Monday, 17 March 2008

Chile's Maritime Garden of Eden

Rounding the headland of Cabo Froward, the most southerly point of the South American continental land mass, the waves steepened and the wind whipped spray off the crests into the Zodiac. The waves came in sets of 10 or 12 with the last in the series larger than the rest, destined to break over the bow as we plunged in the trough that preceded it. Two hours previously we were standing on the shore, 5 km north of San Isidro Lighthouse, wondering why we were wearing full survival flotation suits and orange oilskins. However, sat shivering with two hours remaining to Isla Carlos III I was wondering why we didn’t have full dry suits like Jem, our kayak guide.

The further west we got in the Straits of Magellan the higher the mountains became, some topped with glaciers and all covered in a thick blanket of native vegetation. San Isidro Lighthouse marked the final permanent habitation and ahead of us lay virgin wilderness, a haven for marine mammals and seabirds. For the five hours that we plowed into the westerly wind we were kept constant company by Black Browed Albatross, Southern Giant Petrels and Imperial Cormorants. The petrels and albatross skimmed the frothing surface of the water gliding from peak to trough with effortless inflections of their wing tips.

As we approached the Southern edge of Isla Rupert we caught sight o
f a commotion on the water; a congregation of birds and sea lions jumping,flapping and diving in a frenzy of wings and flippers. As we got closer the tell-tale blow of a humpback emerged from the centre of the melee and then a giant head emerged, mottled white with calcification and barnacles. Slowly the moth closed and the head retreated back into the foaming waters as the dorsal fin of its partner broke the surface. For five minutes we floated spellbound as maybe two hundred sea lions gorged on the shoal of herring trapped by the whales. The albatross and petrels bobbed on the surface scavenging the detritus left in the aftermath of the chaotic commotion.

The scientific research station on Isla Carlos III is located on the eastern edge of the island looking out over the marine reserve that is the summer feeding grounds for dozens of humpbacks and several giant colonies of sea lions. Each year the humpbacks swing by the Straits of Magellan on their way back from the Antarctic feeding grounds to the breeding grounds in the warm waters of Colombia and Panama. Juan, the resident whale expert, has been busy over the last few years tracking their movements and taking skin biopsies for DNA testing to establish sex and lineage. Each humpback stays an average of three weeks in the reserve and is identifiable by the shape and markings of the dorsal fin and fluke. Juan has spent so much time with the whales that he can instantly identify each whale by name and number with only the slightest glance of a distant dorsal fin.

The camp, nestling into the hillside rising from the shore, is made up of a series of interconnected boardwalks linking platforms that support heavy geodesic domes that are the sleeping quarters for the scientists and guests. On the largest platform, set aside from the domes, is a dining tent with large glass sliding doors and windows that provide sweeping views of the bay from the dining table. Further north still, on the tip of the headland, is an observation hut that is used to spot the whales and study behaviour. It is hard to imagine a more idyllic spot for a camp, floating above the ferns and red trumpet flowers of the copihue. As night fell the bay sheltered bay began to calm as the wind reduced to a soft breeze in the lea of the island. A blanket of silence fell on the camp as we prepared for dinner the only sound was the intermittent blow of the whales lazily breathing between dives.

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