Argentinian Diary – Beagle Channel, sea lions, cormorants, Arctic terns and giant Southern petrels

Ushuaia

Ushuaia

Argentinian Diary – Beagle Channel, sea lions, cormorants, Arctic terns and giant Southern petrels

Being in the most southerly town in the world one of the things to do is to get out on the water and visit a few of the tiny islands that litter the area. Although the overwhelming number of these islands aren’t, and never have been, occupied by humans that doesn’t mean to say that no one lives there – at least for part of the year.

The regular tours take in some of the closest islands that are the home of sea lions (virtually all the time) and migratory and nesting birds.

Sea lions

Sea lions

The sea lions seem to get on with everyone as they were mixed up with the different species of birds whilst the birds themselves seem to congregate only with their own species. There were two species of cormorant, the Magellanic (or Rock) Cormorant (with red plumage around the eyes) and the Imperial Cormorant, both of whom are predominantly black with white breasts.  

Rock cormorant

Rock cormorant

There was also a colony of extremely noisy Arctic terns. I’ve seen them before but not in such a close concentration, hundreds of them on a very small island.

It was interesting to experience the different environment of the different species. Bird watching in such concentrations is not just a visual matter – it’s also and audio and olfactory experience. The cormorants could be smelt a mile off downwind and although little remains now their guano had been harvested for use on the land for fertilizer in the past – the rocks bleached white by the acidity of their droppings.

Imperial cormorant

Imperial cormorant

On the other hand it was the noise that made the Arctic tern colony more than just a visual experience.

Arctic Terns

Arctic Terns

I was also pleased that on two occasions a couple of giant Southern petrels skimmed the water close behind the boat. This was the first time I’d seen such a big seabird in its environment and it was as impressive as all the nature programmes imply. A huge bird but with a total dominance of the air. The strong winds probably helped their manoeuvres and it was a bit of a privilege to see them so close to the waves, one of them even landing in the sea. (I first thought that I was seeing an albatross, to me as an amateur they look similar in the face but an albatross is white – something I’d forgotten. But it was a beautiful bird to see flying nonetheless. I’ll have to wait to see my first albatross, it seems.) 

Giant Southern petrel

Giant Southern petrel

There were other birds, some of which I was able to record – even though sometimes from a distance – where again I don’t know the English name – but will try to update this post in the future.

Goose

Goose

Some of these tours (but I don’t think those that use the bigger boats) include a short visit to Isla Bridges – named after the British Missionary who was one of the first non-indigenous inhabitants of what came to be known as Ushuaia, but basically a foreign coloniser of a land where people already lived – and that was interesting to get an idea of the type of vegetation that thrives in this quite hostile environment. Even in summer the wind can cut you like a knife.

Gull

Gull

Not a cheap trip, none of the organised trips are in this part of the world, but worth it nonetheless.

Recommended.

Practical Information

Many of the boat companies that have a small ticket office on the Muelle Turísticio in Ushuaia will run the standard ‘Beagle Channel’ tour. It’s basically the tour people will do if they want to get away from the shore and get to know a few of the innumerable islands in Tierra del Fuego. The route they follow is more or less the same – although I got the impression they agree amongst themselves when exactly to arrive at any islands so as not to have boats fighting to provide the best view of the wild life – and the only difference is the size of the boat and what they might offer in addition to the basic tour.

The trips are also about the same length, around three and a half hours. They leave every day (weather permitting) in the summer and there are also departures in the spring and autumn.

I went for the smallest boat that seemed to be making the regular trips, it took a maximum of 12 paying passengers, even though it might have been slightly more expensive.

This was with Yate Tango (with a small kiosk at the Muelle Turístico) and cost AR$ 1,800. There’s also a small charge of AR$ 20 for the port tax.

Under normal circumstances (I did the journey in abnormal circumstances on 24th December where there was only the morning tour, with none the following day) there are departures at 10.00, 15.00 and 19.30 – the sunset tour.

There will be a bilingual guide whose English might or might not be that good.

As with all boat trips the exact itinerary will be dependent on the weather. The winds can really get up in this part of the world, especially in the summer, and that can make the Beagle Channel extremely choppy. Uncomfortable at best, dangerous at worst.

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Argentinian (but really, here, Chilean) Diary – Penguin Island (Isla Magdalena)

Isla Magdelena Penguin Colony

Isla Magdelena Penguin Colony

Argentinian (but really, here, Chilean) Diary – Penguin Island (Isla Magdalena)

I don’t intend to write much about this – my knowledge of penguins is far from being at the level of an expert. All I intend to do is to give up to date information about the possibilities of seeing these charming creatures in their own environment. It’s not difficult to do so, all you need to do is part with a not inconsiderable amount of cash to some tourist agency in the city of Punta Arenas.

There are a number of places where it is possible to visit the nesting Magellan Penguins just after their chicks have hatched in Chile and Argentina. This includes Cabo Virgenes (close-ish to Rio Gallegos – Argentina) but this becomes expensive unless you are travelling in a small group and other options if you are heading down south to Ushuaia. However, there is a very established infrastructure in Punta Arenas (Chile) to get people from the city on to the island that makes it an easy option.

Yes, there are a lot of people (more than a hundred from the agency I chose when I made the visit) but when you actually land on the island and people start to spread out the numbers aren’t really that obvious.

Practical Information

How to book

All hostels and hotels will have some sort of an arrangement with a tour operator who provides such tours. They might vary slightly in cost and what they offer but the ‘bare bones’ tour will be the most favoured. You can go directly to an agency (I went to ‘Solo Expediciones at José Nogueira 1255, just a block or two down from the main square in Punta Arenas) but everything is much of a muchness.

Cost

Chilean Pesos = 63,000 (about £75.00)

What do you get for that?

Less time in bed for a start. You have to be at the agency location for 06.30. You will get dropped off in town about 5 hours later.

(I asked about later tours but was told there were only the crack of dawn starts. However, when the mass group of early risers arrived back at the pier there was a smaller group waiting to get on the same boats. It might have been a private tour but it does indicate that later starts are not impossible.)

If you book through your hostel/hotel you might be picked up and taken to the agency, if not it might mean a shortish walk. You jump on one of a fleet of buses and are taken to a private pier about 25 minutes from the centre of Punta Arenas – just after the airport on the road to Puerto Natales/Rio Gallegos.

You will be distributed between the boats available. I don’t think there will ever be a time when they turn people away. Your life jacket has the name of the boat you are on written on the back. If you can’t see behind yourself just look at the colour of the vest.

There’s a journey of about 40 minutes to the Isla Magdalena. Once there you will have about an hour on land. That’s more than enough to get close to the penguins who don’t seem to care at all about the invasion of these strange creatures. The fact they are not threatened any more than by a camera lens probably helps.

You are restricted in the route you take, it all being laid out in a roped walkway.

Once back on board you can have a free cup of tea/coffee/hot chocolate and then you are off to the next island. This time for sea lions, about 15-20 minutes away.

How long you stay there will be very dependent upon the weather. Although a relatively benign day when we started the waves started to get somewhat choppy by the time we arrived at the sea lion colony. There was an immediate restriction on where people could stand to have a look at the animals as they lay on the beach or played around in the sea. That meant we were only there for a few minutes – drowned tourists aren’t good for business.

Then it’s back to the pier (about 40 minutes) and on the bus again to be dropped off in the centre of town.

Is it worth it?

If you’ve never actually ‘walked with penguins’ then I would say, yes. I don’t know if you would gain much if you had done so before. Such an experience is for those who want to study their habits and lifestyle and turn it into a career. Although the penguins might be of a different breed once you’ve seen a penguin colony you’ve very much seen them all. (The survival technique in one of the BBC programmes when there’s a sharing of collective warmth at the height of an Antarctic winter being an exception.)

It costs too much and I can’t afford it

On the day I travelled no one even was concerned about looking at the voucher let alone making sure it was valid for that day and time. So you know what was issued this is a picture of the voucher.

Enough of the words, now to the picture gallery – with a few pictures of sea lions from a boat on a choppy sea.

Although nothing to do with Magdelena Island, or even the Magellanic Penguins this video from the BBC is worth a watch. 

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Argentinian (now Chilean) Diary – The massacre of the Magallanes Workers’ Federation

Monument to 27 July 1920 Martyrs, Punta Arenas

Monument to 27 July 1920 Martyrs, Punta Arenas

Argentinian (now Chilean) Diary – The massacre of the Magallanes Workers’ Federation

You encounter one monument to a massacre of workers in Argentina and then come across another one in Chile – the events occurring at very much the same time. Although not necessarily directly connected they were both part of a show of determination of the ruling class to use the forces of the State against workers who were organising in both countries against the adverse effects of the end of the war of 1914-19 and the impetus given to the world proletariat with the success of the October Revolution in Russia in 1917.

Workers and peasants had been establishing organisations to fight for their rights since the late 1880s in Chile but there was no common structure to represent their interests until the Federación Obrera de Magallanes (FOM – The Megallanes Workers’ Federation) was established in June of 1920.

This was too much for the landowners and industrialists and were able to mobilise the army to carry out their wishes. As with the Frie Korps in Germany (the basis for the fascist groupings of the Brown and Black Shirts) and the Black and Tans (who would have been fascists if they were intelligent enough, just thirsting for more blood after leaving the trenches of the Western Front) who butchered Republicans and terrorised the general population in Ireland in the 1920s there are always those from the working class who are prepared to carry out the wishes of the ruling class.

This attack in 1920s Punta Arenas, however, seems to have been a precedent for the military and fascist regimes that were to dominate so many Latin and Central American countries from the 1960s to the 1990s.

If we look at the ‘justifications’ for the actions of the military in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Peru and virtually all of Central America during that period there was always the idea that they were ‘defending’ the state, ‘protecting values’ and ‘promoting stability’.

And they would always have the media and the judiciary on their side. Illegal actions not being ‘punished’ and the events not even being published in the newspapers so that those not directly involved would not necessarily know of the events.

Monument to 27 July 1920 Martyrs, Punta Arenas

Monument to 27 July 1920 Martyrs, Punta Arenas

So to try to précis the events.

Members of the FOM knew that things were getting to a crisis point and began to protect their offices were they organised their activities and also published their newspaper (El Obrero – The Worker). However, tensions appeared to have been reduced and so they subsequently reduced the number of people at their building in the centre of Punta Arenas. (I’ll have to try to identify the location when I return in a few days.)

But at 03.00 on the morning of 27th July 1920 an unspecified number of soldiers and police surrounded the building and opened fire for no other reason than they could. When you know no one is going to hold you to account why do you need a reason.

They attacked the building and, in the process, set it on fire. Some of the workers were armed and fought back but as the building fire got more established and they were forced to leave they were just gunned down at the doors. The fire brigade in Punta Arenas responded quite quickly, as far as I can see, but when they tried to set up their hoses they were threatened – with death – by named officers of the police and army.

Those who weren’t able to leave were burnt to death. The numbers of those who died has never been exactly determined.

Not just in the building that night but in the round-up of ‘suspects’ in the next couple of days.

There’s supposed to be a grave with a number of names of those murdered that night and subsequently in the Municipal Cemetery of Punta Arenas. I wasn’t planning to make a visit there but will also add that quest to my return visit to the city in a week or so.

No newspapers appeared for a couple of days and when they were published no mention was made of the affair.

The attack and murders had their effect. Union and socialist political activity in Chilean Patagonia was severely set back, although not totally destroyed. This incident was a forerunner of the murder of more than 1,500 workers from the countryside in the El Calafate region of Argentina in 1922.

As I write this I remember what some Chileans I met in Britain said after the September 11th 1973 Pinochet military coup. They said that their country had a ‘tradition’ of ‘democracy’ and ‘peaceful’ transition. Did they not know of this event? Were they not aware that the Chilean ruling class, and its ability to call upon the resources and ,enthusiasm of the country’s sycophantic and psychopathic military and police, would stop at nothing to maintain their power? Were they not aware this has been, and will be, the situation in any country, in any epoch, when the workers and peasants rise up against entrenched wealth and power?

One of the tragedies of being old enough to have seen young men and women being held like animals, in the first days following Pinochet’s coup, in the Santiago football stadium, was the fact that they didn’t seem to be aware that once you rattle the lion’s cage it will bite. And bite it did. The result being the changing rooms for football teams being turned into make-shift morgues – before the disposal of the bodies wherever the military saw fit – sometimes letting the families know, sometimes not.

(A cinematic telling of that story, which is highly recommended, is the film ‘Missing’ directed by Costa-Gavras, of 1982.)

But back to the murder of the workers in Punta Arenas.

I’ve come across a short paper about the events and it is from that document that I’ve created this précis. It’s in Spanish but online translation programmes are becoming so efficient you can get a good idea of what the story is all about.

The Monument

Monument to 27 July 1920 Martyrs, Punta Arenas

Monument to 27 July 1920 Martyrs, Punta Arenas

Now a few comments about the monument – as that’s one of the aspects of representing workers’ struggles that particularly interests me – not least from the posts I have made about Albanian Lapidars.

I don’t know what caused this event to be celebrated by the inauguration of a monument in 1968 (and I’m a little bit confused why the Pinochet Fascists (in an important military naval port as was, and is, Punta Arenas) didn’t destroy the structure soon after the coup. After all Pinochet was an Admiral.

I’m more into the figurative representation of workers struggles, whether successful or not, and abstraction doesn’t work for me in such circumstances.

I think what the artist is trying to say is that workers are trapped in something so powerful that, although they can look out they can’t escape the powerful embrace of the system. A bit like a fairy tale where a person, whether good or bad, is trapped in a tree and needs something external to release them.

Monument to 27 July 1920 Martyrs, Punta Arenas

Monument to 27 July 1920 Martyrs, Punta Arenas

Obviously what workers need to release them is the ideology of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism.

The problem with such monuments is that it commemorates the past but doesn’t give any guidance for the future.

It’s also quite a long way from the centre of town where the events actually took place so the placing of the monument where no one will see it can appear merely to be a sop to certain forces in society.

I’m sure that no one has been condemned, even posthumously, for this unprovoked and murderous attack. Quite the opposite. I’m sure somewhere there’s a monument to those very attackers for other ‘patriotic’ activities.

But at least there are (or were) some people in the city who thought that it was worth while remembering those who had fought and died for the interests of the working class.

The Memorial Stone

Monument to 27 July 1920 Martyrs, Punta Arenas

Monument to 27 July 1920 Martyrs, Punta Arenas

‘La Municipalidad a los martires de la Federación Obrera Magallanes caidos el 27 de Julio de 1920.

Punta Arenas Julio 27 1968’

The words carved into the stone translate as:

‘The Local Government commemorates the martyrs of the Magallanes Workers’ Federation who fell on the 27th July 1920.

Punta Arenas, 27th July 1968′

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