Exploring Patagonia

Toronto Star Nov. 29, 2014, Patagonia, Chile–The ancient ice cracking sounds, for a second, like the end of the world.

We’re standing on a beach in Brookes Fjord in Southern Patagonia looking at a magnificent glacier. The more you look the more you see. Jagged spears reaching into the sky. Vertical fissures that look like lazy books on a shelf. And throughout, deep icy blues lurking behind the white.

Some of the loud cracks are followed by an immense crash as chunks of ice the size of a car fall away into the water, causing a splash the size of a house. A few seconds later, waves wash up on the beach like a mini tsunami. As we catch the rhythm of this remote corner of the world, guides serve up hot chocolate spiked with a little whiskey.

After an hour or so on the beach, we pick up our orange life jackets and dropped jaws and head to the zodiacs for the ride back to M/V Via Australis.  It sails from Punta Arenas on the Strait of Magellan, a pretty city with a long history and a constant “little breeze” that has flags flying full-bore and flag poles shaking.

There’s no WiFi as we cruise through the bottom of the world. But who needs it. Nothing you could see on your phone could possibly beat what you see out your cabin window, falling asleep to the big dipper and waking up to a view of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. In all, we have five different zodiac excursions over our three-night stay on the ship.

The rugged rubber boats navigate the ice infested waters of Parry Fjord to find a leopard seal lounging on a chunk of ice from one of the nearby glaciers. They drop us at the Magellan Forest at the base of the Darwin Mountain range to take a little hike. Surrounded by a hundred different greens we pause at the base of a mountain. Cameras down. Conversation stopped. We take a few minutes to just soak it up, like the wall of moss in front of us absorbs the water dripping down from the ice field behind.

It’s a delicate sound.

Unlike the one elephant seals make.

The zodiacs leave us on the beach at the top of Almirantazgo Bay, where we see a dozen or so of the massive beasts lounging in groups of two or three, burping and snorting like Homer Simpson passed out on the couch. A few raise their enormous heads to look at us—one gives us a wave with her flipper—but the three tonne seals don’t appear too curious about the gaggle of humans in their midst.


We make our way alongside a river over layers of driftwood and following a trail marked with little ribbons tied around trees. When we get to a glacial waterfall we haul out the cameras to drink up the view as we take a taste of the cold pure water.

The last excursion is to visit a few of the 150,000 penguins on Magdalena Island. Thousands of sea gulls guide the zodiacs to shore where the penguins are oblivious to us and the horizontal rain. They waddle back and forth from the water to the nests they’ve dug into the ground. We waddle too—bundled up, heads bowed into the wind—toward an old lighthouse, stopping to let penguins cross the trail. We get back to the ship equal parts cold, wet and delighted and we head back to Punta Arenas.

As the Australis gets closer to port, a fellow passenger announces: “I’ve got signal!” and starts posting “Latergrams.” As he shares his photos of one of the most remote and beautiful corners of the world to his Instagram feed, I can’t help but wonder, if ice falls in the ocean and there’s no one drinking hot chocolate on the beach to hear it, does it make a sound?


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