I am standing on the deck of the M/N Forest. All around me it is pitch dark, only a few stars flash through the low-hanging clouds.
Foto Expedicion Fitzroy - I had to look after the whale 😉
I can vaguely make out the mountains and the sea, I listen tensely into the night. The water sloshes quietly against the metal hull of the boat in the sheltered fjord - otherwise absolute silence. Here on the southwest coast of Chile, far from any civilisation in the fjords of Patagonia, there is nothing but nature. Nothing that could disturb the peace. Suddenly I hear it very close to me: a sound as if a fountain of water were being shot into the air with a lot of pressure. The splashing on the boat becomes louder due to the movement in the sea. More fountains of breath are blown into the air - even at night the whales swim very close to the boat.
Click on the first picture to start the photo gallery:
I don't quite know what it is that makes whales so magical for me. Maybe the Star Trek film in which starship captain Kirk and his first officer Spock have to travel back in time to find humpback whales, the only creatures that can save the world in the future with their whale song ... or was it the biology teacher at school who had us paint a full-size blue whale in the playground? Our entire class - 30 15-year-old students at the time - could comfortably lie down on the huge whale painting without it even getting crowded.
And so I have looked for whales all over the world - in Africa, New Zealand, Hawaii, or Sri Lanka, to name just a few places. Of course, I've seen some too, on the infamous 'whale-watching' boat excursions; very briefly emerging from the water in the distance, it took good eyes and quick reactions to spot them. As soon as it got too crowded for the whales with all the tourists and ships, the clever sea giants simply dived away. So the euphoria was always fleeting and my desire to see these giants closer was quite unsatisfied.
A few years ago, Chilean marine researchers discovered a group of whales in the fjords near the Strait of Magellan. Actually, all whales travel together from the equator to Antarctica, but for some reason there are some that stay here while the others continue their journey south. It is an unexplained phenomenon that scientists are still researching. The fact is that this is the only place in the Southern Hemisphere where humpback whales come to eat krill outside of Antarctica - a secret, almost unknown haven.
In 2003, Chile's first marine sanctuary was established here.
Not only humpback whales, but also orcas, minke whales, sea lions, elephant seals, penguins, petrels and cormorants appreciate the remote island world between Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.
The park is so unknown that not even the all-knowing Wikipedia throws up a hit on it.
No wonder, then, that there are currently only two operators who take tourists for two or three days to the fjords around Carlos IV Island, where most of the animals can be spotted.
Our boat had left near Punta Arenas at 18:00 for the eight-hour journey. At Cape Froward, we rounded the southernmost tip of the Chilean mainland and then cruised on through the labyrinthine fjord landscape of Patagonia - no wonder several boats have disappeared here over the centuries ... without GPS navigation, it would still be a feat today! Our cabin on the boat was labelled 'Expedicionarios' (expedition members) and then with our names. Only 13 men (and woman) cavort on the boat, plus the crew of course. Most of them belong to an incentive trip of a Chilean company. After plenty of encouragement at the ship's bar - drinks are included in the price - and a bit of karaoke, quiet was soon restored on board. Only the engines, which were taking us even closer to our destination, were constantly pounding away.
I probably woke up when they were switched off in the middle of the night, so I crept quietly on deck to listen for whales.
It may be high summer in southern Chile in December, but that doesn't mean too much this far from the equator - the next morning, a snowstorm sweeps around the boat and we can barely see our hand in front of our eyes. Our English-speaking guide Francesco doesn't seem to mind much. He raises an anemometer in the air and gives the crew a signal to get the Zodiacs ready for our shore excursion: In the meantime, it is a summery 8 degrees and the wind speeds are around 80 km/h. The crew distributes oilskins and rubber boots.
With all my layers of clothes, I look like a mini orange whale,
but at least the wind no longer blows through our clothes.
Finally the clouds break, and so we see the Santa Ines Glacier for the first time,
which has pushed inexorably over and past the rocks in two mighty tongues towards the sea. From our Zodiacs, the high, light blue wall looks impressive. Promptly, a huge chunk of ice breaks loose and rumbles into the water with a lot of noise, accompanied by the angry cries of the birds. Ice cubes of various sizes and shades float around us. Fortunately, our small dinghies are more manoeuvrable than the Titanic, and so we reach the pebble beach in front of the glacier without incident.
Francesco conjures a bottle of whiskey and mugs from his bag and we brave the wind and weather in the morning with our whiskey on glacier ice cubes! The cormorants nesting on the rocks watch us with interest as we feast. As our small boats move on, a sea lion sleepily peers out of a crevice and penguins waddle from the shore into the sea, only to make up for their awkward shore leave with their elegant swimming skills.
The landscape is completely untouched - no house, no road, no noise.
Only animals that stare at us with interest. The mountains shimmer emerald green or olive brown depending on the light, some are covered in snow. Above them circles majestically the king of the South American skies - the condor.
Back on board, equipped with life-saving mulled wine, we leave the many narrow bays to finally see whales in daylight. Every time we see a seal, all the passengers rush on deck to celebrate it with a loud Ah and Oh. Poor things - they probably know that their show is short-lived. As soon as the first whale is recognised in the distance by its water fountain, no one has eyes for anything else. Unlike my other whale trips, however, the captain doesn't chase the fountain, but instead throttles the ship so that it lies calmly in the water. Francesco just grins as we look at him indignantly:
"The whales come here by themselves - you just have to wait".
No sooner has he spoken than we hear a whale breathing ... already much closer. All the passengers stare at the water with eager anticipation, as usually only small children do at the Christmas tree. A second whale appears on the other side. With a soulful elegance, it lets its dorsal fin glide through the surface of the water. A new water fountain sounds to starboard - this time only 10 metres from the boat.
Click on the first picture to start the photo gallery:
Cheering with joy, we run over and almost miss how the whale on the other side lifts its tail fin out of the water in a beautiful rolling motion. Francesco takes pictures like crazy.
The pattern on the tail fin, he explains to us later, is an identification mark for whales like a fingerprint is for us.
On board is a thick book of over 120 different tail fin photos. With these pictures, the scientists can exchange information with marine biologists in Colombia - the wintering place of these humpback whales: which whale migrates where and when, has it had young; these are just some of the points of interest. "Look, a young one, that's new" Francesco calls out and points to a grey, round something, already five metres long, rolling in the sea before our eyes. We can see the white fins under the surface of the water, but then it already lays to the side and wags a little in the air. With a big blow, it circles around its own axis once more and then dives. Disappointed by the end of the show, we stare at the water. With a loud fountain of water, it reappears just at this moment on the other side of the boat - just as if it were having a lot of fun with this game of hide-and-seek.
More than ten whales splash around the boat in the meantime -
some playfully with lots of water swirling, others swimming very elegantly. It rains, it snows, the sun shines, rainbows enchant the fjords into a magical place, before it pours again and icy winds try to drive us off the deck (unsuccessfully). We watch the spectacle for hours without getting tired for a second. I take countless photos, thinking that the whales are sure to dive off and be gone in a moment. But they stay ... and it almost seems as if they enjoy our company as much as we enjoy theirs.
www.chile.travel/de provides general information about Chile as a travel destination.
LAN Chile flies daily from Frankfurt via Santiago de Chile to Punta Arenas.
A stopover in the capital is definitely also recommended.
In the Francisco Coloane Marine Park, there is a very good chance of spotting whales between December and April. Since only two operators offer this tour, it is advisable to book well in advance.
On the boat tour described above, offered by Expedicion Fitzroy, you sleep in cabins directly on board.
WhaleSound is another operator that offers whale watching in this national park. Here you also stay overnight in a camp on an island.. www.whalesound.com, Tel +56-98879814
SLEEPING PUNTAS ARENAS:
In Punta Arenas we recommend Hospedaje Magallanes, Magallanes 570, Punta Arenas, Tel: +56-61-222 8616, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://hospedaje-magallanes.com/
This inexpensive bed & breakfast is run by a very helpful German-Chilean couple, through whom you can also book this tour.
EATING PUNTAS ARENAS:
We liked La Mesita Grande so much that we came back a few times to eat pizza. In contrast to the usual very doughy and cheesy pizzas in Chile, it tastes like Bella Italia here. O'Higgins 1001, Punta Arenas 6201099, Tel: +56 61 224 4312, http://www.mesitagrande.cl/alacarte/carta-en-pdf/