Condors of Estancia del Monte

We headed back south past Queulat and the Enchanted Forest that we could see and appreciate now that it had stopped raining. Our destination was Coyhaique Alto, a border post between Chile and Argentina to the east of Coyhaique. On the journey we observed a dramatic change in the vegetation and topography as we moved south and the east – from the dense vegetation and steep slopes of the Enchanted Forest where the annual rainfall is over 1.2 metres a year to the vast, flat pampas grasslands where the rain is less than 30 cm a year.

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Condor Falls, Enchanted Forest, near Queulat.

Just south of Mañihuales there is a choice of routes to Coyhaique. We decided to try the route via Villa Ortega but didn’t find it particularly spectacular. It was certainly not special enough to recommend the dirt road over the (only slightly longer) paved alternative route that we had used on the way north.

We had a brief stop in Coyhaique to meet Alejandro, owner of Estancia del Monte, so we could follow him up the road towards Argentina and his ranch. At the estancia we stayed with Alejandro’s family in his house. Tim Druett of The British Tour Guide joined us to help with translation, be our wildlife guide and take us out to the condor cliffs. Everyone was warm and welcoming and the food was excellent making it a great home-stay experience.

Alejandro explained that the mainstay of the estancia had been his family’s award-winning corriedale sheep, bred especially for the harsh conditions, but that there was no longer sufficient profit to be made from sheep. The family was therefore working to establish the estancia as an ecotourism destination based on the presence of spectacular cliffs where Andean condors roost.

Next morning we had an early start and after a quick breakfast we headed off in the dark to the condor cliffs. When we arrived the sun was just rising. We climbed down to the viewing spots and settled in hoping to see condor and hoping that the birds would come to us if we waited patiently.

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The condor roosting cliffs at Estancia del Monte catch the early morning light.

We were not disappointed. A pair of adult condors rested on a ledge way below us and several were flying around. Condors are really curious and several flew right over us, clearly looking at us intently and “checking us out”.

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A pair of adult condor in distinctive black and white plumage. The female has a red eye and the male has a large fleshy knob called a caruncle in his head.

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A female condor in juvenile plumage

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An adult female condor clearly looking at the camera.

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A female condor in juvenile plumage flies close by overhead.

After a while a pair landed on a pinnacle of rock quite close by. Although still in juvenile plumage they were clearly a bonded pair and were the same size as the adult birds. The female was particularly curious and at one point flew up to a point that was only a few metres away from me and just looked me up and down. It is only when you are that close that you can appreciate how big these birds are. I had a long lens with me and all I could fit into the frame was the head! After a couple of shots I stopped photographing and just tried to drink in the moment. It was an awesome experience. Tim and Phil were so stunned that neither of them thought to take a shot with me in it to show just how close the condor had been willing to come to me.

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A female condor inspecting me closely. This image is not cropped.

The female rejoined the male and the pair spent several hours mutually grooming and preening before flying away.

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Flying around the cliffs we also saw and photographed a pair of black-chested buzzard eagles who rode the currents along the cliff face. Although they were still tending a large chick they also found the time to engage in some courtship routines flying close together and briefly clasping talons.

After what had been a great and memorable day we headed back to the estancia for a late lunch before driving back to Coyhaique. We stayed the night here before commencing the next stage of our adventure on the southern part of the Carretera Austral.

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Valle Mirta and Lago Rosselot loop drive

Heading northwards from Posada Queulat on Sunday 13th March lead us to one of the highlights of our trip – a circular drive north of La Junta through the lovely Valle Mirta.

We left around mid morning and again passed through Puyuhuapi, stopping only at the Copec station to top up with fuel. The road between Queulat and Puyuhuapi was initially excellent, having recently been upgraded, and then narrow and muddy with some delays as we passed stretches undergoing reconstruction. Beyond Puyuhuapi it was pretty good and passed some picturesque countryside. We reached La Junta and settled in to our hotel Espacio y Tiempo hoping for a nap but the car park was under construction so we had to forgo that idea – which turned out to be a good thing. The hotel proprietor suggested we take a drive to Valle Mirta which is situated to the north of La Junta.

Here was the Chile that we had been expecting with spectacular, snow-clad mountains and clear azure streams. The winding gravel loop road (X-11 and X-13 on some maps) was about 50 km (that’s an approximation from memory) and we only saw one other vehicle. Apparently the road has only been completed recently: before the road the farmers in the area had to travel on horse-back to town.

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View towards the spectacular El Condor peak

 

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An azure stream

As we passed Lago Claro Solar we saw several turkeys by the side of the road – and then as we drove towards them a huge flock of turkey vultures lifted off. There looked to be hundreds and they wheeled and circled in the thermals and rapidly became specks in the blue sky.

 

We saw what appeared to be a pedestrian bridge ahead of us and wondered what it was doing in the middle of nowhere – it then became apparent that it was actually the road bridge. It was only a few centimetres wider than our vehicle and seemed rather flimsy. However, it was either the bridge or turn around and go back the way we had come. We decided to give it a go. We had to engage 4WD to get up the steep ramp onto the bridge and then ease our way along.

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Not a lot of room to spare getting on to the bridge

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The view ahead driving over the bridge

We kept on towards Lago Rosselot where we stopped for a while. A family was having a party on the lake shore – playing loud “oompa” music. All the family members including young children were taking part in the fun. Some of the people in the group came over to us to find out what we were doing – and we managed to have a limited but friendly conversation in my basic Spanish.

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Reflection of El Cóndor in the calm waters of Lago Rosselot in the late afternoon light.

Although it looked as though it would be a lovely evening we decided to head back to our hotel. Even in autumn the evenings are long in Chile and the sun goes down late. We had a pleasant dinner in the hotel restaurant and had an early night as we had to make an early start to be sure of getting to the Puerto Cisnes junction before the afternoon road construction closure.

 

 

 

 

Carretera Austral – North of Coyhaique to Queulat

To begin the next section of our adventure we head back southwards to one of the main access points of the famed Carretera Austral, namely Coyhaique (sounds a bit like Coy-aye-kay). Although quite a big city, Coyhaique doesn’t have its own airport so we flew to Balmaceda which is right on the Argentinian border. The approach to Balmaceda was a surprise as the airport is located on the flat, brown pampas, which is such a contrast to the mountainous, green Andes. The town basically is the airport and a few houses and nothing else – no accommodation, no fuel, no food.

Our day (Thursday 10th March) started okay, but at Puerto Montt airport there was a minor glitch when the attendant to charge us for the car hire for which we had already paid! Fortunately this was soon sorted out but then our plane was delayed an hour so we were late to arrive in Balmaceda . When we picked up our next hire car, a Toyota 4Runner, we discovered that one of the tyres was really soft. Given that there are no facilities in Balmaceda (even for the car hire companies) the only option was to drive to the car hire depot in Coyhaique itself (60km away). It was blowing a gale and the weather was closing in as we headed to Coyhaique, found the depot, were assured that the car was fine (!) and found a petrol station to put refuel and put air in the tyres.

Thus we only left Coyhaique at 4 pm instead of the planned 2 pm and we hadn’t even had time for lunch! We headed north for Queulat choosing the paved route to keep our travel time as short as possible. North of Mañihuales the road went through a lovely valley flanked by pretty rivers that tumbled over stony watercourses. We arrived at the turnoff to Puerto Cisnes (the end of the pavement) well after the end of the regular afternoon closure of the road for roadworks so were able to head on straight away. The dirt road was a muddy, potholed and steep construction site as we had expected but the rain and mist added to the challenge. We saw tantalising glimpses of the ice field above the mists drifting through the aptly named impenetrable forest. We finally arrived at Posada Queulat at 8.15 pm – just in time for dinner. Patricio was there to welcome us. Our cabin was cosy and inviting with a wood-burning stove going full blast and dinner was welcome and hot.

Friday 11th March.

Today we were able to take in the beauty of the setting of the Posada Queulat. The mist and rain of the previous day had cleared and the day was bright and beautiful. Patricio took us on a short walk to the river with Argentinian guests Alejandro and Vivian. The Posada is at the end of the fjord so river levels are subject to the tide. The river is apparently excellent for fly fishing. The Posada Queulat’s property is really extensive – Patricio tells us he bought it in the early 80s shortly after finishing studies in Santiago and has built up the Posada since then.The surrounding forest is lush and green, and impenetrable like its name.

As we walked through the forest and were surprised to come across a large, super-modern building set in a clearing by the river. It is a water-bottling facility – bottling glacier melt. Ice Swan is the name of the water, and this factory is an important source of income for Patricio who sells his water and leases his land. The factory is gleaming glass and steel and classical music is played to keep the water vibes calm. It was a bit surreal and felt like we had walked into a sci-fi movie set.

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We spent a pleasant time photographing birds in the garden of the lodge and then headed out in Patricio’s boat for a tour of the fjord. We saw a sextet of black-necked swans – apparently rare in the area. A pod of local dolphins came to play around the boat, leaping out of the water almost close enough to touch. We also had a spectacular view of the “hanging” glacier from the boat.

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Our destination was Poyo Huapi Island – Patricio had bought it soon after buying the rest of the property so that he could run trips for tourists and have a pleasant place for them to land and have a swim or a picnic. The name of the island, Patricio tells us, refers to the Poyo flowers found there while Huapi means beautiful in an indigenous language.These flowers grew in profusion on the walls of the cliffs on the edge of the fjord and also on the island. These bromeliads (related to pineapples) are probably Fascicularia bicolor also known as Puñeñe. 

We return, hoping to photograph the resident kingfisher waiting for us at the “dock”. This evening we meet Joe (who specialises in a high-end house renovations) and Melissa, the flyfishers from Santa Barbara who had enjoyed Puerto Octay.

Saturday 12th March

Today we drive to Queulat National Park to view the “hanging glacier” that is no longer a hanging glacier. The sign to the park says “Ventisquero Colgante”. Like most glaciers in Patagonia (with the exception of Perito Moreno in Argentina), the Queulat glacier is in serious retreat. Patricio told us that when he had arrived in Queulat the glacier had come down to the lake below and had a magnificent ice cave underneath. That is not there anymore. The “hanging” glacier is now a truncated glacier in a hanging valley. It is beautiful, but we only have a distant view. We walk to the lake and there is a boat that goes closer to the cliff, but we decide it isn’t worth the cost of the ride. The river below the lake is running swiftly – showing that the melting is continuing apace, particularly in the warm weather. We drove on to Puyuhuapi – according to the guide books one of the highlights of the Carretera Austral. It is in a spectacular setting at the head of the one arm of the fjord (Posada Queulat being at another) but the town itself quite unremarkable. We refuelled here after finding the rather insignificant petrol station a way off the main road and returned to Posada Queulat for one more night.

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Boats on the beach at low tide, Puyuhuapi

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Petrohué and Cochamó

Sun 6th March

From the holiday town of Puerto Varas the next section of our trip took us east of Llanquihue to the famous Petrohué falls and picturesque Cochamó.

Our last day in Puerto Varas was a slow day where we took the time to check Raffaele’s recommended route to the airport (avoiding the toll on Ruta 5 and so much better than going through Puerto Montt -take the V50 out of Puerto Varas and turn left on the recently paved V590 just before the bridge over the Maullin River). We did some shopping and then had wanted to have lunch on the beach, but discovered that although river and lake frontage is public land in Chile, getting there is another matter. Apart from a public park at the western end of town, most of the beach access was from private property and was behind fences and locked gates. We ended up sitting on a patch of grass at the side of the road before heading back to town. We had dinner at another restaurant recommended by Raffaele and the guide books, “La Gringa”. It was also conveniently just over the road from our accommodation. I had onion soup and prawn salad and Phil had melt-in-the-mouth pork. The local beer (artesanal beers are a feature of Patagonia and are generally excellent) was good too. A really excellent meal with good service. On our travels we met others who had dined here and they too had great experiences.

Mon 7th March

We headed east from Puerto Varas to Ensanada and on to Petrohué. There is obviously a lot of back-packer traffic in this area in high season. For cyclists, the on-road cycleway goes all the way (with only one small hiatus) from Puerto Varas to the end of the tar. We stopped at several viewpoints to photograph Osorno and the lake as we traveled to Lago Todos los Santos. A popular trip for back-packers is to travel via Lago Todos Los Santos into Argentina. We had opted not to do this, feeling it wasn’t compatible with the amount of luggage and camera gear we lug about and we think this was the right decision for us. Lago Todas los Santos was a very pretty blue but not much wider than the river. We had lunch on our return trip overlooking some rapids on the river but the water levels were way down and not sufficient for the kayaking and rafting trips usually popular on this river.

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Petrohue River

We also stopped off to look at the famous Petrohué Falls, but there was little water so it was hard to get the classic shot of the falls with snow-capped Osorno in the background. You can see how little water there is in the picture below compared with images taken by others from this spot.

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Osorno from the viewpoint at Petrohue Falls

From Ensenada we headed south towards Cochamó. The pretty road was beautifully maintained through the national park with trimmed verges and park-like trees. We saw several signs warning of increased fire risk – probably because of the pine and eucalyptus plantations in the area. There were lovely views along the most northerly of Chile’s fjord, Reloncaví Sound and the road turned to dirt as we headed towards Cochamó. We found our accommodation run by Christian, his mother and his girlfriend Anna. After dropping off our bags Christian took us on a walk through the local countryside to a viewpoint high above the sound. Here we had yet another view of the omnipresent Osorno.

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The track was deeply cut into the rich soil – a result of earlier logging activities when the region was denuded of its vast alerce forests. The farmers who own this land have no access to roads, so all traffic goes along the track, which is maintained by the farmers for the benefit of all. Usually the tracks are very muddy as this region has one of the highest rainfalls in Chile, but this year has been unusually dry – as we could tell from the state of the rivers. Christian was hoping the rain would start soon. We went to La Ollita for dinner – basic but fine – and were joined by Antonia who is also staying at our lodge. She is a journalist for the magazine Domingo in town to interview a former husband of a president.

Tuesday 8th March and Weds 9th March

We had a great breakfast that featured the local honey made from Ulmo blossoms – reminiscent of the Tasmanian leatherwood honey – the flowers look similar too. Local honey is a major activity of the region.

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Ulmo blossoms

We discovered that Christian had been a computer salesman in Santiago who recently came to the area, bought the property and built the lodge himself. It is a very pleasant lodge with good views from the upper rooms. Christian is an experienced canoeing and kayaking guide who runs tours in the region. There was a great view of Reloncaví Sound from our bedroom window.

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We had a pleasant day photographing in the town of Cochamó where the local church has the region’s distinctive architecture. This building style, using wooden tiles, traditionally of alerce, is widely used for all types of buildings. There are apparently  lot more of these photogenic churches on Chiloe Island and other islands in the region.

 

We drove a bit further along the sound and up to the end of the road to the climbing mecca of La Junta. This region is known as Chile’s Yosemite and apparently attracts 12,000 visitors in summer. It certainly is a picturesque area.

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On the way we encountered several gaucho working and traveling.

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We dined with Antonia again, who had been successful in getting her interview. The next day we drove back along Reconclavi Fjord on a beautiful sunny day and once back in Puerto Varas got ready for the next stage of our adventures in Chile.

 

Birds Chile around Puerto Varas

Saturday 5th March

Today was a special day devoted to viewing the birds of the Puerto Varas region with our expert guide, Raffaele of Birds Chile. We were up early for a brief breakfast and dropped our bags at our next hotel, Casa Kalfu, before heading out with Raffaele. We started in a field next to  the Maullin River, the river by which the waters of Llanquihue flow to the sea. Here we photographed a very compliant variable hawk who let us get really close and one of the few species endemic to Chile, the Chilean mockingbird.

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Variable Hawk

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Chilean Mockingbird

We then headed via a back-road to the town of Llanquihue. This residents of this town are poor and the town was not well kept. I admired the way Raffaele was able to find quite spectacular and interesting birds in less-than-salubrious surroundings. Raffaele told us that he is hoping that the area we were looking at will be rehabilitated and a reserve established. This would be great, as there is certainly abundant bird-life here. The most spectacular bird we saw there was the spectacled tyrant, but we also saw abundant ducks, chiloe widgeon, night herons and egrets as well as the ubiquitous gulls and black-faced ibis.

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Male Spectacled Tyrant

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Black-faced Ibis

From Llanquihue we headed to Puerto Montt and drove along the sea-front along the road that is actually the official start of the Carretera Austral and the route to the island of Chiloe (which we had decided not to visit). As we were driving along, Raffaele picked out an elegant tern in a group of seagulls sitting on the beach and also saw a whimbrel.

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Elegant Tern with friends

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Whimbrel

We spent some time in open grasslands hunting for snipe. We did see them but they are masters of camouflage and difficult to photograph. I managed to photograph a yellowleg feeding in the river.

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Yellowlegs

 

From Puerto Montt we headed to the Parque Nacional Alerce Andino to photograph woodland birds. I found the natural environment a pleasant change from the urban wastelands we had been visiting so far that day. The national park is named for its once-magnificent forests. A few alerce trees remain but almost all have been removed for their valuable timber. We saw one huge stump just outside the entry to the park. The alerce is one of the longest-lived trees thought to be able to live for thousands of years: only the bristle-cone pine is known to be able to live longer. The Andean forests of ancient giants must have been spectacular before humans ravaged them.

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A lone remnant alerce tree

We searched unsuccessfully for the elusive magellanic woodpecker, but did spot (clockwise, below) white-throated tree runner, thorn-tailed rayadito, striped woodpecker, black-throated huet-huet and chucao tapaculo.

We also saw a colourful lizard catching some sun on a rock.

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The highlight of the day was the hummingbirds – the green backed firecrowns – that flitted through the undergrowth. We have photographed hummingbirds before and they are fiendishly difficult to capture – and that was at feeders. Here we were trying to photograph the birds in the wild as they flitted from flower to flower. Fortunately the magellanic fuschia blooms were out in abundance.

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Green backed firecrowns

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We headed back to Puerto Varas getting to our hotel at 6pm – a really long day for Raffaele and a really enjoyable day for us. Although we don’t consider ourselves “birders” who keep lists and counts of birds seen, Raffaele informed us that we had seen seen 35-40 species (not counting the ubiquitous chumango caracaras, seagulls and house sparrows) and we had photographed a good number while having a fun day.

We finished with dinner at La Marca – a steakhouse recommended by Raffaele. We didn’t have the house special – “Bool’s testicles” (I kid you not) but did have a very nice steak that was cooked to perfection. We discovered that steak “a la inglesa” is the term for rare steak (not sure where that comes from) and that usually “inglesa y media” is only a little bit on the medium side of rare.

Chilean Lake District: Frutillar on the shores of Llanquihue

Thursday 3rd March

We had a morning flight to Puerto Montt where we picked up another hire car – this time a Nissan Quash Qui. We drove gingerly into Puerto Montt and then headed north along Ruta 5 to Frutillar (sounds a bit like Frooty – yaar) on the shores of Lake Llanquihue (pronounced something like Yankey Whey). There is “upper Frutillar” – an ordinary town on the freeway and “lower” Frutillar – a strange town on the lake shore that appears solely set up for tourists. We found our accommodation, a sprawling, rustic guest house that had recently changed hands – hence although called “Casa Ko” in our itinerary all the signage indicated “Cinco Robles”. No wonder we had to ask someone before we were able to find it! Our room was clean and comfortable and our hostess Pauline welcoming.

After settling in to our room we headed out to explore. Built on a promontory jutting out into Lake Llanquihue is Frutillar’s most famous building, a large barn-like building, El Teatro del Largo. The building houses two theatres, one an internationally-renowned concert hall seating 1178 people and the other a smaller theatre seating 270, as well as various rehearsal rooms and other spaces. Although I found it somewhat plain from the outside it is apparently acoustically and architecturally superb inside. El Teatro del Lago hosts various special events and classical music festivals during the year and is obviously a significant draw-card for the region. We were surprised to find the weather really warm – there were swimmers in the lake as well as kayakers and we came across an impromptu concert being conducted under the shade of some trees by the wharf.

 

There was a lovely, summer holiday atmosphere. We drove on around the Lake for a bit and returned to photograph the Osorno volcano in the gloaming, when the light was magical (see photo above).

 

Friday 4th March

We had a lazy morning as Pauline could only provide breakfast after 9 when she returned from the school run. We then set off to explore the Lake’s western shore. We had a somewhat boring drive through rolling farmland to Puerto Octay – a village noted in the guide books for its intact German-style architecture. We found it run down and most buildings were in serious need of some tlc. We didn’t find anything that we felt like photographing. (However, a few days later we met a fly-fishing couple who had enjoyed 3 days in Puerto Octay staying in the The Hotel Centinela with its tapestry donated by the Prince of Wales when he stayed there in 1931). We continued around the Lake and took a side trip to a waterfall at Las Cascadas. We have since discovered that “cascada” refers to a waterfall down a cliff or mountain-side, whereas “salto” refers to falls or rapids in a significant river flow.

We found the east side of Lake Llanquihue more interesting, particularly once we entered the national park and left the populated farmland behind. We had some great views of Osorno. The people who live in the area between Ensenada and Puerto Varas are obviously a lot more prosperous than those who live in the areas to the west of the Lake. We drove through Puerto Varas through some horrendous traffic. We later found out that it was the last day of the school holidays with the last of the summer crowds heading back to Santiago.

How do cormorant parents cope? Feeding time in Punta Arenas

When we are travelling we like to have a little bit of down time every now and then to recharge our batteries. It helps to take a day out to do laundry and to catch up on backing up photos – and sometimes to just to do nothing. Punta Arenas is the capital of the twelfth region of Chile known as “Magallanes Region y de la Antártica Chilena” and on this trip to Chile we were in Punta Arenas several times between different segments of the trip. Although we initially found the place somewhat uninspiring, we grew to like it after a few visits. We found the people warm, welcoming and resourceful.

Unless you are heading out to the Straits of Magellan, visiting the penguin colonies or heading off to Torres del Paine, there are not a lot of tourist attractions in Punta Arenas, but we did spend several hours watching and photographing the extensive cormorant colonies on the old jetties near the centre of town. These blue-eyed cormorants, also known as the imperial shag (Phalacrocorax atriceps) are found on the mainland and on many subantarctic islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. If you want to watch these birds it helps if you don’t mind the smell, both of the colony with its guano and of the sewerage that is discharged into the ocean nearby!

Naturally the first photographic challenge is to capture a cormorant flying in. We noticed that although the immature birds were still in dull brown plumage they were able to fly quite well.

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Immature Imperial Shag flying in

It looked to us as though the breeding plumage of the adult birds was beginning to fade (it being early autumn) as these birds were a lot less colourful than those we had seen in the Falkland Islands and South Georgia on a previous trip.

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Adult cormorant skiing in to a landing

Although able to fly, the immature birds were still reliant on adults for food. As soon as an adult flew in, presumably returning from a foraging expedition, an immature would go after it and pester it relentlessly, chasing it and pecking at its head.

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Immature pursuing adult

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Immature pestering adult

Eventually the adult would “open up” and allow the immature bird to retrieve a meal from its crop. This could occur on land, in the shallows or on the open water. Sometimes one adult would be pestered by several immature birds at once.

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Two immature cormorants clamouring for food

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Immature retrieving a meal

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“Deep throat” at sea

The whole exercise looked uncomfortable to say the least. However, when the feeding had finished the adult would fly off – presumably to do it all again!

A once-significant sea route: The Straits of Magellan

Monday 29th February

As I went up on deck at 6 am we weighed anchor and sailed to the beautiful Serrano glacier. The ship has to anchor in the channel to avoid being grounded on the terminal moraine. There was a pair of condor at the water’s edge when we landed. Interestingly both condors were male (as you can see from the knob on the head), one in magnificent black and white adult plumage and one immature in brown plumage.

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It was a 30-minute zodiac ride from the anchorage to the glacier front. This spectacular double-fronted glacier thundered and groaned as the two arms flowed over a rocky divide. The lake in front of the glacier was extensive and dotted with blue brash ice. It was also really shallow so we could go out into the water for some interesting photographs. I have already posted my favourite image from this shoot on 20th April 2016. A wide side-valley held a braided river with a valley floor of green grass and tumbling stones. After photography we relaxed on the beach in the warm sun – another whiskey was in order. During lunch we sailed past some stunning scenery in perfect weather – awesome! As we approached the Whalesound research station the clouds started to drift in. Carlos from the station came on board and we spent the afternoon enjoying some more whale-watching.

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Tuesday 1 March

At last we had a colourful sunrise for the last dawn of the cruise. Happy birthday Phil, complete with cake and candle for breakfast. It turns out that the Chilenos also sing “Happy Birthday”!

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We started our journey home in clear weather through the Straight of Magellan – once a significant sea route – but we saw no other vessels. It is one of the places we have been where you can’t help but feel a sense of history given all the famous voyages that passed through here. We rounded Cape Froward (the southernmost tip of mainland South America but an otherwise unremarkable lump of rock) adorned with a huge cross erected to commemorate the visit of a recent Pope.

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There were lots of black-browed albatross (where do they nest I wonder?). We passed Eagle Bay and its lighthouse and disturbed a previously lonely couple skinny-dipping and lazing in the sun – that’s how warm it was.However, the trees reminded us that it is usually windy here.

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All too soon we landed and transferred to the bus for our journey back to hotel where we were reunited with our “spare” suitcase. We walked to the sea to photograph the cormorants before having dinner in “our” Japanese restaurant and walking back with the setting sun behind us. A pleasant end to a wonderful cruise.

 

 

 

 

Wildlife of the Tucker Islets

Friday 26th February (morning)

The morning dawned clear and bright but also cold. The destination for the morning was the Tucker Islets. After breakfast we headed out over calm water towards a colony of sea-lions who were lounging on the rocks and splashing in the shallows. Dolphins played around our zodiacs riding the bow waves when they were almost close enough to touch. Massive kelp was clearly visible in the limpid water.

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We saw several colonies of cormorants, imperial and black. The black cormorants are particularly handsome with their striking plumage. We could also see the toxic red micro-alga that is the scourge of the fishing industry here among the shellfish on the rocks. This “red tide” is the reason why you should never eat shellfish that you have harvested yourself from these waters.

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The Tucker Islets are home to a colony of magellanic penguins. I don’t find these birds particularly beautiful when they are on land but they are marvellously adapted to their niche. We saw quite a few on the beach and near their burrows and also swimming in the shallows.

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When we headed back to the ship we disturbed several pairs of flightless steamer ducks. These birds have lost the ability to fly so when they are alarmed they take off across the water with a frantic rowing motion. We encountered a similar species on a previous trip in the Falkland Islands – they were really grumpy ducks – I can sympathise. Imagine having the gift of flight and then losing it. I’d be grumpy too!

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Ballenas!! Whales!!

Sunday 28th February

After motoring overnight from Agostini Sound across a somewhat lumpy Straight of Magellan, we woke in Barbara Channel off Isla Santa Inés. Here the currents were swirling and vortexing as waters from the Atlantic, Pacific and Antarctic oceans met and merged. This meeting of the waters is nutrient-rich and life has gathered to feed. We saw magellanic penguins, fur seals, albatross and the much-anticipated humpback whales. There were several groups moving methodically through the water as they fed on krill. There were lots of tail-shows as the whales dived, but also some fin-slaps and a spy-hop. After lunch we got into the zodiacs and cruised amongst the whales.

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Because there are so few boats here (we were alone until we briefly saw the Terra Australis in the distance) and the whales are feeding, not mating or calving, there are not yet restrictions on how close you may approach the whales. We were so close you could almost touch the tail-fins as the huge beasts dived beneath our zodiac. In one of the pictures you can see Hugo with his underwater camera catching some closeups.

Condor circled overhead and fur seals gamboled in the water around us when they weren’t lazing on the beach. We also saw black-browed albatross, petrels and Wilson’s storm petrels. We stayed out over 2 hours which passed in moments.

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On our return to the main vessel, we motored to a beautiful safe anchorage nestled between islands. A lonely abalone fisherman’s vessel was also tucked in and a solo hut nestled next to a sheltered bay.

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In the evening we were invited by Arturo on an impromptu tour of the engine room. The engine is a 1950’s-era British engine painted in British Racing Green. He was obviously really proud of his engine and associated equipment.