Ushuaia and Wildlife in the Beagle Channel

3 02 2012

Wow! I had the most amazing sleep! I did not awaken once. And today I am recharged! We’re to take a boat from the Ushuaia waterfront out to see islands and marine wildlife colonies in the Beagle Channel. Luckily we got another weather break. Thin clouds but no wind nor rain. The highlights will be getting up close with colonies of terns, cormorants, sea lions and more.

We get to the waterfront early, so we’ve got some time to observe. There are some huge factory fishing ships docked here, and just their size makes me concerned about collapsing fish stocks. With ships like these, towering above the docks, how can Planet Earth’s fish survive? Where is the catch going?

There are plenty of tourists shooting photographs of themselves in front of a sign declaring they’re at the “end of the world.” They’re not – the end of the route is where I hiked to yesterday! There are also some very interesting sailboats. They are private yachts. They are *not* luxury yachts.

These are built for solo circumnavigation with all the overbuilt toughness required to survive the Southern Ocean. These sailboats can capsize, go inverted, and come up righted and survive.

The Argentine Prefectura, or Coast Guard, is busy, too.

We board our little boat and it takes us out of the harbor and into the channel. We cross, and looking around, I can see some very impressive glaciated mountains to the west that go into the sea. They are part of the Darwin Range, in Chile.

The glaciated Darwin Range

Though they look over 10,000ft high, they are only 6,000ft. It is because that we are at such an extreme latitude that lower mountains can have such impressive glaciers.

Looking back at the city one can see the shanty town creeping up through the forest behind.

Crossing the channel, we navigate amongst some islands home to marine animals of varied species.  We land on one of them and take a quick hike. We see cormorants nesting, and even skuas. Skuas are the bane of nesting birds. Skuas, which look like brown, oversized seagulls, live by scavanging the weak, young, and infirm. They’ll eagerly snatch a chick from a distracted parent.

Looking overhead, I notice the sun is far to the north of 12:00 high. That shows just how far south we are! Wow. We depart for several other island colonies. Each island is home to a species.

On the way we see one or two Southern Giant Petrels, another scavenger.

Giant Petrel

One colony is a sea lion island. I’ll never forget the noise, and the smell. They belch, burp, and make the mose grotesque gutteral noises, as well as bark. There are hundreds, with calves, and bulls making all kinds of noise. It smells! It smells because they eat fish!

Skuas and seagulls are making the most of the leftovers, as is another bird I’ve never seen, which is called a snowy sheathbill. This bird is all white.

We move on to a colony of cormorants.

A snowy sheathbill

They are super busy! There must be a thousand of them. And, they are flying back and forth building nests, bringing food to chicks, and so forth.

The cormorants are black and white, and I’m tempted to call them flying penguins. They make these nests that look like cereal bowls attached to the rocks. These guys squawk incessantly!

Here too, opportunistic scavangers are working the colony hard. Parents are on guard defending against attacks from the hungry predators.

Then, it’s on to the shrieking tern colony.

Like the cormorants, the terns remind me of an aircraft carrier. Lots of  “planes on deck,” and others coming and going.

It’s non-stop buzz of activity!

I do have a couple of videos, which I will show you.

The terns are really pretty, I think.

We get back to the Ushuaia harbor in time for an afternoon exploring the city, and lunch.

Tonight, we depart for Buenos Aires (unless there is another Airline Strike). Elwin, Ivo, Echbert, myself, and Flores head to town in search of lunch. Ushuaia is a tax-free zone so one would think the shopping would be good. Shopping turns out to be a let down. Prices are too high and there are no bargains to be had – they are obviously expecting lots of tourists – especially the ones from cruise ships. We pick an “Irish Pub.” The Irish-ness of the establishment stops right at the front door. While they do offer Guiness, the food isn’t Irish. I see a hamburger on the menu but instead try for what they call a “steak sandwich.” And again, I’m faced with meat on a dry bread / bun or something. While not satisfying, I guess it contained some nutrition. Lunch completed, we wandered around town. The parts Elwin and I visited were nothing worth blogging about. Touristy shops, some liquor stores, hostels, and up back on the hill, some strip clubs. We went down to the water to watch the activity – pass some time.

We only have two days left in Argentina! I wonder how Buenos Aires will have changed since we left? It’s 1,266 miles north to Buenos Aires. We’ll be wearing shorts and t-shirts again! I was told the Jacaranda trees will be in bloom! Looking forward to seeing the beautiful avenues!





Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego Argentina: We Made It!

2 02 2012

This morning we get the GO signal! Aerolineas Argentinas has seats for all of us on a plane headed to El Calafate! That plane will continue to Ushuaia! For some of us, reaching the most southern place on Planet Earth outside Antarctica is a highlight. It turns out that yesterday a plane did depart Buenos Aires and go through El Calafate, but we did not get seats on it, because there were not enough available to accommodate our entire group.

We’ll arrive in Ushuaia in early afternoon and because sunset is past 10:00 p.m. we’ll have plenty of time to get in a hike at the bottom of the world!

As the plane nears its destination, the terrain appears out of the clouds, and it’s very rugged. Snow capped valley after valley flows below us, then giving way to a fjord. A factory fishing boat is plying the waters, no doubt headed toward Ushuaia. This is the Beagle Channel. One more turn, and Ushuaia reveals itself. It’s a city of about 60,000 carved out of mountain and sea. There is a ski area above, and one part of the city appears to be literally climbing into the forest above – looks like people are simply cutting the forest and plunking down any shanty as a land claim.

Our hostel is a big one. Christof and I get our keys and head to our “room,” which is in fact like a condominium! It’s by far the biggest of this trip. It is three bedrooms, separate bath, a living room, separate kitchen, wow! Huge! Not only that, the living room has a panoramic view of the city and mountains behind!

We gather in the lobby for our activity, which is a hike “to the end of civilization.” That is, to the southernmost continental place before Antarctica. A 45-minute minibus ride later, we are there ready to hike.

The hike winds up and down through trails with views of the Tierra del Fuego landscape. To the east and west, the sky lightens, meaning it’s good weather. Overhead, it’s cloudy. But, it’s not raining. It’s not windy. That is good weather down here!

Here and there we see evidence of the Indians that used to live here. They lived by foraging the clams/mussels from the seabed. They discarded shells, and these shells became mounds we see all throughout our hike.

There are also freshwater rivers reaching the sea here, and there are fly fishermen casting these streams.

All along are views to the east and west. It’s not far to the Atlantic. Not far to the Pacific, either!

Today I am the first to reach the end! I actually cheated. Twice. The trail was so close to the road I hitched a ride for maybe 3/4 of a mile. The driver let me off at a cut-off trail. Taking this trail, I cut an hour off the hike!

 

 

At the end of the trail, and there is a sign commemorating the place. Over 17,000 kilometers from Alaska! This is the END of Argentina Route 3.

Well, I’ve made it. I am at the bottom of the Americas!

I wait around and check out the decked walkway going all the way out to the end. There are some local ladies down there sharing a bottle of bubbly celebrating something!

Other then them, though, the only company I’ve got right now is some Patagonian geese! They are really interesting…they always are seen in “married pairs.” And they don’t ever seem to mind people being nearby.

Yap and Angelique at the end of civilization!

Ahh-familiar faces! Everybody finally shows up…

Everyone spends some time in thought, thinking about where we are on Planet Earth, for this is truly the southernmost continental place outside the poles. This is several hundred miles and a major latitude parallel below New Zealand. MUCH farther south than Cape of Good Hope. If you have a globe, go look at it now. At this spot, Antarctica reaches up toward Tierra del Fuego.

This is close to Cape Horn. Cape Horn is one of the most notoriously stormy places on Earth – before the Panama Canal was built, countless clipper ships were lost rounding “The Horn.” For here, the Southern Ocean, the most stormy on Earth, gets squeezed between Antarctica and South America. The Southern Ocean is famous for ceaseless storms, 70-ft seas, and…icebergs in between.

Tomorrow, we are to take a boat to explore islands, and see wildlife living on islands in the Beagle Channel.

It’s past 8 p.m. and still very bright outside. We board our van, which takes us back to town. Although most are going out to eat, I am utterly spent. I spend maybe an hour watching TV in the room, and then sleep like a rock all night….