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.
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.
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.
On the other hand it was the noise that made the Arctic tern colony more than just a visual experience.
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.)
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.
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.
Not a cheap trip, none of the organised trips are in this part of the world, but worth it nonetheless.
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.