Where we are now and what we did

November 2, 2019 • 9:00 am

We docked at Puerto Natales about noon yesterday, and then went out on a 9.5-hour tour (by bus with other passengers) to Torres del Paine National Park, a fantastic experience.

First, our position (the ship’s antenna webcam is still broken). We’re parked at the town of Puerto Natales and will be departing at 5 pm. In the meantime, we’re heading ashore for a walk around the town and a visit to a highly reputed local brewery.

We’re heading south toward Antarctica, and may stop at the tip of Cape Horn, going ashore at the southernmost point of South America. That will depend on the weather and seas, which are often dire in that part of the world.

Yesterday, as I said, was a long visit to Torres del Paine National Park, one of the world’s great parks and a site especially famous for its beautiful mountains. My whole life I’ve longed to see them, especially the Pinnacles, which look like this (none of the pictures in this post were taken by me):

The weather was with us, only slightly cloudy, and I have a gazillion pictures of these mesmerizing mountain. Climbing them has long been a goal of mountaineers.

Animals spotted including our “target animal,” the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus), which, according to Wikipedia, has one of the world’s biggest wingspans:

[The condor] has a maximum wingspan of 3.3 m (10 ft 10 in) exceeded only by the wingspans of four seabirds and water birds—the roughly 3.5 m (11 ft 6 in) maximum of the wandering albatross, southern royal albatross, great white pelican and Dalmatian pelican.

One majestic condor soared not far overhead. Here’s a Wikipedia photo:

Upland geese, also known as Magellan geese (Chloephaga picta). This is a rare sexually dimorphic goose, whose dimorphism is mentioned in the Wikipedia article but not explained (they are described as monogamous). Perhaps an ornithologically-inclined reader can weigh in here. The geese we spotted were always in dark/white pairs—ebony and ivory, living in perfect harmony:

Males have a white head and breast, whereas the females are brown with black-striped wings and yellow feet, and could be mistaken for ruddy-headed geese. A greenish-bronze speculum is located on the inner secondary flight feathers of the adult male.

In Chapter VI of On the Origin of Species, author Charles Darwin noted that the upland goose has webbing between its toes that appeared to be “rudimentary in function, though not in structure”, and concluded that this was a vestigial anatomical feature in this bird.

A mixed-sex pair:

Black-necked swan (Cygnus, melanocoryphus, the largest waterfowl native to South America). It is, however, small for a swan. As Wikipedia notes:

The smallest member in its genus, it is found in freshwater marshes, lagoon and lake shores in southern South America. The black-necked swan breeds in Chilean Southern Zone, Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego and on the Falkland Islands. In the austral winter, this species migrates northwards to Paraguay and southern Brazil. The wetlands created by the Great Chilean earthquake like Carlos Anwandter Nature Sanctuary in Cruces River have become important population centers for the black-necked swan.

We saw lots of wild guanacos (Lama guanacoe), in the family Camelidae. They stood or ran alongside the road, loping with great grace. I’m told they can leap cattle and sheep fences with ease. They appear to be highly adaptable animals, according to Wikipedia:

Guanacos live in herds composed of females, their young, and a dominant male. Bachelor males form separate herds. While reproductive groups tend to remain small, often containing no more than 10 adults, bachelor herds may contain as many as 50 males. When they feel threatened, guanacos alert the herd to flee with a high-pitched, bleating call. The male usually runs behind the herd to defend them. They can run at 56 km (35 mi) per hour, often over steep and rocky terrain. They are also excellent swimmers. A guanaco’s typical lifespan is 20 to 25 years.

Some guanacos live in the Atacama Desert, where in some areas it has not rained for over 50 years. A mountainous coastline running parallel to the desert enables them to survive in what are called “fog oases” or lomas. Where the cool water touches the hotter land, the air above the desert is cooled, creating a fog and thus, water vapor. Winds carry the fog across the desert, where cacti catch the water droplets and lichens that cling to the cacti soak it in like a sponge. Guanacos then eat the cacti flowers and the lichens.

And one person, who happens to be a reader of this site named Paul (he and his wife Corinne are on this ship), actually spotted a mother puma (cougar) with two kittens, who, he reported, were frisking about mom. That was a rare sight and I’m sorry we didn’t see it. (Pumas are the main predators of guanacos.)

The South American cougar is a subspecies (Felis concolor concolor) of the same puma) that inhabits North America. It ranges widely through jungle to pampas. Here’s one (and congrats to reader Paul for the spot):

43 thoughts on “Where we are now and what we did

    1. You think those are spectacular, check out Cerro Torre and Fitzroy (about 30 miles to the north).

      Fitzroy, incidentally, is named after the captain of the Beagle, because he (presumably accompanied by Darwin?) did some extensive surveying of the adjacent coast, though he presumably never saw his eponymous vertical slab of rock.


  1. I must say that wildlife area is quite a treasure. Too bad it’s so far from me. The Pinnacles look like they are formed by volcanism. Look at the vertical columns!

      1. Correct. After a little reading, it seems these formations are “vertically jointed granitic rocks”.

        Wikipedia: magma was intruded and crystallized over 162 ± 11 thousand years. High resolution dating and excellent 3-D exposure of the laccolith and its vertical feeding system allow detailed reconstruction of the Torres del Paine fossil magma chamber history.

        So, the shape was derived from magma moving up from a chamber, but not necessarily resulting in a volcano.
        They remind me of vertical columns such as seen at Giant’s Causeway in North Ireland. There the formation is of extruded basalt.


    1. That is exactly what I thought too, but apparently not formed by volcanism as such – more a volcano wannabe.

      Look at the images below of the Torres del Paine – the chimney-looking bits aren’t hard, vertical volcanic vents. What happened was magma rose to close to the surface [12 km? down at the time] & intruded horizontally between sedimentary layers in a series of pulses over millions of years, lifting the sedimentary rock above. The series of intrusions formed a laccolith of granite below ground, which has been exposed by the action of glaciers.


      Here’s a geological sketch & you can see the path of the intrusion over to the left:


      1. It’s hard to see how the vertical joints formed. Perhaps just a function of the way it cooled. In the Giant’s Causeway basalt, I think the polygonal shape of the columns was caused by gradual cooling from top down. Maybe something similar happened to create the columnar forms here.

        1. BASALT & GRANITE: Both basically the same stuff, but basalt is lava that erupts at, or near, the surface & cools quickly while granite is lava that cools at great depth & therefore does so slowly [insulated by rock blankets].

          GIANT’S CAUSEWAY: The original basalt lake was only maybe 100 ft deep it seems [needs checking!] – which, as you say, cracked into pillars as it cooled.

          THE TORRES: Here’s the best shot I could find of the “Torres”


          Looking into it a bit more, 12.5 million years ago, three inclusion pulses over 90,000 years, pushed sideways between sedimentary layers & solidified slowly as three sheets of granite. Then 2.5 miles of overlying sedimentary was scraped away & today we see the three granite sheets piled one on top of the other making a thickness of 6,500 feet thick, sandwiched between sedimentary rocks [they are sometimes described as metamorphic because they have been affected by the heat from the cooling granite].

          I can’t make out the granite layers in the photo with any confidence, but I think the vertical cracks must indeed be a result of cooling & the flaking caused by water ice getting into the weakness lines. I can’t find a resource that looks at these Torres in detail.

          Here’s a nice map of the Torres – Ive added yellow stars for the peaks:


          One can see that each peak is what’s left when glaciers carved U-shaped valleys around each one.

          1. I can clearly see horizontal dark/light banding across the base of these peaks. Perhaps these are the result of the way the intrusion material pushed into the ambient rock.
            I find historical geology as intriguing as a good detective novel. Especially when old fossils are involved.

            1. I can clearly see horizontal dark/light banding across the base of these peaks..

              It is quite common to find “basic” (darker) coloured rocks as rims to larger granitic massifs. These have long been interpreted as meaning that there was an initial phase of injection of basic material (gabbro/ basalt composition) before the injection of the granitic material. The field relations (e.g, flow lines, preserved skins of country rock) often support this, but why the sequencing is almost always basic-then-granitic, and where in the crust the implied magma generation, evolution (in the chemical sense) and storage took place and why there were multiple phases of pressure surfeit … remain good questions.
              But yes, this banding of early-gabbroic material interleaved with later granitic material is commonly seen.

              1. Thanks for the info gravel – now where’s my bloody geological dictionary? 🙂

                Please, can you explain/unpack this? :- “(e.g, flow lines, preserved skins of country rock)”

              2. Magmas (melted rock, before it is erupted onto the surface when it changes name to “lava”) are fairly viscous liquids, so as they move, they swirl. The human eye is quite good at picking out such patterns. In the process they pick up fragments of rock from the walls of the chamber (on scales from millimetres to kilometres), distort them and plaster them to the side of the magma chamber. Rock from the walls is also known as “country rock”. Fragments from walls of the magma’s source chamber are often caught up too, and preserved in varying degrees of decomposition, from solid-looking pebbles to faint ghosts of refractory minerals almost digested into the magma. There are also small changes in composition, grain size and temperature – as you said earlier, this structure has at least three mapped pulses of magma injection, and that is perfectly normal.
                Imagine mixing three batches of cake mixture of different colours then pouring of them into a baking tin, injecting the second into the tin through a syringe, then the third at a different point. I think the cake style is called a “swirl cake”.
                Same physics, different viscosity, scale and temperature. There are the convection forces of hot fluid in a cold chamber too. You sometimes see sedimentary structures on the bottom of chamber indistinguishable from ripples in a river bed, but with a white-hot fluid phase. Sometimes the solids that crystallise from the melt are less dense than the fluid and accumulate on the chamber roof.

                Throw in some soggy biscuits while you’re adding in the magma cake mixs and you’ve got your “country rock skins”.

              3. Thanks for the explaineration Mr. Gravel. I read it twice – just the right level of Dummy’s Guide to pass through my opticals & into the noddle.

              4. As the joke goes, for the natural sciences the one unchangingly true statement is “it’s not as simple as that”.
                Trying to parse geochemistry publications still gives me a headache, and things like extinct atomic clocks make me need to lay down in a dark room.

              5. Country rock? He may be referring to Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Byrds, or The Allman Brothers, but, given the context, I doubt it.

              6. Who?
                There was an advert on the telly a few days ago for a documentary on “Country Music”. I didn’t set the recording box.

          2. BASALT & GRANITE: Both basically the same stuff.

            Very definitely not. Basalts are at the “basic” end of the spectrum of common igneous rocks, having around 45-50% SiO2 (which is vaguely an “acidic” oxide, which combines with relatively “basic” metal oxides (MgO, CaO, Na2O, K2O, Al2O3, Fe-oxides) to form silicate minerals of varying compositions. Granites by contrast have higher silica contents (60-70%), lower MgO CaO and Fe2O3, higher Na2O K2O and Al2O3. In the lab, and quite commonly in the field you can infer a genetic relationship between a high-melting point basaltic “basic” melt and a derived, lower melting point acidic melt. This is helped by the relative ease of incorporation of water into the mineral crystals in granites which lowers both the melting point and density.
            (We’ll leave aside the differences in texture and inferred cooling rate between basalts and their deep-crystallised relatives, gabbros. They have very similar compositions. At the granite end of this composition spectrum you have granites that crystallise at depth and corresponding rhyolite and dacite eruptive rocks, but that is complicated by their tendency to blow themselves apart at the surface as their water exsolves at low pressure. Insert the Mt St Helens and Krakatoa and Santorini images and death tolls.)
            However many granites have negligible volumes of associated basaltic material. Sometimes that can be shown to be the result of the basaltic material having been previously peeled off the bottom of the crust and sunk back into the mantle. It is suspected to be more common, but that is a lot harder to show – the bloody planet may have buried the evidence down near the core-mantle boundary. The concentration ratios of various elements in granites versus basalts mean that to extract a volume of granitic melt from a basaltic mass, the basalt needs to be around ten times the volume of the granite. Since the land surface of the Earth is approximately granite (or underlain by granite, if you drill deep enough, or look at seismic wave speeds), there must somewhere have been an awful lot of basalt material somewhere, sweating out it’s granitic exudate.

            The photos do suggest a laccolithic form to the original body, but since most of the material has been removed, it is hard to be sure.

            Looking into it a bit more, 12.5 million years ago, three inclusion pulses over 90,000 years, pushed sideways between sedimentary layers & solidified slowly as three sheets of granite.

            That is very young. At that shallow a depth, the cooling would have been relatively rapid. But with a visible base to the structure, it would have been cooling both up through the overburden to the surface and down into the rocks of the floor of the laccolith.
            There was a report a few years ago of granites on the north side of the Nanga Parbat massif which give K-Ar dates in the range of 40,000 years, which implies astonishing unroofing rates. But then, you have got the biggest sub-aerial slope on Earth in that area, with the Indus river at the bottom to take the debris away.

            I can’t find a resource that looks at these Torres in detail.

            It’s a national park. Nobody but the tax man is going to pay for in-depth studies because you couldn’t develop any resources you discovered. And for this sort of terrain and structure, geophysics isn’t going to be much use – you’re going to ned boots on the ground and noses to the cliff. Those mountains have a long history of dangerous rockfall too.

            1. Yes, thanks a bunch. Being not a geologist but an interested bystander, this report leaves me with some regret about career paths not taken. It’s truly fascinating stuff.

  2. What glorious scenery to be viwing first-hand. I’m not at all jealous!
    A minor pedantic nit-pick: a ship is not parked but moored.

  3. ENJOY your trip! Looks wonderful & your commentary is much appreciated. I always learn so much from your posts.

  4. We’re parked at the town of Puerto Natales …

    If you’re talking about the ship, it’s “docked” or “moored” not “parked,” please; can’t have you sounding like a common landlubber aboard a ship as fine as the MS Roald Amundsen, boss. 🙂

    Damn, but Torres del Paine National Park looks to be one of the most gorgeous places anywhere on our godless green (and not-so-green) earth.

  5. Sounds like a wonderful trip so far, Jerry!

    Years ago my wife and I traveled in Chile and visited Torres del Paine National Park.

    Though we had a couple “near incidents.”
    One was taking a tiny plane ride over the glacier. First, the ride through/in between the mountain peaks, so seemingly close to us, was daunting. But once over the glacier our hot-rod pilot wanted us to have a really close look, would tilt the plane sideways so we were looking directly down out of the side windows at the glacier beneath, which seemed to be broken in to big jagged spikes facing us. The weird air currents over the glacier would cause the plane to suddenly plunge down toward the glacier (I believe my wife screamed at least once), and the pilot would pull us back up.

    When we were hiking along the ridges of the mountain valleys (I was already developing a fear of heights by that time in life!) we were on a foot path on the edge of the mountain the got narrower and narrower as it approached a bend around a corner. I remember the path being so narrow I was starting to “hug” the wall side, with very steep drop down the side of the hill/mountain. We were carrying big back packs and the wind was crazy strong up there.

    Then right in front of us, some young guy with a huge backpack rounds the corner in to view, just as the wind kicked up super strong. It practically picked him off his feet, sending him right toward the edge of the cliff. He went in to that “falling over to once side” posture towards the cliff, arms swinging out for balance, hopping on one foot and literally within about a foot or two of the edge he managed to stop his momentum, leaned back on to both feet, straightened his back pack, and carried on walking past us.

    That was the point at which we turned around, finished for the day 🙂

    1. Your story literally raised my hair (I could feel it). I love mountain scenery, love the feeling of being high up, but I’m scared of heights. Contradictory? – yes. 😉

      I know all about ‘hugging the wall’ – I’m usually okay as long as there’s a nice safe solid wall to hug. And hence useless on narrow ridges.


      1. Not as terrifying as our our great white shark diving story, in a storm. I’m amazed my wife stayed with me after that one.

    2. OMG that all sounds terrifying. I would have payed the pilot with barfing if I had have been in that plane & for sure would have fallen over the edge of the mountain with my wobbly feet!

  6. My husband and I took my parents to Torres del Paine in 2002. The rock formations are fabulous – glad to get the geological explanations here. : ) While we were in the area we saw guanacos levitate over an 8 foot high fence. We almost didn’t believe our eyes! -Rebecca

Leave a Reply