Visit to the Chilean Base at Water Boat Point
Position: 64:49.48S 062:51.349W
Gabriel Gonzalez Videla Chilean Base – Water Boat Point, Paradise Harbour
Date/Time : 10 January 2012.
A trip to the Chilean base at Water Boat Point at the northeast end of Paradise Harbour was not really on the itinerary but having rather surreally bumped into their dayglo clad personnel at Cuverville (they were as surprised to see us as I was them) we thought we would drop in.
Just before we started untying at Cuverville for the 12 mile short hop to Water Boat point, we spotted a Humpback whale actually in the bay. It came within 50 metres of us which was pretty incredible. We saw another (or the same one) out in the open water as well.
To get to the Chilean Base we had to make our way through the Errera Channel which was stuffed full of ice from massive icebergs, through bergy bits, growlers and down to loads of brash ice. As we nudged our way through, looking for the clearer leads, at one point it looked like we might have to turn back and go the long way round via the Gerlache Strait but eventually we squeezed our way through the ice and out the other end.
The Chilean base is on an island just 150 metres from the mainland of Antarctica. Water Boat Point is so-named because in the early 1920’s two young men (aged just 19 and 23) as part of a small British expedition, overwintered here using an old whalers water boat as their accommodation (with only three foot headroom, “their matches were faulty, their ink froze and they suffered greatly”!) The anchorage off the base is incredibly snug however. The entrance on the north side is partially blocked with grounded icebergs – which stops other ice coming in - and the other end has an isthmus which is only just covered at high tide which, again, stops ice from coming in. We tied in with three lines. Very secure. In the process of laying the lines, Peter and Ewan placed their first steps on the Antarctic mainland.
By the time we arrived, the weather had deteriorated. It was bitterly cold and there was a light drizzle of sleet, so, having tied in, we were pleased to get down below, turn the heater on and start drying out. We were contacted by the Chileans on the radio and arranged to go ashore and visit them at 1800.
As we arrived, they all came out to greet us. The base is staffed by 13 men: 7 Chilean Air Force, 4 Navy and two cooks. We asked what scientific work they carried out. None. They are there as support for any visitors to the area, and they have a couple of big inflatables and a helicopter landing pad which can provide Search and Rescue services if necessary. In the case of a medical emergency they can fly a helicopter in within two hours from their other base on King George Island in the South Shetlands to the north and at King George they have an airstrip from which one can be flown by air ambulance to Punta Arenas. Reassuring. But apart from that they seemingly have no responsibilities at all. As I have never heard of anyone at any time making use of these facilities, it must be a pretty boring post for 6 months of the year. They were quite open that probably the main reason they were there was to maintain a physical presence on the peninsula to justify their territorial claim over this part of Antarctica (also claimed by Argentina and Britain).
They showed us round their little museum and their display of rather tacky souvenirs (which none of us bought as we didn’t have money on us) before inviting us into their lounge area with widescreen TV, loads of DVD’s, comfy leather chairs and offered us coffee and biscuits. Rafael, the head honcho took advantage of Ewan, our resident wildlife expert, to show him a photo he had taken of a monster seal that he’d been unable to identify. Had he discovered a new species? Ewan disappointed Rafael by immediately identifying it as a young Elephant seal that hadn’t yet grown its proboscis.
There are nesting Gentoo penguins all around the base and anchorage. Cute as custard – but the smell! On land they are comically ungainly, looking for all the world like little Charlie Chaplins, but in the crystal clear water they are transformed into little torpedos shooting around and under our boat at immense speed, incredibly manoeuvrable turning through 90 degrees without apparently even having to flap their wings and with no change in speed. To breathe, they porpoise through the water, occasionally bumping into our mooring lines floating on the surface.
The Chileans were very proud that their penguin colony had two very rare leucistic Gentoos (albino-like). Ewan believes there is only about one leucistic penguin per 10,000. However before we had returned to the boat we had already counted three of them, so the Chileans clearly weren’t on top of the wildlife literally on their own doorstep.
We told Rafael that we were heading to Port Lockroy. His eyes lit up. He had heard of Port Lockroy and its team of four beautiful young women. “How many days will it take you to sail there” he asked. Days? He had me worried. This was the leader of a team that had been on the base for three months with nothing to do but provide SAR support for the whole area, which he presumably knew like the back of his hand. Lockroy is only about 25 miles away – no more than 4 hours for us and probably only an hour away in their fast inflatables. Rafael was amazed. So was I. God help us if we ran into trouble and called upon them to find and rescue us.
Before we left, we gave them a gift of a bottle of wine and some beer. They were touched and Rafael immediately reciprocated by giving us two bottles of Chilean carmenere wine that is bottled specially for their Antarctic bases. It went very well with the second of Dolly’s shoulders.
We awoke this morning to find that it was still drizzling and bitterly cold. Visibility was still poor. So rather than shooting off to the Argentine base further into Paradise harbour, we’ve decided to hunker down and have a lazy day in this snug anchorage. In any event, we were told by the Chileans that the Argentine base was unmanned this year as they had problems with their generator.