Kayaking the Comau Fjord – Cahuelmó Fjord

Day 3

Day 3 of our kayaking trip to explore the fjords in the north of Pumalín Park dawned bright and sunny again.   Given we were already just across from our campsite scheduled for Day 3 (thanks to the storm), after another amazing breakfast aboard the Don Miguel, we hit the kayaks and went for a paddle up the length of the Cahuelmó Fjord

Breakfast Table on the Don Miguel

Breakfast Table in the Don Miguel wheelhouse. All our meals were taken here.

Even after 2 days of paddling, I’m finding the whole kayaking experience rather challenging and frustrating.  The others make it look so easy, yet I’m going ten-to-the-dozen just to keep up with them!   But I do get there eventually… even against the wind!

Kayaking Cahuelmó Fjord

Kayaking towards the sealion colony – Cahuelmó Fjord

The aim of the paddle was to visit the sea lion colony near the entrance of the fjord.   Very noisy, but great fun to watch, especially when they were checking us out from the water.

Sea lions at the entrance to Cahuelmo Fjord

Sea lions at the entrance to Cahuelmo Fjord

Then we paddled slowly back towards our campsite, passing more sealions and some amazing waterfalls.    

Cahuelmo Fjord

The first time paddling with the wind and tide, and trying to put into practice some of Colyn’s tips from earlier in the morning, I felt like I might finally be getting the hang of this activity … sort of … kinda …

Kayaking Cahuelmó Fjord

Paddling towards the campsite in Cahuelmó Fjord

Our campsite for the night was at the Cahuelmó thermal hot springs (Termas Cahuelmó), and after 3 days in the kayaks, we were all looking forward to soaking in the hot water.

Cahuelmo thermal hot springs (Termas Cahuelmo)

Unfortunately, another family arrived at exactly the same time as us (what are the chances!) so we ended up diverting as many of the streams of hot water running into the pool we wanted to use as we could (it was waaaaaaay too hot to sit in comfortably) and went to set up the tents and to do a short hike up to a lookout over the Fjord.  

Lookout at Termas Cahuelmo campground

Lookout at Termas Cahuelmo campground

When we returned, the family was gone and the pool was just cool enough for us to relax in properly.   Ahhhhhhhh – luxury!

Cahuelmo thermal hot springs (Termas Cahuelmo)

Finally! Koreen, Chloe and Colyn enjoying the pool.

Dinner on board the Don Miguel was a great as always, and Chloe spoiled us with an incredible apple cake for dessert!   This was followed up by yet another spectacular sunset – I love being out in the middle of nowhere.

Sunset along the Cahuelmo Fjord

Kayaking the Comau Fjord – Isla Llancahué to Quintupeu Fjord

Day 2

Awoke not feeling too bad given the unfamiliar and extended exercise of yesterday.    The clouds had rolled in, however, and the forecast of rain was looking more and more accurate.

Rain Comau Fjord from Isla Llancahué

Setting out into the Comau Fjord from Isla Llancahué under threatening skies

After an amazing breakfast on board the Don Miguel, we suited up in our kayaking gear and headed off towards Quintupeu Fjord

Towards Quintupeu Fjord

The weather progressively got worse over the 2.5 hours we were paddling, and for the last 1/2 hour to the waterfall, we were paddling in the rain.   Not cold (too much exercise for that), and initially not unpleasant.  But we were glad to abandon the kayaks and retreat to the mothership when the rain started pelting down about 15 minutes after arriving.

Quintupeu Fjord

It started to rain once we’d reached Quintupeu Fjord

We were meant to continue paddling up Quintupeu Fjord and stay the night at the end of it, but given the weather and the abysmal forecast for the rest of the day, we agreed that we’d actually motor around to the next Fjord and cut short the super-long paddle (20 miles!) scheduled for Day 3.  Given my struggles with the paddle, I was all for it.  

Waiting out the storm

Waiting out the storm in the wheelhouse of the Don Miguel

Once we arrived in Cahuelmó Fjord, we found a sheltered spot and tied up alongside some fishermen who were diving for mussels.   They very generously gave us some of their haul, and we sat around drinking coffee and eating mussels for the next 7 hours – waiting out the very impressive storm (horizontal bullets of rain, incredibly strong winds, huge swell, low visibility) in the wheelhouse of the Don Miguel.  At this point, the others all agreed that abandoning the original plan for the day was a great idea!

Coffee and mussels while the storm raged outside

Coffee and mussels while the storm raged outside

Eventually, the storm abated, and we were able to head out and enjoy the sunset – having decided to roll out sleeping bags in the bottom of the mothership, rather than trying to find somewhere dry to camp.

Sunset Cahuelmó Fjord

Sunset after the storm – Cahuelmó Fjord

Thought for the day:  who knew kayaking hurt the knees so much?!  Though it has occurred to me that it would be the perfect sport given my arthritic toes.

Kayaking the Comau Fjord – Hornopirén to Isla Llancahué

For the past several years I’ve wanted to include a multi-day kayaking trip as part of my adventures.  However, mostly due to the fact that I travel independently and it is tricky to find others who are up for an extended activity at the same time I am, it hasn’t happened.  

Until now!

Trawling the internet, I found a few companies offering a 6-day kayaking trip down the length of the Comau Fjord in Parque Pumalín (part of the area saved for conservation by Douglas Tompkins – if you don’t know the story, I encourage you to read it)  in northern Patagonia.  The the idea of paddling slowly past the incredible natural beauty of one of my favourite regions on Earth immediately caught my imagination, and I was determined that nothing less would do.

Pumalín Park and the Comau Fjord map

The 6-day kayak trip took us all the way down the Comau Fjord in the northern part of Pumalín Park

OK.  So, no, I have never actually kayaked before.  And yes, it would have made much more sense to start out with a kayak of a few hours to see what it was like.  But in a rare period of irrational thinking, and having been assured that prior kayaking experience was not necessary (you just had to be reasonably fit and come with a “can do” attitude), I ignored logic and followed my heart’s desire. 

For several weeks I waited in hope that others would be interested in doing the same trip.  And, just when it looked like it wasn’t going to happen, Alsur Expeditions contacted me to let me know they had 2 others.  We were good to go!

Day 1 – Hornopirén to Isla Llancahué

I was joined by Huw from Wales (some kayaking experience), and Koreen from Canada (fair amount of kayaking experience), and, together with Colyn (our guide) and Chloe (our general all-round-helper and cook), we set out from Puerto Varas for the drive (and ferry ride) to Hornopirén.  There we met the last member of our expedition, Miguel the boat driver,  loaded the kayaks and all of our food and gear for the next 6 days into the Don Miguel “mothership” and motored for about 5 minutes to a sheltered spot to get set up with the kayaks and start our first day of paddling.

Loading Kayaks onto the Don Miguel mothership

Loading Kayaks onto the Don Miguel “mothership”

Given my experience with kayaking (remember, none), I was thankful that the kayaks we were using were of the particularly stable kind – something I tested as I got in for the first time.  Colyn help me to adjust the pedals for the rudder, gave me some basic instructions, and we were ready to go!

Don Miguel

Prepping kayaks for our trip

The whole of Patagonia is full of incredible scenery, and we were really lucky this first day to have bright sunshine and glorious weather!   We even went and visited this fur seal who was tucked up on a buoy trying to ignore us.

Kayaking Comau Fjord

Unfortunately, the gloriousness of my surroundings wasn’t quite enough to distract me completely from the fact that I seemed to be putting a heck of a lot more effort into paddling than my colleagues, and that kayaking is a shitload harder than it looks!  Particularly true when you paddle for 4 hours straight without a break!   Words cannot express how happy I was to see this beach on Isla Llancahué – our campsite for the first night.   I may have bitten off more than I can chew here…

Approaching Isla Llancahué campsite

Approaching the Isla Llancahué campsite – finally!

Here, we were also introduced to the “ferry” between the mothership and wherever we were camped and, after a luxury dinner on board the Don Miguel, we headed for our sleeping bags.

Ferry between the Don Miguel and our campsites

The ferry between the Don Miguel and our campsites

 

Petroglyphs – La Silla Observatory

Much closer than Cerro Vizcachas, in fact just below the road where it passes below the 3.6m telescope, are the rock engravings, or petroglyphs, of La Silla.   I visited these a couple of times when I first arrived at La Silla about 15 years ago, but haven’t been back since.   

Given I was wandering around the mountain anyway, I decided to pay them another visit, and was very happy to find out that there is actually a bit of a map to help find them these days.

La Silla Petroglyphs Map

Map courtesy of Stefano Berta

Previously I was only aware of, and had therefore only visited, those marked ‘A’ in the map so was keen to see if I could find some of the others.  

According to researchers, there are 2 main types of petroglyph at La Silla – abstract designs (mostly repeated geometrical designs) and figurative drawings depicting human outlines and animals in stick-figure format.   Those at site ‘A’ tend to be mostly abstract designs and there are lots and lots of them clustered together in this site.

Site 'A' petroglyphs - La Silla Observatory - Chile

These are located directly below the 3.6m telescope and only about 100m from the road to Vizcachas.  Be careful – it’s very steep and rocky!

Group A petroglyphs with 3.6m telescope in the background - La Silla Observatory - Chile

From there, I found a couple of petroglyphs only at site ‘B’ and so headed over to site ‘C’ to discover drawings that started to look a little more figurative.

Site 'C' petroglyphs - La Silla Observatory - Chile

Including this amazing example – one of my favourites. 

Site 'C' petroglyphs - La Silla Observatory - Chile

According to the ESO website linked above: “The delicate central spiral symbolizes a serpent while the rest of the space is taken up by strange little figures, together with some simple geometric motifs and quadrupeds“.

View from Site 'C' petroglyphs - La Silla Observatory - Chile

Site ‘D’ was actually my favourite and had many more figurative drawings than what I’d seen elsewhere – particularly of quadrupeds!  The image at bottom-right has the most animals of any stone on the entire site.

Site 'D' petroglyphs - La Silla Observatory - Chile

From there I wandered over to Site ‘E’ … I think!  Not entirely clear that I’d arrived at the right place, but again, more cool petroglyphs along the way.   Basically you just look for decent-sized rocks and go check it out.

Site 'E' (I think) petroglyphs looking back towards the 3.6m telescope - La Silla Observatory - Chile

Had a great time scrambling over the mountainside searching for the petroglyphs and am thankful for the map as it did help guide me.  Of course, the site has had a complete photographic and topographic survey (in spanish) of the engravings done on it (back in 1990), but it is still fun as you stumble across each one for yourself.

BTW – unfortunately there is now a 3rd type of “modern” petroglyph as well 🙁  Disappointing to see.

"modern" petroglyphs - La Silla Observatory - Chile

Las Vizcachas – La Silla Observatory

If you walk around the La Silla Observatory site at all, it’s hard to miss the road that starts just below the 2.2m telescope and heads out to Cerro Vizcachas.

Sunset view to Cerro Vizcachas from road to the SEST - La Silla Observatory - Chile

Cerro Vizcachas is the second peak you can see – if you squint you can see the white marker

It was constructed back in the 1990s when the European Southern Observatory was conducting site testing at various locations to determine where they would ultimately build the Very Large Telescope, and gives easy access to the petroglyphs that can also be found on the mountain.

Ever since I first arrived at La Silla, I’ve wanted to do the 12km return hike out to Cerro Vizcachas, but never had the time while I was working there.  So, after almost 16 years, I decided that this visit that I would finally do it.

I had to abort my first attempt due to freezing wind and cloud rising out of valley.  I went back and curled up with my Thomas Covenant books instead 🙂

Freezing wind and cloud aborted my first attempt at Cerro Vizcachas - La Silla Observatory - Chile

The next day, however, there were no clouds and not much wind, so off I set.  

To be honest, there isn’t much to see along the way that you don’t already see from La Silla.

Views along the way to Cerro Vizcachas - La Silla Observatory - Chile

The exception being La Silla itself of course.  There are some great views back to the 3.6m and SEST telescopes!

Views back to La Silla - on the way to Cerro Vizcachas - La Silla Observatory - Chile

And when you finally arrive, there really isn’t much there.  A radio antenna, the white platform that used to house the DIMM (Differential Image Motion Monitor) and some foundations.

Radio tower and remains of DIMM - Cerro Vizcachas - La Silla Observatory - Chile

Still, it was good to do some exercise and satisfy a (minor) bucketlist item.   And have I mentioned the view?

View of La Silla from Cerro Vizcachas - La Silla Observatory - Chile

View of La Silla from Cerro Vizcachas radio tower

La Silla Observatory

Between 2000 and 2004 I worked as an astronomer for the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile.  ESO had 2 observatories in Chile at the time – the older La Silla Observatory that had been in operation since the 1960s, and the new Paranal Observatory where the Very Large Telescope was just starting operations with all 4 of its telescopes (there is also now ALMA Observatory, with first light in 2011). 

The year I arrived, I was the only Astronomy Fellow to be assigned to La Silla, everyone else was assigned to Paranal.   I remember being a little disappointed that I wouldn’t get to work on the largest and newest telescopes and instrumentation, but in the end – it turned out that I had won the workplace lottery!    None of my friends at Paranal enjoyed their time at the observatory (it has changed a lot since then), whereas we had such a great time on La Silla that I never wanted to return home to Santiago.

La Silla Observatory

Standing in front of the 3.6m/CAT telescopes looking down at the main part of La Silla Observatory

It was the last of the really great years of La Silla, when there were still plenty of staff and visiting astronomers up there to form a really vibrant and fun community, and we certainly took advantage of that!   It was a beautiful place (all observatories are in incredible locations) with very special people – and it is the main aspect of my life as an astronomer that I miss.  Profoundly!

For this reason, every time I come back to Chile, I send a request to the Director of the observatories (who knows me from when I worked at ESO) asking if I can stay a few nights at La Silla.  He always says “yes” thank goodness 🙂  This year was no exception, and I got to stay for several nights over Christmas 2016.

Words cannot describe the feelings I have for La Silla, however, the following image from Buddha Doodles sings to me of the observatory.  Sitting with great friends above the clouds on the top of a mountain, with the even higher Andes in the background, looking at the night sky – it’s what we did there.

Buddha Doodles - La Silla memories

Another expression of La Silla comes from this piece of music from the IMAX movie “Hidden Universe 3D“.  This movie was inspired by a trip the Director of the movie and I took through the observatories in Chile in 2008 and, although the composer had never talked to me about my experiences, he captured my feelings perfectly. 

 

If you’ve seen the movie (if not, you should go see it!), you know that the crescendo at the beginning leads up to the first reveal of the glory of a nebula in the night sky.  I listened to this piece of music over and over again this trip to La Silla while laying out on the upper ramp to the New Technology Telescope (NTT) looking up at the southern summer sky.

La Silla Observatory

View from the upper ramp of the NTT. The 3.6m and CAT telescopes under a southern summer sky at La Silla Observatory. The two galaxies in the top right are the Magellanic Clouds

Then, after the crescendo, the music descends into a slightly melancholic feel – exactly reflecting how much I miss working at observatories in general, and La Silla specifically.

I have come to think of La Silla is my “spiritual place”, which is really saying something given that I am not at all comfortable using the word “spiritual”.   And I plan to continue returning for as long as ESO will let me – recapturing and remembering a really special time and place in my life.

Falkland Islands – Day 12 – Stanley

Our expedition ended this morning with the Vavilov docked in Stanley – the capital of the Falkland Islands.   We had about an hour to wander around the town, which was more than enough time given it is pretty small and nothing opened until 10am (we were there at 8:30am).    Very British though, including red telephone boxes and post boxes, and it’s a definite stronghold for Land Rover – didn’t see any other type of car!

Stanley - Falkland Islands

Stanley – more British than Britain

Then it was an hour-long bus trip to the airport.  We had a guide on the bus who told us lots of bits and pieces about the Falklands to keep us entertained, and with a quintessentially British sense of humour.

The airport is actually inside of a military base and it took us over an hour to get through all the different security there.   I don’t think I’ve ever seen such strict security in all my travels!  The number of times things got scanned, things got written down and I had to sign things was truly incredible!

And so, the Antarctic adventure ends…

 

Summary of trip

So, you may be wondering what my overall thoughts are on the trip. Words really can’t do it justice, it was incredible!  I’m sure this was aided enormously by the fact that:

  • We had only ½ the usual number of people on the ship and it was a young crowd (the crew said that they’d never had a crowd this young before) so it was a lot of fun
  • The One Ocean crew were great and really interacted with the guests a lot
  • We had incredible weather that allowed us to do all the planned excursions plus some bonus extras, including the excursion around the southern side of Cape Lookout, and Point Wild on Elephant Island
  • We got to see 7 of the 8 species of penguins (apparently, this is very rare) plus some other truly incredible wildlife experiences, such as the whale bonanza on Day 6

Being on a ship for 11 days was, in itself, an experience – and one that was very easy to get used to.   That being said, I’m glad I don’t get seasick – a lot of people had a very hard time on the days we spent crossing the Drake Passage!  You certainly don’t go hungry on this expedition!  

Antarctica itself was absolutely beautiful.  To be able to visit such a pristine environment where the animals are totally not fussed about you is incredible.  The only other place I’ve been like this is the Galapagos

To be able to experience the harsh environment (but with the comfort of polar clothing and with the assurance of a hot shower, tea and coffee afterwards) makes you really question the sanity of the early Antarctic explorers: Shackleton, Amundsen, Scott, Mawson etc.   Even more so since we had great weather, and it wasn’t as cold as it could have been, given there was nary a blizzard in sight.

And although tourism in the Antarctic continues to grow (40,000 visitors in 2015-2016 season), we only saw 1 other ship with passengers, 2 yachts and 1 “mystery” ship in all of our time there.   We were the only group at each of our landings so essentially had the place to ourselves.    Very special.   Very glad I went with the spur-of-the-moment decision to go!

 

Recommendation:

I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a One Ocean trip to Antarctica.  The Vavilov is very comfortable (there is also a sister ship the Ioffe), the crew are incredible and it is an amazing experience.    I booked through Freestyle Adventure Travel in Ushuaia who are also really awesome – very, very responsive and incredibly friendly bunch.

Note that regulations limit the number of people who can land at a site in Antarctica to 100 at a time.  So keep that in mind when you are choosing your ship.   You can see a lot more if you choose a ship with <100 people on board!

 

Falkland Islands – Day 11 – Saunders Island

In the afternoon, the winds miraculously died down again just enough for us to be able to do our last excursion to Saunders Island – still part of West Falkland.  It was the wettest of all our zodiac rides but even then, not too bad.  Apparently, that kind of wetness is fairly standard on an Antarctic expedition so we have been very lucky indeed.

Gentoos on beach at Saunders Island - Falkland Islands

Greeted by more Gentoo Penguins on the beach at Saunders Island. The Vavilov waits patiently offshore. Actually several of the Russian crew joined us on this excursion

Landed on a beach with tons more Gentoo Penguins (they really are everywhere) and then headed up over the spit of land to see the very small King Penguin colony – our 6th species of penguin for the trip.   They were cloistered in with the Gentoos, but behave very, very differently. 

They are very upright and regal birds and walk like slightly distracted old men – as opposed to the frantic waddling of the other penguins.    They are really very beautiful and we were all so excited to see them.

King Penguins - Saunders Island - Falkland Islands

King Penguins are so regal

Oh – and although it wasn’t clear whether they had eggs or newborn chicks, there was this guy – a 1-year-old chick – who should be just about to lose his brown plumage and head off to the ocean.  

King Penguin 1-year-old - Saunders Island - Falkland Islands

A 1-year-old King Penguin chick. He should be just about ready to molt and leave the colony

Walking further over the spit we arrived at a long beach with tons of penguins on it.   Including our 7th species for the trip – the Magellanic Penguin.   I’d seen these guys in Chile before, and they seemed to be much more timid than the other penguins we’d encountered.

Also, unlike other penguins, they build their nests in burrows, so we had to be very careful where we walked to ensure we didn’t put a foot through one of them.

Magellanic Penguins - Saunders Island - Falkland Islands

Magellanic Penguins use burrows for their nests

We visited a large Rockhopper Penguin colony as well

Rockhopper Penguins - Saunders Island - Falkland Islands

And then headed up the hill to watch the Black-browed Albatrosses in another colony.

This colony also had loads of Rockhoppers co-exsting, as well as a slightly different type of Blue-eyed Cormorant than what we saw on Day 8.  

Blue-eyed Cormorant - Saunders Island - Falkland Islands

It was just beautiful sitting there watching the Albatrosses soaring so close – we stayed for probably an hour just enjoying that view alone.

Then, on the way back to the zodiacs, I came across this Brown Skua that had successfully managed to get to one of the Gentoo chicks.

Brown Skua - Saunders Island - Falkland Islands

Unlucky Gentoo chick – eaten by Brown Skua

Brilliant final excursion, even though I was coming down with the flu pretty badly.  Glad that has happened at the end of the trip!

Falkland Islands – Day 11 – West Point Island

Just as we thought that our run of great weather had come to an end, the wind dropped and we were actually able to disembark for our first excursion of the day at West Point Island in the Falkland Islands.   

Falkland Islands Excursion Points

When we arrived at the entrance to this point during the night, the winds were waaaay too strong so we kept going, but soon after, the winds had dropped and we circled back for a second attempt.

And it was gorgeous!   Beautiful sunny day, actually very little wind, nice hike over the island in only our shirtsleeves – it felt like the middle of summer after over a week in Antarctica!    And so strange to smell and see grass again!

West Point Island - Falkland Islands

The main reason for visiting West Point Island was to see the Black-browed Albatross colony.  These birds are absolutely beautiful and serene, and most were sitting on eggs or chicks.

Black-browed Albatross - West Point Island - Falkland Islands

The colony also housed our 5th species of penguin for the trip – Rockhopper Penguins.   These penguins nest in Albatross colonies for the extra protection offered by the long necks of the Albatross, defending them from predators from the sky.

Albatross colony - West Point Island - Falkland Islands

Part of the Albatross colony with Rockhopper Penguins mixed in

The Rockhoppers are also affectionately known as “satan’s penguin” due to their fierce faces and red eyes, and are the noisiest of the penguins we’ve encountered so far.  They must really drive the Albatrosses crazy!

Rockhopper Penguins - West Point Island - Falkland Islands

I wonder why they are called “Satan’s penguin”?

They were also starting to sit on chicks – we really lucked out with seeing all these newborns during this trip!

Rockhopper Penguin - West Point Island - Falkland Islands

Rockhopper Penguin and its chick at West Point Island

Antarctica – Day 9 & 10 – Recrossing the Drake Passage

After several incredibly full-on days in Antarctica, we headed back across the Drake Passage en route to the Falkland Islands.   Not much to do over these couple of days so the crew put on a lot more talks and social activities, including an auction to raise money for several Antarctic charities, and a tour of the ship itself.  This took in an explanation of the bridge and navigation room, the scientific equipment in the mudroom, the emergency steering controls and the engine room.

Vavilov ship tour

I submitted a few photos to the on-board photographic competition, and these ones made the finals (as selected by the on-board photographer).

Photographic competition - Vavilov

Finalists in the on-board photographic competition. The Skua (bottom right) won the wildlife category

Had never done anything like this, and I have to admit it was quite satisfying to hear the on-board photographer praise my images, and the gasps from the crowd as the two bird photos were shown.  Several passengers also came up to me afterwards to say how beautiful my images were.

I ended up winning the Wildlife category with the Skua picture – many thanks to the clap-o-meter and my fellow passengers 🙂   Very happy about that as I’d been eyeing off the One Ocean beanie in the gift shop, but it was quite expensive.   Guess what I won?!

One Ocean beanie

One Ocean beanie – winner of the wildlife category of the on-board photographic competition

Ate waaaaaaaaaay too much icecream at the icecream buffet at dinner on Day 10 – in fact have eaten waaaaaaaaaay too much food in general on this expedition, a fate we have all suffered!   Need to get off this ship!

Icecream buffet on the Vavilov

Icecream buffet on the Vavilov – I might have gone back for thirds…