Cruising the Beagle Channel in Argentina: Last stop before Antarctica

Boarding the catamaran for a cruise of the Beagle Channel. – Pictures by CK Lim
Boarding the catamaran for a cruise of the Beagle Channel. – Pictures by CK Lim

USHUAIA (Argentina), July 13 — What do you do at the end of the world? Why, you go on a cruise, of course.

We have allocated a stay of five days and four nights in Ushuaia, the Argentinian city considered the southernmost in the world, facing the Beagle Channel and beyond, Antarctica.

This seems overly lengthy until you realise that the weather is often unpredictable. When it’s raining and raining, the extra days increase the chances of some good weather turning up some time during your stay.

Good weather is crucial, even if it’s only for a few hours, for none of the travel agencies running the Beagle Channel boat cruises will operate when the seas are choppy. Too risky.

And even when the waves are calm and there are no rainstorms, some tour operators may decide to close for the day or the season, if there aren’t enough passengers.

This close to Antarctica, we realise the carefully planned itineraries of our trips elsewhere around the world are tossed out of the window. Mother Nature will have her say first; human nature decides the rest.

The city of Ushuaia with a dramatic background of mountains and white clouds.
The city of Ushuaia with a dramatic background of mountains and white clouds.

Good thing then, some of the huts encircling the End of the World plaque (popular with tourists to take selfies with, evidence that they truly have reached the southernmost point on Earth before the final continent) at the pier are open.

Different companies but most offer pretty much the same deal: a catamaran cruise of the Beagle Channel.

Even then, some light rain and moderate winds meant the morning cruise is cancelled; we have to make do with the evening boat.

The well-bundled gentleman behind the counter at the hut we chose grins at our dismay and informs us it’s the better of the two times: we’d get to see the waters turning a gleaming black as the sun sets.

So we brighten up and purchase our tickets for three o’clock in the afternoon with a cheerful “Muchas gracias, Señor!

Cormorants taking flight.
Cormorants taking flight.

After some lunch and wandering around town, we return to the pier half an hour before departure time in order to board the catamaran.

The boat looks just like any other ferry we’ve seen before albeit with a pair of parallel hulls to stabilise the watercraft.These create a wider beam, reducing wakes and any wave-induced seasickness, for which we are grateful.

The catamaran sails for a while, then the captain announces that we can now walk on the deck. Joining the other passengers, we are greeted by a chilling sea breeze once we are outside.

Coming this far south and far away from Malaysia, jet lag is inevitable, what with the 11-hour time difference. But standing on the deck, we feel as though we are finally awakened, by the cold and the winds, by the distance and the overwhelming sense that we are truly at the end of the world.

Last stop before Antarctica, and this is it. Here we are.

Soon the city of Ushuaia fades quietly on the farthest shore, the only shore, for all the rest is ocean.

The Les Éclaireurs Lighthouse is also known as the Lighthouse at the End of the World ('Faro del fin del mundo'.
The Les Éclaireurs Lighthouse is also known as the Lighthouse at the End of the World ('Faro del fin del mundo'.

With the mountains and white clouds behind it, it makes for a dramatic oil painting. (Who knows? Maybe some artistically inclined seaman has already painted this exact landscape in the past.)

Soon we pass by some small islands dotted with seabirds. From a distance, we assume they are penguins, until they spread their wings and take to the air. No flightless penguins are these; they are imperial cormorants, as stately and elegant as their name.

More raucous are the dolphin gulls and kelp gulls. There are giant petrels and South American terns. Colonies of colonies.

Before long, we catch sight of our first true landmark, Les Éclaireurs Lighthouse or better known to the Argentines as the Lighthouse at the End of the World (Faro del fin del mundo).

A colony of sea lions.
A colony of sea lions.

To be fair, the name is a tad misleading; the honour belongs to the San Juan de Salvamento Lighthouse on the remote Isla de los Estados further east.

Standing on the deck of our catamaran and looking upon the 11-metre-high lighthouse, we can’t help but forgive it falling short of the appellation.

Painted in thick stripes of red-white-red and crowned by a black lantern, the Les Éclaireurs Lighthouse honestly feels deserving of its name. A solitary sentinel, lonely but for the cacophony of seagulls.

Forget about distances and doppelgängers, we are at the end of the world.

Leaving the lighthouse island, we continue until encountering our next island. Another small island, this is inhabited by a colony of sea lions.

It’s hard not to give in to the temptation of anthropomorphising these sea mammals; basking on the rocks, they look lazy and half-asleep, like most of us on a weekend morning after a hard night of partying.

Gentoo penguins are easily distinguished by their red beaks and orange legs.
Gentoo penguins are easily distinguished by their red beaks and orange legs.

It’s not mating season so we’re not intruding on any bull guarding his harem; they all but ignore us.

We move to deeper waters. Where we only saw gulls and cormorants before, now it’s possible for the sharp-eyed to spot black-browed albatrosses, graceful and majestically soaring in the air.

It has been an easy cruise thus far but now the waters are getting choppier, even with the catamaran’s twin hulls.

Finally we arrive at Isla Martillo, the highlight of our journey across the Beagle Channel. Isla Martillo is a haven for penguins: the Magellanic penguins, which sport two strips of black rings on their breasts, and the Gentoo penguins with their distinctive red beaks and orange legs.

Both species feed on fish, crustaceans and squid; many of the penguins are returning to their nests after feeding in the ocean.

Magellanic penguins returning to shore after feeding in the ocean.
Magellanic penguins returning to shore after feeding in the ocean.

While the Magellanic birds number in the thousands, there are fewer than 50 of the Gentoo penguins. The latter’s brethren are mainly found in Antarctica, yet another reminder how far south we are. It’s far from an easy existence for these birds; the harsh habitat made harder by overfishing and climate change.

How precious to still be able to see these beautiful creatures though. Even as we laugh at their antics, their clumsy gait as they clamber up the shore, waddling like a drunken sailor, we know that once they’re in the water, these penguins are the acrobats of the sea.

After staying here for about an hour, the catamaran turns around and we make our way back to Ushuaia.

The entire trip lasted maybe five hours, not even half a day, but with everything we have seen here at the end of the world, it feels like the journey of a lifetime.

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