins: as the other glaciers melt, water vapour from their 14000-year-old ice accumulates in clouds that precipitate snow onto Pio IX and Perito Moreno.
Standing out on the ship’s bow, the icy wind is ear-screamingly painful and sleet claws at our exposed faces, but the view is spectacular: mountains of ice and snow on either side. In a couple of hours, we pass through the tiny White Strait, just 60 metres wide between the islands, but underwater rocks reduce that to 37 metres wide. Our ship is 27 metres wide, leaving us a tiny margin each side. We make it easily and our course through the strait takes us past playful colonies of sea lions, dolphins and porpoises. Albatrosses and condors glide over our ship and in the shape of the rocks we see a cat sleeping.
When I can no longer stand the cold, I visit the captain and his pilotas in the warm bridge. A deck of buttons, dials and screens runs the full width of the room. I ask the captain what happens if we hit an iceberg, Titanic style. “We have to hit it straight on with the bow, which will split it and force the pieces to drift away from the ship,” he explains. “Failing that, we can hit it side on, but it will cause the ship to rock a lot. The main thing is to not let the propellors hit the ice,” he says. “Ice will break them and make a big problem for us.”
For now, we encounter no ice-related problems. The weather alternates between a sunshine that sends everything snowbound into piercing glimmers of white light and highlights the reds and greens of the coastal vegetation, and thick fog that baffles the view and hides even nearby rocks. Snow falls and stops and falls.
We pass the wreck of a Greek trawler, there since 1968 when its owner apparently tried to sink it for an insurance claim, but failed – the rusty hulk lists to one side, grounded on rocks and refusing these past 40 years to drown. Its side is punctured with bullet holes, testimony to its years as a practice target for the Chilean navy, and a beacon has been installed in one chimney as a precaution against accidental groundings, or perhaps those who would attempt a sinking there.
The head steward, a man who combs his shiny black hair often and possesses twinkly eyes and a perfect cabaret smile, breaks off from the superb job he’s doing of charming a group of blushing middle-aged women to come and talk to me. Marcello comes from Chiloé, an island we will pass on our route, which is “bigger than the whole of Puerto Rico”. He gets just eight hours at home at the end of this journey before he starts the shift back to Natales, but he likes his job and it’s helping his English immensely, he says. Actually, that’s not Marcello’s only skill, he is also Number 3 in Chile at World of Warcraft, he mentions proudly. In the last tournament he won a brand new computer. “I’m a nerd, but a cool nerd,” he clarifies, with a flash of the boyband smile.
Giant petrels, with a wingspan almost a metre wide, ride the hot air currents from the ship’s chimneys. I ask Marcello about some of the many different birds that we see – there are more than 320 species of bird in Patagonia, from the ostrich-like rhea to the condor. Marcello points out his favourite bird, an enormous petrel that lives in a male dominated hierarchy and feeds by grabbing anything from penguins to puma cubs and dropping them from great height on the rocks below. The alpha male then feasts on the animal’s brain, after which the rest of the body can be eaten by the other birds. Condors, by comparison, are far less gruesome. These 3m-wide avian emperors never kill for their supper, they only eat by scavenging. There’s one bird here, the carancho, which is the only eagle that cannot hunt using the swoop and snatch method. Instead, the carancho lands near to its prey and then runs awkwardly up to it on foot.
The main act, for me at least, is always the mammals and we’re hoping to see some big ones on this journey. The route we’re on, which before construction of the Panama Canal was a busy shipping way, used to be a major whaling zone – a very important industry here until 1984. Happily, whales are now protected in Chilean waters, and everything from orcas or ‘killer whales’ (actually a very big dolphin) to blue whales swim these channels. We’re a bit late now for humpback whales – they migrated (with an average sped of 8 knots) up to Mexico a couple of months ago – but we’re crossing our fingers for a straggler. Orcas also pass this way a bit earlier in the year.
There’s a spot at the bottom of Chiloé where, inexplicably, more than 250 blue whales have been hanging out since 2003. No one knows why – the whales are usually migratory. The area has been classified a protected sanctuary, so we will travel through a narrow designated shipping lane, but it might be possible to spot one of these 33-metre, 190-tonne giants, and I’ll be looking. Blue whales are fascinating creatures that live in female-led groups, grazing on plankton and krill. Females can live until 90 years old, although hunting pressures mean they average about 25 years. Their heart is 2 tonnes, and a man can stand in the main artery – it’s 1.8 metres in diameter.
At 5am, we dock for a brief hour at the tiny island village of Puerto Eden, home to just 150 people, the last of the Kaweskar tribe of indigenous Chileans. This weekly boat is pretty much their only contact with the outside world and so n important lifeline. No one is allowed off the boat and we continue on, through the English Strait to the open Pacific Ocean in the Gulf of Penas. The waves are higher here and people start swallowing sea sickness tablets and looking a little yellow. They screen an entertaining but forgettable movie in the bar, which I watch, with one eye scanning the dark waters outside for whales.
Day three and the weather is noticeably warmer. We have returned from the open ocean to the flat waters of the channels, above the ice field now. The passengers have settled into a routine of snoozing, reading and chatting, punctuated by cafeteria meals at which we all eat more than we need and probably more than we want. We sip mate from metal straws, enjoying the ceremony of preparing the drink, and in the evenings have too-sweet pisco sours. Some people have brought wine and beer onboard and they pass the time in a pleasantly sizzled haze. The barman plays a mix of Spanish soft rock and American pop – the lucky few tune out with iPods and headsets.
On the horizon we see sporadic plumes of whale exhalations. Long after others have grown bored of watching for them, I remaining out, sitting on a bench, chatting with a lovely American girl. We’re deep in conversation when, less than 5 metres from our bench, the water splits apart with the massive arching back of a whale. We leap up and feel the force of its fountain jet of breath as it plunges below again. “Ballena azul!” I shout, and from inside, the barman has also seen the blue whale, and everyone rushes out to see. The water is still for a couple of minutes and then, 100 metres away, a spurting fountain bids us farewell.
We journey north passing volcanic heaps on the right (starboard) side, including the seldom active Chaiten, whose last major eruption was a surprise in 2008. We’re in an incredibly active seismic zone, here. Last month’s massive quake that flattened Concepcion was not unusual. In 1960, there were 1200 earthquakes above 7.0 on the Richter scale in just 90 days between here and Bolivia. One of these, measuring 9.6, caused a tsunami that devastated fiji and destroyed homes as far away as Australia and Japan. Chile’s army was slow to respond, because personnel were deployed in Bolivia, helping its people recover from a large quake there.
Ahead lies Puerto Montt, our destination, whose main square is decorated with 7 pillars, each representing a major quake survived by the city. But first, we pass Chiloé, home to the gypsy-like ‘Minga’ people (of Spanish descent), who frequently move their entire houses across rivers and lakes, and birthplace of Marcello. The island has more than 200 churches, but unlike elsewhere on the continent, Christianity has amalgamated on equal footing with the native Mapucho Amerindian beliefs, I’m told. The churches depict frescos of Jesus in the happy surrounds of local legendary characters. Among these is a mermaid who predicts whether the coming season will be good for fishing – an important job in a place where 80% of the economy is based on salmon. There is also a ghost ship around here that sails with a fearsome warlock at the helm, who is capable of seducing any woman, and who has been responsible for a number of babies born illegitimately here. Naughty warlock.
The forests on Chiloé are all ‘new’, Marcello tells me, after the originals were chopped down to rebuild Spain’s Invincible Army – which, it transpires, is the Spanish name for what English people know as the ‘Spanish Armada’. It needed to be rebuilt after an unsuccessful attack on Britain in the 1500s, which “Spain would have won, had it not been for a terrible storm that destroyed all the Spanish ships,” he explains.
Quellon, a small town at the bottom of Chiloé island, is the start of the great Pan American Highway, which ends in Alaska. But that’s for another journey…