A Little Light Music

We were late, as we nearly always are since we always tend to make too-challenging itineraries for ourselves. No sooner had our keel touched the water from the refit in Puerto Natales than we were heading south and east again to reach Puerto Williams as the checkout point on our way to the Falkland Islands. For our scientific program in Patagonia, this thousand-mile side trip may seem a little bit out of the way, but our lengthy sojourn to the Falklands was both an imperative and a developmental necessity for various reasons. First, we were hard up against the due date for our permit to be in Chile; second, we had recently bought a mountain of gear to replace some of the ageing equipment aboard Saoirse. A new generator and 100m of anchor chain being two of the more mission critical items in this list. This sort of stuff is patently impossible to import into Chile, so in order to do an end run around these difficulties we elected to have it all freighted down to Port Stanley, where the shipping is a decidedly more user friendly process.

These tedious practicalities however segued nicely into a scientific study plan which had coagulated around them. Just after our last excursion to the Golfo Tres Montes to begin the studies of the live sei whale population there, we had become aware of a parallel project which was being commenced in the Falklands. There, Caroline Weir, a whale researcher working under the aegis of Falklands Conservation, had begun studying the burgeoning sei whale population which in recent years has become a new feature of the coastal areas around these islands. After our experience with the mass die-off of 2105 in Chile, this seemed a very encouraging sign for the possibility that whales are returning to these southern waters after the whaling holocaust of the early 1900s, so we were attracted by the possibility of some sort of collaboration between these two research efforts. We hatched a scheme then to make a short data gathering cruise around the understudied west coast of the Falkland Islands with volunteers from Falklands Conservation aboard, both to have a short preliminary survey of the sei whale activity there and for us to learn some of the methodology that allowed Caroline to collect a valuable catalogue of some 80 individual sei whales last year.

Also, there was the added opportunity to engage the serendipity effect and try to visit as many of the abandoned lighthouses which are strung out along our Southern Ocean route as possible. This has become something of a hobby of ours in the last few years, ever since we discovered that some of these structures, though they have fallen out of purpose and are now dead, their skeletons can be given life again by playing music in the marvellous acoustical spaces sheltered within. I play the cello, Keri sings and plays an assortment of strummed instruments, and we have found that some of these structures can return a sonic resonance reminiscent of those baroque churches which are favourite venues of classical musicians who play in more amply populated regions. It’s a way of admitting a little poetry into the rigid spreadsheet-generating disciplines of science and the oily expletive-generating discipline of boat maintenance. This part of the trip presented two possibilities; the “Lighthouse at the End of the World” (a copy of the one described in the Jules Verne story of the same name) on Staten Island, and the Cape Pembroke light at the eastern edge of East Falkland Island.

On board from Puerto Natales to Stanley were our friends Giff and Liz of the Springcreek Conservation Society who provided such sterling help in the boatyard and who have accompanied us on many a mile aboard Saoirse, along with Mark and Rosie whose sailboat had been parked next to ours in the repair dock, courtesy of a badly-placed rock in the Chilean channels. We were racing a particularly pernicious weather forecast. Puerto Natales is no place to be moored in a westerly gale, better to run down in front of the torment of the Straits of Magellan, so we hauled up the anchor and whirl winded our way east, arriving a few days later in Puerto Williams to check out, then helter-skelter across the South Atlantic to the Falklands. There at the entrance to Stanley was the welcoming ten-second blink of the Cape Pembroke light.

As we arrived, Christmas was consuming the efforts of the populace of Stanley and we raced to collect together all Saoirse’s presents from their various storage depots. We fastened the new generator into the engine room, replaced the old rusty anchor chain with the shiny new one, mounted a new life raft on the coach roof and took delivery of myriad other pieces of equipment which will help us with the whale studies next year. All this was accompanied by much noise contrary to the Christmas spirit of the town, so we relented on Christmas Eve, bagged up the cello and ukulele and headed out on foot for the 5 km trek to the Cape Pembroke Light tower. I say we walked, but in reality it was more like hobbling, our fitness level having greatly suffered in the boatyard and my shoes were quickly jettisoned in the soft sand to avoid blisters. The light itself does not inhabit the old light-tower, it is now relegated to a utilitarian-looking stake in the ground nearby, so it was a delight to be able to insert the massive iron key into the base of the tower and prise open the door for a glimpse into a now-disappeared world in which men tended the light as their sacred duty.

Keri and I set up the instruments by the lighthouse-keepers desk at the base of the spiral staircase that leads to the lens and began to play a few tunes, being rewarded with the beautifully mellow return echo from the cylindrical heights of the tower, along with a smattering of applause from two much-bemused visitors; one Spaniard and one Irishman who at least were able to recognise one of the songs we played, The Dawning of the Day. We gratefully accepted their offer of a lift back to Stanley in their car and, once back on Saoirse, dreamed of sound waves beaming out from the tower, not as a warning of a mortal hazard to ships and menl but as a message of peace.

Next Up. Whale Studies in West Falkland.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *