Blue, Blue, My Glacier Is Blue (Oct 9)

In our continuing series of Glaciers of Patagonia, today we bring you Piloto Glacier located at the head of Alacalufe fjord here in not-so-sunny Patagonia. But first, we had to get there.

Late last night we exited the Beagle Passage on the Pacific side of Tierra del Fuego. We were warned at dinner that this would be the windiest part of the passage with the highest waves — this part of the Pacific is anything but pacific (with a lowercase p) — and that for this reason the passage would be made late at night when we were safely tucked into bed. They elaborated that it might be hard to move around the cabin during this time, which turned out to be spectacularly true.

Up to this point the seas have been quite calm, and the motion of the boat correspondingly gentle, even soothing. But I awakened in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, and it took me about a minute to get to the bathroom, which is about eight feet from the foot of the bed. I could hear the wind howling outside the window, and even lying in bed felt like a roller coaster ride, with momentary periods of near-weightlessness followed by an abrupt thud and crash as the bow of the ship pitched down from the crest of a wave into the trough. It was remarkable, and after navigating back to bed from the bathroom, a journey that took another minute or so as I weaved around the pitching and rolling floor, I opened the curtains to watch the show outside for a while. (I chose not to wake Alice, who was still sound asleep.) The boat has running lights on the side so it was possible to see the waves from the window, and there was faint moonlight filtering through the heavy clouds, illuminating the island on our starboard side. It was quite the display.

At this point a number of you might be saying, “I’d never make it through the night because I get seasick really easily.” But the powers that be have thought of you, and it is not for nothing that the passage was in the middle of the night: you don’t get seasick in your sleep. In the event, by morning we were back in calm seas at the mouth of the fjord.

Ernest Shackelton, call your office

This excursion would not involve landing the Zodiac; we would remain in it to motor up the glacier and approach as close as we safely could to the face of Piloto while the Australis remained at anchor at the mouth of the fjord. Since we would not be doing much moving around we are advised to layer up as much as we could; the weather would be cold, wet, and raw, and absent any hiking we would not be keeping ourselves warm. So we suited up like brightly colored Michelin Men. The air temperature was about 40 F, and the water temperature about the same. The wind was modest and it was raining lightly but steadily.

Apparently in anticipation of our arrival, Piloto glacier had a major calving event a few hours earlier, and the fjord was choked with ice to the point that it appeared as though you could practically step out of the boat and walk down the channel. (We were advised not to try this.) The Zodiacs struggled against all the ice; you can see two of our four boats in the photo at left, practically locked in the ice. There were, needless to say, the expected Shackelton jokes.

It took about 20 minutes to negotiate the ice floes and make our way up to the glacier. It was spectacular, the most striking one we have seen because of its unearthly opalescent blue color throughout, as you can see below. (I should emphasize that I haven’t done any color enhancement in these shots.)

Piloto Glacier, bringing new meaning to the term “ice blue”

As in yesterday’s photos of Pia Glacier, the perspective in this shot is very deceptive because the boat is much closer to the foreground than the glacier, which is several hundred feet high. We maneuvered around the floating ice to get as close as we could, ignoring the pelting rain and trying to avoid being hemmed in by the floes that completely surrounded us. And while we were ogling the blue giant, it put in another show for us, calving once again with a lightning crack and thunderous explosion, and bringing our calving record to 3-for-3. I caught part of the event on camera; you can see it right in the middle of the picture below, resembling a waterfall on the glacier face. But it is actually a huge “icefall”, a good 100 ft high.

You do not want to be much closer than this when this happens


Nesting crested cormorants, scavenging each other

We lingered for a while longer to see if any more would fall, but only a small amount did so we turned around and made a short stop to admire the bird life: gulls, skuas, and lots and lots of crested cormorants, the latter perched in rows on the cliff sides among their nests and squawking and dancing (mating dances) at each other. Here they are at left.

One peculiarity of their behavior is that they steal building material from each others’ nests in order to improve their own. This tactic works pretty poorly, because while Joe Cormorant is off stealing some sticks from Bob Cormorant’s nest, his nest is in turn being raided by Harpo Cormorant. So when not out hunting for fish these guys basically spend all day either dancing to woo women or picking each others’ pockets.

A very not-tropical waterfall

In part because of the rain and also because the (barely) above freezing temperatures cause a lot of glacial melt, the dark granite walls of the fjord were decorated with a multitude of waterfalls. As we motored back up the channel towards our starting point,mew stopped along the way to get close to a couple of small cataracts (whose waters, were, well, as cold as ice). They ran in rivulets of varying width from all the way at the tops of the cliffs down to the sea.

After returning to the Via Australis we were warmed with a cup of hot chocolate (with optional whiskey added, which we declined). A few minutes later we were offered a tour of the engine room, which of course appealed to the geek in both of us. It was pretty unprepossessing, far from the cavernous space housing rows of diesel behemoths that you would find on a big cruise ship. This was far more modest,mid deafeningly loud; they gave us earmuff-style ear protection while we we in there. And of course they gave us statistics: two 850 horsepower Diesel engines, two 385 kW main generators plus a 120 kW backup, ship is 237 ft in length, etc., etc. It was interesting and enjoyable enough, I suppose, but suffered from comparison to the one-hour adrenaline rush we had just experienced.

Aguila glacier and two wet tourists

Our afternoon shore excursion was to the Aguilar glacier, which unlike either the Pia or Piloto glaciers empties out onto a small alluvial plain, meaning that we could walk nearly right up to it. The Zodiacs dropped us off on the rocky beach, and we hiked along it for about 45 minutes until we came to the mouth of the plain; the glacier was perhaps a quarter mile inland from there. It does not have a recent history of calving and so viewing it was a somewhat more passive experience than the others, but it was nonetheless gratifyingly blue and carved into arches and spires.

The weather for this afternoon excursion was not quite as cooperative as it had been; though the temperature was not horribly cold (low 40s), there was a steady pelting rain that made the Zodiac ride and subsequent hike very wet affairs. We were well equipped with all the requisite layers of clothing that we had brought for the trip, notably our happily waterproof top-to-bottom rain gear. Even so, the hot post-excursion shower in our room was a little slice of heaven. 

And here’s a panorama of Aguila just because. For scale, it’s about 500 ft high.

More ice!

Tonight is our last night aboard ship, with a farewell dinner and some late night activities, notably auctioning off the ship’s official navigation map showing our route and the various waypoints. In the past this has gone for insane amounts of money, the highest that Julio can recall being $800. So we won’t be bidding. We have a morning excursion to a Magdalena Islland, home to a large population of Magellanic penguins. Be on the lookout for excessively cute photos as we then proceed to Punta Arenas to resume the land portion of our journey.

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