Back to Antarctica: The Beagle Channel and glaciers

November 14, 2019 • 8:00 am

It’s fun to watch the new passengers learn the ins and outs of travel to Antarctica, while I already feel like an old hand, able to navigate the buffet with ease (tip: hit the salad bar before everyone lines up there, causing a quotidian traffic jam) and to easily climb into a Zodiac. Yesterday, our first full day at sea, there was a series of lectures about ship safety and the like, and then we passed through the Beagle Channel. It was a glorious sunny day, a day on which you could lounge on the top deck in a teeshirt and watch the glaciers go by. Today I’ll show those glaciers.

But first, here’s where we are: headed to Cape Horn, where we’ll make a long landing this morning, just to say we were on the southernmost point of South America. Here’s our position on the ship’s map:

And a zoomed-out view:

And a view from the ship’s antennacam about half an hour ago (I’m writing this at 6:45 a.m.). It’s not very sunny today, but I think drizzle and overcast weather are normal for this area.

As I said, Cape Horn isn’t really considered the southernmost point of South America, but it’ll do. Here’s what Wikipedia says:

Cape Horn (Spanish: Cabo de Hornos is the southernmost headland of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago of southern Chile, and is located on the small Hornos Island. Although not the most southerly point of South America (which are the Diego Ramírez Islands), Cape Horn marks the northern boundary of the Drake Passage and marks where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet.

Cape Horn was discovered and first rounded in 1616 by the Dutchman Willem Schouten, who named it Kaap Hoorn  after the city of Hoorn in the Netherlands. For decades, Cape Horn was a major milestone on the clipper route, by which sailing ships carried trade around the world. The waters around Cape Horn are particularly hazardous, owing to strong winds, large waves, strong currents and icebergs.

Hornos Island has a few sights of interest besides the tip, where there is a church and a memorial:

The Chilean Navy maintains a station on the island, consisting of a residence, utility building, chapel, and lighthouse.  A short distance from the main station is a memorial, including a large sculpture featuring the silhouette of an albatross, in honour of the sailors who died while attempting to “round the Horn”

As for the real tip, the Diego Ramírez Islands are located on the map below, palpably further south than Cape Horn—by half a degree of latitude. Cape Horn is on an island, so if you’re going to be picky, it has no “most south” advantage over the Diego Ramírez Islands.

Here are a few views of the fjords on the entry to the Beagle Channel (remember, I’ve had to degrade the quality of all photos by about 75% to be able to post them). I haven’t seen the fjords of Norway, but I’ve never seen a landscape like this, with snow-clad mountains—the Andes—running right down to the sea.

The Channel in our wake:

And a view which shows the ship and passengers. It was a gloriously warm day, as I said, and a rare time to lounge in the sun without wearing a windbreaker.

There are famously five glaciers in Glacier Alley (or “Avenue of the Glaciers”), each named after a country whose explorers worked in South America: Holland Glacier, Italia Glacier, Francia Glacier, Germany Glacier, and Spain Glacier.  I’m not sure I can match my own photos (below) with the names (see this site or this one), but here’s what we saw, from east to west:

The “hanging glacier” below looks like the Spain Glacier. Wikipedia defines a “hanging glacier” like this:

hanging glacier originates high on the wall of a glacial valley and descends only part of the way to the surface of the main glacier and abruptly stops, typically at a cliff. Avalanching and icefalls are the mechanisms for ice and snow transfer to the valley floor below.

And this is what we saw (note the waterfall):

And from here on, my IDs become hazy. Perhaps readers could identify these glaciers by matching them with the photos at the sites above or other sites. Is this the Germany glacier?

You got me on the next one!

Where fresh water from the glacier’s icebergs or waterfalls hits the sea, it remains distinct from the salty Channel water, for fresh water is less dense and floats on top. In the photo below you can see the freshwater along the shore, with a sharp demarcation from salt water.

Here’s a closer view of the fresh/salt water separation:

Another unknown glacier; you are invited to guess which one:


The Italia (Italy) glacier is the only one that runs down to contact the water in the Channel. The result is that there small icebergs float in the water around it. You can see a few of those at the bottom of this photo:

As I mentioned yesterday when quoting Wikipedia‘s entry on the Beagle Channel, this is where Darwin saw, and was greatly impressed by, his first glacier:

Darwin had his first sight of glaciers when they reached the channel on 29 January 1833, and wrote in his field notebook “It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow.”

This is the beryl blue ice, and I haven’t manipulated this photo:

This, the last glacier to the east, was perhaps the prettiest. But I don’t know its name; I was too busy taking photos to listen to the captain’s announcements:

After seeing so many glaciers and waterfalls, you may feel the call of nature. Many of the public bathrooms aboard have outside views as well as Arctic and Antarctic animals painted on the walls. It’s nice to do your business in a room with a view!:


21 thoughts on “Back to Antarctica: The Beagle Channel and glaciers

  1. Certainly one of those places where they say, you have to be there. Maybe you are seeing what will soon become instinct – glaciers. I hope not.

    1. Some of the glaciers in this region are in fact advancing, not retreating, a rare thing. I’m not sure about these precise ones, down by the sea.

    1. Wouldn’t it be cool if all same-named places were connected by some sort of weird teleporter? 🙂

      Some fans of early computer RPGs wondered about this, as there is a Skara Brae in Ultima, in Wizardry, and in our world, in Scotland.

  2. It looks to me, if you want to find the southernmost point of South America, you’d have to go with the bit of land on the north side of the Magellan Strait south of Punta Arenas. Everything south of that is islands detached from the continent proper. I won’t insist.

  3. Hoorn is one of those relatively preserved towns (there are better ones) around the “Zuiderzee” (as opposed to the North Sea) which was turned into a lake by dyke works.
    Hoorn’s Great Church, though, has been turned into a clothing supermarket. Look, I’m as anti-Christian as the next one, but I found it a kind of shocking, kind of barbaric.

  4. Don’t know about the rest of you ,but i would not be comfortable using a toilet in front of an un curtained window ,i mean what if the Queen went by on the deck of a ship?

      1. HAHA.I was always afraid of using those modern cream coloured toilets in London in case the door suddenly burst open ,a common fear i have read somewhere.

  5. I could barely take my eyes off the beryl blue ice. One can only imagine how wondrous that first view must have been for Darwin.

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