Open Water

Sometime in the wee hours I’m woken, as I’d hoped to be, by the Swiss couple shuffling around and getting their jackets on. Yesterday while I was taking a late-morning powernap Percy had announced that we’d be making a quick stop in a small port sometime in the middle of the night, likely around three a.m. I wasn’t even aware that there were any settlements out this way, we certainly hadn’t seen any sign of civilization during the day, so I was interested to see what this Puerto Eden was all about. (The boat we’re on is the Eden, and I suspect that’s not coincidental.)

I’d hung around the deck last night until nearly midnight waiting for the stars to really pop but with the sun’s glow still visible in the western horizon as 11:30 passed my desire for sleep overrode my desire for seeing the stars in such a remote location. Fortunately I wasn’t disappointed when I climbed topside in the waters off Puerto Eden. Aside from perhaps a dozen lit-up buildings around the port, the ship’s lights, and the occasional green flash of a coastal beacon mounted on the rocks of the harbour, there was nothing to see but stars. Some were equally at home here as they are back home like Orion and the Southern Cross was unmissable but for the most part I didn’t recognize any of the constellations, which is pretty bad considering I’ve already lived in the Southern Hemisphere for two years. A couple of small boats and zodiacs were running back and forth between our Eden and the Port of Eden, filling up with supplies using a small crane on the deck and presumably using something similar on the other end, although it was too dark to tell. Incessant dog barking filled the night air… it seems that no matter how remote the town is, if you’re in Patagonia, expect to get barked at. It was hard to tell how big the port really is, but unless the lay of the lights are supremely deceptive, I reckoned it couldn’t be more than two dozen buildings.

I went down to grab an extra layer and was met by a couple of women headed the other way with all of their things – residents of Puerto Eden, apparently. Likewise, the lounge room, where several guys had been stretched out sleeping while wrapped in sleeping bags was now empty. I was wondering why they were doing that – it didn’t seem like you could purchase a seat to Puerto Montt without a room, so presumably they were also residents who went over on the first couple boats.

After I’m topside again for a while the novelties of the coastal hamlet and the austral sky wear thin and my desire to pass out is once again victorious, so I head back down and immediately nod off.

I wake up in time for breakfast and emerging on the deck I’m greeted to a gorgeous sunny day. The terrain’s the same, that is we were still weaving through islands of various sizes, some bare granite and some forested, but it was warmer, so much so that long sleeves were no longer a requirement, although a vest still was. There were seals in all directions, group upon group of a half dozen to a dozen.

At ten o’clock Percy gave a repeat of a presentation he gave yesterday on the region’s fauna, albeit this time in English as opposed to Spanish. Four species he mentioned stuck out in my mind.

The first was the Sierra Finch, which I’d had a close encounter with immediately after the Villa O’Higgins border crossing at a small BBQ joint. Percy was saying that if you were patient and didn’t move much, these birds would slowly progress toward an open hand offering food and eat from it. I reckon the one I’d run into must’ve been more accustomed to humans as he didn’t seem to mind my eating movement, nor was he perturbed by the lack of an offer, but seemed hellbent on getting something from me, regardless of my thoughts on the situation. Eventually I’d given him a bit of bun just to avoid confrontation.

The second was some variety of lapwing and a cold chill went down my spine as I spied the creature on the Powerpoint presentation. It was nearly identical, colouration aside, from the bastards that frequently attacked me when I lived in Darwin. They make nests on the ground and if you’re unlucky enough to walk across a field containing a few of these nests – or if they’ve been foolish enough to make a nest adjacent to a walking path – you may soon feel some talons piercing the back of your head in a drive-by swooping. Percy noted that the Patagonian lapwings have some kind of oily substance on their claws that’ll cause any wounds to swell up. I can’t say whether the Territorian lapwings shared that trait, as I was always successful in deterring them by swinging my backpack over my head helicopter-style while running like hell for shelter.

Next was something called a flightless steamer duck, which Percy called “ridiculous” and I’d have to agree. It’s a massive duck, goose-sized really, except that it’s retained the wings of a regular duck, rendering it as flightless as a penguin or an ostrich. As a result it typically just waddles and swims around, except for when a need to giver comes – at that time, it’ll “run” across the water creating a steamy-looky spray in its wake.

The final critter was the oh-so-familiar castor canadensis – the Canadian beaver.

I’d seen one of these stuffed in Ushuaia but hadn’t really gotten such an in-depth story of what the hell they’re doing here, or how much shit they’re raising. They were introduced in the 1930s from Canada with the thinking that while Canadian beavers were rocking their thinner (and less-desirable-for-fur-clothing) summer coats, Tierra del Fuegan emigres would be bundled up nicely for the Austral winter and could fill the gap in the European fur market. Great idea in theory but the TDF winter, while damned cold, is much shorter than the Canadian winter, and the beaver’s coats never have time to thicken up enough to make them marketable. Compounding that problem was that when this was discovered, the beavers were just set free. Since then they’ve bred like mad because of no natural predators, overrunning the forests. Bizarrely they’ve even modified their behaviour to eat duck and goose eggs, something they don’t do in the north, and several species of birds are at risk as a result. They’ve also grown to sizes and ages not seen in the north, and when foxes were introduced to counter the beaver it was found that these foxes generally wanted nothing to do larger-and-deadlier beavers, and although they occasionally rolled the dice, it was found that the beavers were in fact killing the foxes. The wiser foxes have stuck to pilfering duck and goose eggs, exacerbating the birds’ plight. (At this point Percy was visibly pissed off and he even made several comments about wishing the beavers could be wiped out, but I couldn’t help feel a little twinge of nationalistic pride, thinking “atta boy”.)

As lunch approached I began reading Mark Twain’s “Roughing It”. I’d never read Twain before – he isn’t really part of the national canon north of the border in the same way he is in the States – but man, he’s a funny guy. I didn’t think nineteenth century humour could hold up today but he proved me wrong, I really did laugh out loud at several parts.

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By and by lunch was served and almost simultaneously the boat began swaying side to side, indicating we’d entered open water. When I entered the dining room I found the staff handing out dramamine to anyone who felt so inclined. I felt fine of course, having never been seasick in my life (nor would I admit it here if that weren’t the case), and most folks looked alright but after a while I was worried about some of the kids running around. Several had the tell-tale signs of someone about to puke – off-colour faces, mouth slightly ajar, eyes not looking quite right. I’m certain they had no idea what was coming but I did and I had no intention of being around when it happened so I shoved my food down as fast as I could to get away from several running back and forth between the tables. Since completely destroying my last pair of pants in the woods I’m down to a single pair, and although they’re anything but clean as-is were they to be covered in someone else’s vomit I’d certainly feel obliged to wash them in the sink or something, leaving me in boxers for the rest of the afternoon. It’s warmer now but it ain’t that warm.

Lunch is capped off with some kind of flan glazed with a weird purply-red sauce that looks akin to Gato that’s been spilled on a coffee table and left to thicken up overnight while I’m passed out on the floor a few feet away. Surprisingly it tastes a lot like that as well, and as much as I enjoy Gato it’s best when fresh from a newly-opened box, not old and syrupy. Curious as to whether this is an exception to the dry-ship policy I eat most of it but failing to find myself any more handsome, well-spoken or confident, I toss the remainder, retire to my bunk and am soon gently rocked to sleep by the motion of the ocean.

In the afternoon I suck back some coffee and hang out with some folks around the lunch room. Definitely missing the bar, a side effect of no booze means I’m compensating by overcaffeinating myself to the point of twitchiness. I nab a couch in the lounge and toss my feet up to read, but before I do so I notice the window – the rocking’s increased to the point where the window goes from entirely dark blue (the ocean) to entirely light blue (the sky) every five seconds or so.

By and by I return topside and it looks like I haven’t missed much. No one’s seen much aside from the occasional seal peeking its head up, no orca, minke or dolphin sightings. Word is there are blue whales in this stretch as well and that’s what we’ve all really got our fingers crossed for.

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I timed my ascent to the top well though, because within half an hour a group of twenty to thirty dolphins appeared in the distance, swimming and leaping through the air. Pretty rad. I hear some commotion from people on the other side and to the front of the ship there’s another group about the same size, a little too far off to really see much but fine for people with binoculars. As they come closer there are more and more, too many to count, must be hundreds of them. They’re smaller than the other ones though, some kind of mini-dolphin thing…

Land is nowhere to be seen, nor had it been for a while. I wondered whether we were in international waters but a quick search around the ship for blackjack, hookers and cockfights proved fruitless, so I have to assume we remained within the draconian confines of Chilean waters for the evening.

After dinner I come back up and there are spouts of water appearing here and there on the port side. Whales, and dozens of them. A few people are scanning the water, including a couple from Minnesota I strike up a long conversation with – the husband’s a software developer with a background in geoscience so we quickly fell into talking shop while keeping an eye out for whales. After a few minutes one roving whale decides to investigate our vessel, popping its head up about 200 meters off and blasting a plume of water up. About five seconds later a second pops up almost directly behind it and does the same. A few minutes later three more pass by a little further off, swimming nose-to-tail in a road train formation.

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