Divers Below

Sea Anenomies

The Navimag Ferry, one of only two options for getting to Puerto Eden, arrives only a day late after grinding its way down for 2 ½ days from Puerto Mont. We have hired a local boat to meet it, as our dinghy will be too small to receive the cargo this time. To be retrieved this time around are the dive team who will be making a series of transect dives in Canal Martinez, some 100 miles north of us. Luckily for us the ferry arrives in daylight, a grand melee of local boats clusters around its massive stern door as it is lowered into the sea. From my dinghy I scan the ramp for new arrivals and there appears Mette and Aris from Huinay Foundation and Rodrigo from Buceando Chile along with the usual mountain of dive gear. It disappears on the cargo boat into the rain in the direction of Saoirse; I follow with the congenial team, chatting enthusiastically over the adventure to come. We will be the support boat for the dive team who will descend with scuba gear into the turbid depths of the fiord at as many and as varied points as we can manage over the next week. They will be toting a one metre square frame with a camera mounted atop it. Starting at 21m depth they will make their way to the surface taking 70 snapshots at prescribed intervals of the benthic fauna which attaches itself to the rocks below the surface. These photos are later sent to the lab for analysis. Sounds simple, eh?

The confluence of Rio Baker with the fiord system of Patagonia is a place of fantastic natural power. I have spent my life in these kinds of places, but the energy at work here surpasses most. Rio Baker surges its way between the heights of the Northern and Southern Patagonian Ice Caps, returning all the airborne water which has stacked up against the Andean mountain chain from the Pacific Ocean. This water crystallises into glacial ice and is now in the process of grinding the mighty Cretaceous-Miocene granites of the Patagonian Batholith into a fine rock flour which flows out into the abyssal profundities of Canal Baker and Canal Messier, reaching almost a mile deep.
On a human scale though, all this is a mere annoyance. All that glacial silt turns the water into a green milky soup in which the divers have to contend with zero visibility and numbing temperatures just in order to try to penetrate the top few metres and count the number of life forms which cling to the sides of the fiords.

The insane topography of these channels, and the weather conditions engendered by them is of course responsible for the extreme feeling and actuality of isolation encountered here. Truly, the sense of aloneness surpasses even that of Antarctica at times. Scuba diving is a well populated sport, but when the divers leave the surface here, their sphere of consciousness extends only to the distance between themselves, the tape that measures their progress across the sea floor and the searingly bright lights needed to penetrate the blackness of the water. Their life expectancy is limited to the availability of the next few breaths. Their lifeline extends to me on the surface, thence to Saoirse nearby, and ends right there. There is no other backup. This is what makes me focus on the bubbles of spent air which surface on each hour-long dive; so long as they keep coming in their regular pattern I have little to worry about. This lifeline in place, they are then free to focus all their attention on the job at hand, extracting the most productive work out of their next 1000 breaths as possible. Imagine then, if we all used this philosophy, all of our lives, how much good work could be done using each breath to its fullest advantage; to come to know the world.

I have a uniquely privileged place in all this, to be able to hear the first-hand results of the dive. Whoops and high fives indicate an abundance of beautiful things to see, though I myself have seen nothing of what they describe. A marked enthusiasm for getting back in the boat usually means that there was nothing much to see. This is not however a lack of result. In life, as in music, the pauses are every bit as important as the sounds which make up our experience of it.


A Hidden Bay in Patagonia

I am writing this from the mid-Patagonian coast somewhere near the tiny hamlet of Tortel. On board are the team of three scientific divers from the Huinay Foundation, Aris, Mette and Rodrigo. This is a continuation of a set of surveys of the benthic fauna of the Patagonian coast, started some years ago by Vreni Haussermann, chief scientist for the Huinay Foundation located further north in Comau Fiord. First though, a recap of events since leaving Beaver Island.

We bade farewell to Jerome Poncet, breaking into his stern maintenance schedule on Golden Fleece (with which vessel he plans a circum-Pacific tour later this year) by giving an impromptu ukelele-cello concert on the rugged shore in front of Damien II and Golden Fleece. Our skills were certainly showing as much rust as the two boats combined but it mattered not, Jerome managed to croak out the words to the tunes we were trying to play and the spell of splendid isolation was thus broken for some fine moments. The climax came when a puff of wind blew the music off my stand in the final notes of Swallowtail Jig. As I reached to rescue the wayward sheets I fell off my precarious perch atop an old oil jug which loosed an avalanche of rocks onto my carbon fibre bow. Oh well, time for a new one I guess. Away we went with the wind finally in the northwest, reaching Puerto Williams 3 days later to re-enter Chile. A brief respite there and we began the long haul back to Puerto Eden some 700 miles north where we have chosen to base the boat for the next series of expeditions into the channels west of the Southern Patagonian Icecap.

We were delighted to have the company of Sandra and Gonzalo, two excellent musicians who are volunteering their way around South America to gain experience in their chosen professions of architecture and engineering of the sustainable variety. For this trip though they were required to sing and play guitar as much as possible onboard Saoirse up the coast of Patagonia to prepare for a small concert and music workshop series for the benefit of the school and community of Puerto Eden. After an impromptu evening of music before we left the last time, it became apparent that no-one in the community had ever heard live music, so we had resolved to do what little we could to change that!

Thar She Blows

Having appeased the cosmos with our little musical offering we had now to round up our New Years resolutions and slip back quickly into navigation mode. Speculating that we may be able to use our return sail to South America for something positive in the whale study vein, we had offered to take a group of volunteers organised by Falklands Conservation on a reconnaisance tour of the West Falklands Group. It had been noticed in recent years that a sizeable population of sei whales had been gathering in the area of Berkeley Sound, close north of Stanley and FC had made some inroads into a new study of this group led by researcher Caroline Weir. It seemed pretty likely that we would be too early in the season to sight any whales this year, but as Keri and I chugged our way out of Stanley Harbour to head west, just as we passed the Cape Pembroke light an enormous, sleek, black sei whale surfaced right beside Saoirse, lingered for nearly half a minute before retiring its huge bulk back below the surface. Game On!

It’s always a bit of a nerve wracking occupation getting round the north coast of the East Falkland and back into the shelter of West Falkland, so we sped over this 110 mile stretch as fast as possible, gaining the anchorage of Ships Harbour just before another full gale blew through. The plan was to meet the first group of FC volunteers at Hill Cove the following day, but a tense adventure with the anchor chain which had twisted badly in our haste to leave Stanley and refused to be winched back aboard, had us stuck there for a day longer. Still , we managed to embark the first group without problem. One of the main planks of these studies has been an effort to identify individual whales by dint of the time-honored technique of photographing the specific markings on their dorsal fins. This technique has so far been missing from our own efforts in Patagonia so we were dead keen to get a handle on how it is done from more experienced people. We were introduced to the concept of “effort”. Being “On effort” means having rotating groups of experienced observers on deck full time, scanning for the presence of whales and recording as much data as we could from each sighting. It takes a stubborn determinedness and is definitely an English pursuit; it works as long as an endless supply of tea is maintained. Also, we hoped to gain valuable experience deploying our new hydrophone, an extremely sensitive instrument which can record frequencies as low as 5 Hz. This is the basso profundo of sea sounds which we first captured last year in Patagonia. This technique we also hope to apply in Patagonia this year, since accoustics promises to be a powerful tool where vision fails us.

After a slow first day, our good omen at Cape Pembroke proved correct and we were rewarded over the next days with dozens of sei whale sightings and close passes. The reason sei whales are so thinly studied is that it has hitherto been virtually impossible to get close to them. To my knowledge, very few have ever been successfully satellite tagged in the wild, but after some days of close observation it was exciting to speculate how this might be accomplished. To understand their large scale movements in the sea is key to understanding and protecting this most enigmatic of species. Who knows what other secrets of the deep may also be entrained with these studies?

Over the next 10 days, with two teams of volunteers ably organised by Andy Stanworth of FC, we cruised slowly down the outer western edges of the Falklands as weather permitted, logging sightings, manoeuvring Saoirse into positions where recognisable fin photos might be taken and drinking copious quantities of tea whilst being supremely grateful that we could definitively record the presence of these graceful creatures in the season allotted to us.

Rounding out the whole trip, we stopped off at Beaver Island where Jerome Poncet has spent his life with his two expedition boats Damien II and Golden Fleece. He lent us the benefit of his massive experience in Southern Ocean sailing and we happily waited out a succession of westerly gales there while spending time in his wind and solar powered workshop, thrashing Saoirse’s engine room back into order after installing the new generator.

Next: Back to South America and into the summer program.

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.

I Sei, I Say, Yo Se

We are happy to be sitting on a mooring built for a 260 ton vessel here in Beaver Island, one of the westernmost of the Falkland Islands. I say happy, since the weather outside seems to be amping up to its normal 40 knot level and we are being forced to sit tight and wait for a break in the wind long enough to sprint back across to South America to take the reins of this season’s projects. Thanks to Jerome Poncet, whose harbour we inhabit, we can use this time to relax, reflect on what we have done over the last couple of months, play some music, and start installing the mountain of equipment that we picked up in Port Stanley just before Christmas.

This sojourn to the Falklands was a necessary part of our overall vision of studying the lives of sei whales in Patagonia, for reasons which I’ll explain later, but now its high time to recap the events since we left our haulout spot in Puerto Natales. Our exit from the boatyard there was as precipitous
as has become usual for all our South American boatyard visits. The haulout facility in Puerto Natales is brand new, aimed at servicing the large fleet of brutish looking fishing vessels which regularly prosecute the centolla (king crab) and alga (seaweed) fishery in these southern waters. The management of the haulout had been somewhat equivocal about accepting sailboats into their yard.
“Un poco complicado” was the general attitude at first, when we had asked about the possibility of beaching Saoirse there for some long overdue maintenance. Loosely translated, that means we are a total pain in the arse, our long keels and relatively flimsy construction means that they have to take special care when hauling yachts, far more complex than the usual trade of hauling ashore the fishing boats. Saoirse was clearly going to be one of the bigger challenges, we were definitely in unknown territory with her 3.3m keel and deadweight approching the 50 ton limit of the
travelift. Still, the yard was virtually empty when we arrived there and we decided to give it a go, with the proviso that we would make ourselves scarce when the centolla season finished in early December and all available space would be taken by the fishboats. That was good, sine we had anticipated the occasion by building a massive cradle for her to sit in, strong enough to resist the powerful winds prevalent in this season.

The problems started when we approached the travelift dock for the first time; with the minimal tides on offer we could only bring the nose of the boat to the inside of the lifting dock. With some proficient juggling though, the travelift was coaxed into hauling the stern bodily into the dock, from where it could be lifted, Saoirse’s massive keel plowing a route through the soft mud. All was to no avail though, since the hauling straps proved to be too long and we had to ask for some shorter ones to be sent from Punta Arenas some 250km away. Two days later we were set for another try, a virtual replay of the first, but this time we were rewarded by seeing Saoirse’s keel clear the edge of the lifting dock by a mere 2 cm, with her boom touching the crossbar of the travelift at the top. “Cuarenta tonneladas” (40 tons) intoned the crane driver. Clearly, she is about the maximum size sailboat which will ever be hauled here, and we were extremely relieved to see Saoirse snugged at last into her cradle

Puerto Natales is a very dry place, which should be perfect for painting. The dryness comes at a price though; this is a fohn type wind and it whips across the bay here almost daily at storm strength. By the end of the month we had registered winds of up to 69 knots blowing laterally across the decks. Even with the mast tied to the comcrete ramparts of the dock wall, the boat quivered nervously in her cradle. Still, we managed a huge amount of work, enough antifouling to last several years, anodes, topside paint, engine overhaul, new transducers and new 12mm lexan windows in the pilothouse to replace the aging 6mm panes. All ready to gracefully descend into the water and head for our rendezvous in Port Stanley. Which, of course, is the point where Robbie Burns descends into the fray with his immortal line “ The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft aglay”. To re-enter the water it is necessary to try to engineer the confluence of several factors: zero wind, high tide, daylight, absence of Chilean public holiday, engine recomissioned and tested,short straps, garbage cleaned away and bills paid and permission obtained from the Port Captain. In other words, the situation is completely out of your control, expect delays. On December 2nd, , after 10 days of careful engineering we finally managed to convince the crane drivers to lift Saoirse in the middle of their weekend and set her down into the water which was unfortunately only
2.5m deep. Unable to escape the dock, they left her partially suspended in the slings and went home, promising to return at 2am on Sunday morning to see if the tide would rise enough to set her free. At that point a fresh 20 knot wind piped up and hurled steep little waves at us, directly into the mouth of the exposed lifting dock, the water level refusing to budge as the keel hammered its way further into the mud. Finally the crane drivers showed up again, and under the glare of the lights of their pickup trucks they managed to pull the keel clear of the mud by the stern and, assisted by full engine power, “urged” the boat into deeper water. We were free. Or so we thought.

Keri’s voice rose amid the chaos, “The engine is overheating!”. Sure enough, as we accelerated away from the dock into the rising sun, the high temperature alarm was screaming its warning and she shut down the engine immediately. I dumped the anchor and 60 m of chain into the water which luckily bit deep into the mud and we swung there wondering what had gone wrong, since we had carefully tested the engine before launching. After some hours of deep thought I opened the coolant tank to check again the level of antifreeze, perhaps to add a little more. Twenty litres of glycol later, the tank was finally full. And so, off we went.


View from dry land from Saoirse’s pilot house (photo: (c) Keri-Lee Pashuk)

We should have been hundreds of miles from here, somewhere down in the Beagle Channel, sailing east towards Puerto Williams. Our plans had us arriving in Puerto Williams in two days time, re-provisioning, hosting a Music Cafe at Errante Eco Lodge, checking out of Chile on Monday and then sailing out the eastern Beagle Channel, through the Strait of LeMaire and onwards to the Falkland Islands to arrive well before Christmas.

We should have known better.  Especially since I am always the one to say “the only plans you can make here in Patagonia is that nothing will go to plan”.

Saoirse is still sitting on dry land. Our futile attempt to re- launch her last week was thwarted by gale force winds.  Further thought of launching was completely nixed as hurricane force winds thrashed the harbour and had Saoirse rocking and wobbling disconcertingly in her steel cradle.  The anemometer showed the strongest gust at 69 knots though wind speeds held steady between 48 and 50 knots. Fellow sailors, who have sailed around the world, commented they have never seen anything like it in all their years on the ocean. We said, “Welcome to Patagonia”!

Friday, December 1st is now looking like THE day and fingers are crossed that all the stars will align (well at least the winds, waves, tides and boat yard workers) and see Saoirse floating again. It’s been an intense few months of boat maintenance and thanks to Giff, Liz, Sandra, Mark and two Gonzalos, Saoirse is in top form.  Greg though, is looking due for some maintenance!

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