So THIS is What We Came For
Position: 54:47.800S 069:37.768W, Caleta Beaulieu, Seno Pia (Eastern Arm)
Date: 8 February 2012
By 0800 we were untying the lines from the trees, bringing the dinghy back on board, weighing the anchor and then we were off for the last of the longer passages west, about 20 miles to Seno Pia. Predictably the wind was very strong, bitterly cold and coming directly from the direction we wanted to go. But we were now out of the wider stretch of the Beagle Channel and in the narrower Brazo Noroeste, so at least the waves heading towards us weren’t large and breaking, so our speed was good.
We had just got a sailing angle and for the first time for a while had got some sail up and had blissfully turned the engine off. Being wafted at last by God’s own energy, we were rewarded by the blow, then the unmistakable fin and back of a Minke whale. We watched it slowly rising, blowing then diving again for about 15 minutes before it worked its way east and out of sight.
Within three hours we were negotiating the very narrow, shallow and invisible gap through the submerged moraine into the fjord. Once through I could relax once more. The rain that had been lashing us had ceased and the sun was struggling to emerge from the reducing layers of cloud.
Seno Pia is a fjord carved by glaciers over millions of years. It is about 8 miles long and ½ mile wide. Enormous mountains of granite fall almost vertically into the still, protected waters. Moving further up the fjord, it splits into two arms. We were heading into the eastern arm to a beautiful protected anchorage, but before we settled down for the day, we continued up the arm. By now, for the first time in a week, the clouds had dispersed and the sun was glinting on the numerous waterfalls cascading down the steep granite cliffs. All of a sudden we were negotiating our way round pieces of ice floating in the water. As we rounded a bend we were confronted with a magnificent glacier piling down the mountain in front of us and ending in a ice wall hundreds of feet high and a mile across. But we weren’t yet at the end of the fjord so we continued slaloming round more, thicker and bigger bits of ice until yet another glacier, even more magnificent than the first, appeared before us. We continued, closer and closer until we were just a few hundred metres from the ice wall towering above us. We turned the engine off and floated in the still water listening to the grumbling and groaning of this vast river of ice edging forwards millimetre by millimetre, succumbing to the pressure of gravity on the weight of hundreds of millions of tons of ice behind it. Suddenly there was a roar like thunder and an enormous chunk of ice toppled over, shattering into a thousand smaller pieces as it collapsed into the water, setting up a tsunami that surged towards us. We rocked violently as the shock waves passed under us.
This was our own private show. The ice we had seen collapse had been sucked as moisture from the sea and settled as snow tens of thousands of years ago. After its millennial treacle–like journey down the mountain it was now being returned to the sea to its original state and parts of it would start the whole journey again. We had been privileged to see this moment. And it was our own private show. Nobody lives in this wild terrain; there are no tourist hotels here, no tripper boats; no cruise ships can enter this fjord. Only a handful of yachts each year are privileged enough to witness this noble performance.
And of course, the performance doesn’t stop – ever. It started millions of years ago when the Andes and this extension of them first burst through the earth’s crust, and it will probably continue for millions more years to come. Once we returned to our idyllic anchorage at the bottom of the eastern arm – with the most stunning view of the first glacier we passed - periodically we would hear what sounded like a clap of thunder as, day and night, the inexorable advance of the glaciers calved yet another iceberg. Half an hour after each clap of thunder, snug in our anchorage, we would feel the slightest ripple as the tsunami that had started five miles up the fjord made its way to lap at the small beach behind us.
Once we had tied into the little tree-lined Caleta Beaulieu, the inflatable kayak was chucked into the water and, escorted by the dinghy under oar-power, we all explored the bay and the pretty off-lying islands.
After dinner, we went back on deck to view the eerie light of the glacier as dusk settled. Above us stars twinkled through the clear sky – possibly the first I had seen for a couple of months. In Antarctica it was too light throughout the night for any stars to shine and, since my return to Tierra del Fuego, there has been constant cloud cover. Behind the glacier mountain a mysterious light loomed. It got brighter and brighter until a sliver of bright white light emerged which over the next couple of minutes evolved into the brightest of full moons. So many magic moments in one day.