Antarctica (Patagonia): Days 28-29

March 30, 2022 • 12:30 pm

This post extends through lunchtime yesterday: March 29.  There were two Big Activities to see and do on days 28 and 29: our second passage through the White Narrows, headed back east, and then, on Tuesday, a closeup view of the largest glacier in South America.

As usual, click the photos once or twice to enlarge them.

We left Puerto Natales in the late morning of the 28th and headed west through the fjords and mountains back toward the  “White Narrows“. I’ve previously posted about our west-to-east transit through this most treacherous of passages, but I’ve since learned a bit more and was better prepared to take pictures.

The approach to the Narrows from either direction is lovely, with snow-capped mountains on either side.

The White Narrows is a gap in the channel between the mainland and a small island, with shallow waters below. The minimum width of the Narrows is 80 meters (260 feet), while the beam, or width, of the Roald Amundsen is 24 meters (79 feet). That means that if we went straight through the middle, we’d have a gap of 28 meters (91 feet) on each side. 

But we don’t go through the middle, as the south side of the narrows is shallower than the north side. That means we thread the needle by going closer to the north than the south side. It looks and feels as if you could reach out and touch the trees on the mainland to the north.

Below is the gap through which we’ll pass (photo taken from the east side). The arrow shows the infamous narrows:

This site provided a cool picture of another ship making the transit; I believe this was taken with a drone. Note that the ship is staying closer to the north than to the south side of the Narrows.

Photo: Ross Vernon McDonald

You can traverse the narrows only during “slack water”: that period between low and high tide when there is very little current—a short period that occurs only four times a day. This is the time when the current through the Narrows is around 1 knot or less (about 1.2 mph). If it’s higher, it can make the ship harder to steer, as well as causing eddies that can throw off the navigation.

The only way to measure the current through the narrows, and determine an auspicious time for passage, is to send out a Zodiac with the proper instruments. That small inflatable ship, carrying a Chilean pilot, a navigator, and other bigwigs from the ship, goes into the gap about an hour before the ship does. The people on the Zodiac, I’m told, are constantly communicating with the bridge of the ship, giving information about currents, wind, and so on. Sometimes they stay in one spot and sometimes the Zodiac moves back and forth across the narrows testing the water flow.

Here’s what you see from the ship. Since you never know when the time is right, if you want to experience the passage you must go on deck roughly when the small ship enters the narrows, and wait for about an hour.

See the tiny Zodiac in the photo below?

Closer up (more zoom on my lens):

Finally, without fanfare, the bridge and narrows-watchers decide that the time is right for the ship to go through, the ship starts moving, and we approach the opening slowly and carefully:

Almost there. . .

And the passage through. This is the south side, where we’re farther from land.

And the closer north side, where people are amazed that they’re so close to land. It’s sure less than 90 feet to the rocks!

I was told by the Expedition Leader, who’s in charge of determining our itinerary, that he was on the bridge during the transit as the ship was steered MANUALLY through the gap. GPSs won’t do here because the currents and eddies change rapidly. The leader said that the captain loudly told all the interlopers on the bridge to remain absolutely quiet, as he had to concentrate on steering the ship.  There’s also a Chilean pilot on the bridge, who doesn’t steer the ship but is there to give advice.

And we’re through! Another great feat of navigation.  The sheep has to steer left immediately after going through to stay in the middle of the passage.

After the transit, the exploration Zodiac returns to the ship, which is stopped to disgorge the measurement team and then hoist the boat into the bay.

I was also told twice that when Chilean pilots come aboard—several times during this trip—they don’t stop the ship because it’s expensive to stop it and start it again. Instead, both the small pilot’s boat and our big ship assume similar speeds, the Admunsen opens its door, a platform or a ladder comes out, and the pilot has to JUMP from one ship to the other on the fly.  This is, I’m told, nerve-wracking.

Above and below: the intrepid Measurement Team returns to the ship. As you see, four people are needed to man the Zodiac, make measurements, and advise the ship’s captain.

Right on the other side of the Narrows, the lovely scenery resumes.

Watching the transit works up one’s appetite. It was dinnertime (I eat at 6 pm, which is early).

I alternate between beer and wine at dinner (no booze at lunch though some people toss it down then). I like the wine because you can see the scenery outside the dining room reflected in the glass:

A man needs a hearty “Steakhouse Burger” after that nail-biting passage. I hadn’t had a burger in several days, and so why not?

And a chocolate shake for dessert.

We spent the rest of the day wending our way through the channel, and since the ship’s streaming video is down, I had no idea where we were headed the next day. At 8:15 each night they used to stream the next days itinerary over the cabin t.v. Now you have to go to the auditorium to hear it, but I didn’t want to be in a big crowd, covid-free though we seem to be.

I opened up my cabin window to see the scene below; we were in front of a huge glacier and my balcony was facing it directly.

It turned out to be the face of South America’s largest glacier, the Brüggen Glacier, indicated in the map below. Wikipedia gives ancillary information:

Brüggen Glacier, also known as Pío XI Glacier, is in southern Chile and is the largest western outflow from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. Now about 66 km (41 mi) in length, it is the longest glacier in the southern hemisphere outside Antarctica. Unlike most glaciers worldwide, it advanced significantly from 1945 to 1976, Brüggen surged 5 km (3.1 mi) across the Eyre Fjord, reaching the western shore by 1962 and cutting off Lake Greve from the sea. The glacier continued advancing both northward and southward in the fjord to near its present position before stabilizing. The growth covers a distance of more than 10 km (6.2 mi) north to south, adding nearly 60 square kilometres (23 sq mi) of ice. The glacier is named after the German geologist Juan Brüggen Messtorff.

The Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the world’s second largest contiguous field, is the remnant of the ice field that covered much more of this area during the last big glacial period, about 40,000 years ago

It got sunny later in the day, and here you see a panorama of the glacier’s face (in the middle) and the surrounding area.

A morning selfie from my balcony. What a view I had!

The expedition leader and ship’s captain decided that it was sufficiently calm for us to go out in Zodiacs, though I didn’t expect that. I quickly threw on my warm clothes and was in the second boat to to out. The remarkable calmness of the water and relative quiescence of the glacier enabled us to travel very close to the face. (You never go right up to the face lest a deadly “calving event” occur.)

We were out early as the sun rose:

And we traveled in the Zodiac along the face for 45 minutes. Unlike Antarctica, it was relatively warm and I didn’t need gloves. There are no icebergs in this channel as the warmer waters melt the falling ice quickly.

It’s a moraine-ish glacier, with lots of dirt mixed in with the ice. That makes the waters in this fjord very silty, sometimes clogging up the water intakes of the Zodiacs.

You can see how close they let us get to the glacier:

As the tides go in and out, part of the glacier often overhangs the water:


Another view of the ice hanging over water:

The Amundsen lay in the distance. Perhaps I should have taken a later Zodiac when the sun came out, but I was eager and in fact had no idea whether there would be sun.

The Mother Ship waiting to receive its Zodiacs:

And the mountains around us:

I decided to have a “proper” lunch at the Aune restaurant because I had a tiny breakfast so I could rush to the Zodiac launch. Before lunch, though, I visited one of the things that they do for passengers: give them clay to make penguins and paint to paint their models. Then they fire the penguins and put them on display. Here’s the display from this trip’s workshop.

As you see, the quality varies. Two parents and their chick are on the left:

I don’t know who made this messed-up penguin head, but I give it the First Prize:

In the cabinet are penguin models from earlier trips:

Lunch yesterday in the Aune, just to show you the nature of the food. I translated the menu from German (the ship’s app with English menus was down)

Soup:  Traditional Ukrainian borscht (beet soup) with lamb and sour cream (I didn’t detect any sour ceam):

Main:  Beef stroganoff with mashed potatoes, sour cream, pickled vegetables, and beets

Dessert: Financier (a french cake), cream, and berry compote. As usual, dessert in the Aune is the best course .

And an after-lunch view of the fjord.  I have a few photos from later in the day, but I’ll combine them with photos of whatever happens in the next day or two. I asked our ornithologist what the rarest bird he’d seen was, and he said that he saw a local hummingbird fly by the ship (he was able to identify it, but I forgot the ID). Since we’re not often on land that has vegetation, there’s not much chance to see land birds.

15 thoughts on “Antarctica (Patagonia): Days 28-29

  1. I’m gonna have to take this in on a slow day – looks grand.

    What a completely new perspective on Antarctica this year’s website feature has brought to the world … and me in the cozy coffee nook. Thank you PCC(E)!

  2. I used to be a navigator on oil tankers many years ago. When picking up a pilot, we would put a ladder over the side. It was made of rope with wooden steps. Depending on how high the ship was out of the water, we would lower the ladder over the side from the main deck to an appropriate length and then tie it off. The pilot boats were very small compared with the size of the tanker and there was no way that a pilot could jump either on or off the ship, the height difference was much too big. In rough weather we would head sideways to the wind at a slow speed and the pilot boat would approach on the lee side where it was more sheltered. In winter in north west Europe there were some hairy situations where the pilot would have to time his movement very well as the pilot boat would be moving up and down considerably. If he got it wrong he could be badly injured. There was one occasion where the weather was so rough that the pilot couldn’t get off the ship into the pilot boat so we took him all the way to our next port a couple of days journey away and in a different country.

    1. This was a very nice description. Our local Virginia pilots have responsibilities for a variety of ships coming into and leaving the Hampton Roads ports including container ships, coal colliers, aircraft carriers, and cruise ships. Transfers take place in the often stormy seas of the Atlantic Ocean just off the Virginia Capes and in the calm waters of the James River usually involving a 50-60 foot high powered pilot boat. Over the years I have watched the smooth ballet of a pilot boat in the James River approach and match speed and course with the larger ship, station keep while the pilot matches the movement between the two vessels, and then take the leap to the big ship’s rope ladder or from the ladder to the safe deck of the pilot boat. There are a number exciting videos that can be found by googling “ pilot boats boarding you tube” or the like.

    2. Re: “I was also told twice that when Chilean pilots come aboard—several times during this trip—they don’t stop the ship because it’s expensive to stop it and start it again.”

      Years ago I was navigator and deck officer on a U.S. Navy supply ship. Another more senior officer on my ship told me that commercial vessels didn’t like to make course changes of much if any significance because it cost money to do so, and that it occasionally gave concern to other ships who were required by the international “Rules of the Road” to maintain course and speed. That is, the other ship in proximity off the port side was required by the Rules to turn right and/or slow and pass a safe distance behind the vessel required to maintain course and speed. (I had the subjective impression that some sort of “Bean Counter Rules” were being applied.) I wonder how many times the deck officer of a ship, military or commercial, required to maintain course/speed thought, “When is he going to slow down and/or turn right?”

  3. Fascinating – the preparation in advance of the skilful navigation through the White Narrows is incredible.

  4. I would love to take this trip after seeing your photos. The deck view and going thought the White Narrows looks incredible.
    Hats off to the Chilean pilot and measurement team that jumps back on the main ship from the zodiac.
    Sounds a little hair raising.
    I just love seeing such majestic mountains and glaciers.
    Wonderful penguin sculptures!

  5. Small clarification about the timing of that ship passage through the narrows: slack water isn’t a period between the low and high tides; slack water occurs right at both the time of the low tide and the time of the high tide (the latter is preferred for boats and ships bc more water over the rocks).

    Great photos as usual. Thanks!

  6. These are fantastic photos of the approach to and passage through the narrows. I have been fascinated both by the narrows and Neptune’s Bellows on Deception Island. In your 2019 visit to Deception Is i was able to locate an underwater photo (very clear, no suspended silt) of the rocks on the bottom of the channel, but could not find it again this year and can find nothing legible on these Narrows. Do you (or any readers)have access to a depth chart url with soundings contours and bottom characteristics (e.g. sand, gravel, mud, rock) for White Narrows? I am fascinated by, at least in my mind, constructing the 3-D image of the underwater view of the ship’s entire passage through to a forgiving turning basin beyond.

    Btw, i still think my favorite meal is the casual burger, fries, and shake (make mine chocolate please) to wash it down…and maybe a second shake for dessert.

  7. “The sheep has to steer left” – no surprise there, the commie b*stards.

    Seriously, what a wonderful sequence of photos. Every one, from the incredible glacier close-ups to the food, is evocative of time and place. Very many thanks to PCC(E) for this portfolio.

    Mind you, if I was a glacier, I’d much sooner be named after a geologist than a Pope.

  8. “The Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the world’s second largest contiguous field”

    Clearly Antarctica isn’t considered an iceFIELD, but I’m wondering if Greenland is considered #1; or if it is also more than an icefield and whether maybe the #1 is some ice field on an arctic island above Siberia, or maybe Ellesmere Island at the very top of Canada. The latter is certainly bigger than any on Baffin Island, as can be seen from a map with both on it, so that the different projections at different latitudes don’t deceive the eyes.

    I’ve been nerdy about this kind of thing since about 6 years old.

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