By Katharina Hochmuth | At midday on February 8th, we began our long transit from Punta Arenas, Chile, to the Amundsen Sea on the coast of West Antarctica – the main area of interest for Polarstern Expedition PS104. After the anchor was lifted in Punta Arenas, we slowly left the port city and cruise liners behind. During the two days of anchorage, the Polarstern looked quite small in comparison to the massive cruise ships harbored in Punta Arenas, which regularly take tourists to the subantarctic islands and Antarctic Peninsula region.
The first leg of the trip took us northwest from Punta Arenas through the Strait of Magellan and into the open waters of the Pacific Ocean. On our way through the Strait, we passed multiple small towns and villages along the Brunswick Peninsula with names such as Puerto Hambre (Port of Hunger), which reveals a lot about the challenging life in this part of Patagonia. Meanwhile, the very last text messages were sent home from our phones, and we enjoyed the breath-taking views from the upper decks of the Polarstern. Suddenly, Marcelo, the Chilean technician on our geology team, announced “ This is the end of civilization. From here on, there is no phone, no Facebook, no Instagram!” From now on, we will use our phones only for listening to music or as an alarm, an unusual situation for most of us on board.
The views from observation deck on the Polarstern were more impressive with every mile as we approached the Pacific Ocean. The cliffs and mountains along our way, all subjected to harsh wind and weather conditions throughout the year, were marked only by few estancias (ranches). At Cabo Forward, we reached the southernmost point of the South American mainland, signified by a white cross. Due to the constant wind and clouds, the surrounding mountains presented a wide range of grey and sepia colors, reminiscent of landscape photographs from the 19th century. To our delight, seals and albatrosses accompanied Polarstern our journey through the Strait, and, at the transition between the Atlantic and Pacific parts of the Strait, we saw two humpback whales close by our vessel. At this point, we also observed a farmhouse, which was the last evidence of civilization that we will see for the next six weeks.
Throughout the evening hours, the passage narrowed and we recollected the story of the discovery of the Strait of Magellan. Ferdinand Magellan sailed southwards from what is today the city of Rio de Janeiro in the search of a “paso” between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. On his way south, his five sailing ships investigated every bay and river system until finding the entrance to the Strait of Magellan in 1520. The constant harsh wind, along with the countless branches and the narrowness of the Strait (measuring only 4.5 km at its narrowest point), must have made it an extremely challenging task to navigate these waters. We are happy to be able to sail through this well-chartered passage today on the Polarstern.
As we approached the narrowest point of the passage, a lively debate broke out among the scientists: Do we pass the peninsula in front of us on starboard or port side of the ship? Thankfully, there was no discussion on the bridge and we sailed towards the Pacific Ocean with the peninsula on our port side. Sailing the other way, as the majority of scientists on the observation deck suggested, would have led to a dead end.
We exited the Strait of Magellan on Thursday around 3 am, and we are now sailing to the southwest towards the Amundsen Sea. The weather is currently fair with a moderate sea state (~2-5 m waves), and we are all working to get our sea legs and finish the last preparations in the laboratories on board the Polarstern.