29  December 2012

Santiago to the Falkland Islands and Boarding the Akademik Ioffe

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Smoke and ash rising from the Copahue volcano in Argentina
Photo Credit: REUTERS 24 Dec 2012

We’re on our way! One hundred seventeen passengers and staff made the one flight a week that goes to the Falkland Islands from Chile. The first leg of the flight goes south along the western edge of the Andean Cordillera past its Southern Volcanic Zone. The active Copahue Volcano was off to our left, its smoke strung out in the wind to the northeast. Then we crossed the Cordillera to its eastern side on the way to Punta Arenas, passing the Patagonian Ice Field to our right, before flying almost over the top of the magnificent Miocene granitic massif of the Torres del Paine, spectacular alpine glaciers calving into lakes, and then a well developed drumlin field as we descend into Punta Arenas on the northern side of the Strait of Magellan.

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Torres del Paine from Lake Pehoé, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile.
Photo Credit: Miguel Vieira

Landing in Punta Arenas we descended over the white-caps of the Beagle Channel. Everyone stepped off the plane for immigration and then reboarded for the final flight directly to the Falkland Islands. The airport for Port Stanley is a 45-minute drive across the countryside at the Mount Pleasant British Royal Air Force base. Luggage was collected for delivery to the ship and we boarded buses to town with detours for geology stops in the steady rain.

Ian Dalziel sets the scene:

“The islands are part of a small crustal block, the Lafonian microplate that rotated clockwise away from the southeastern corner of the Cape-Karoo basin in southern Africa during the initial fragmentation of the Gondwanaland supercontinent. Precambrian basement of “Grenvillian’ age – c. 1000 Ma – is exposed at the southwesternmot corner of the islands. The overlying strata are lower Paleozoic to Permo-Triassic, formerly part of the Gondwana craton platformal cover that can be traced across all the fragments of the former supercontinent, thereby leading students of the geology of the southern continents (including India) much more inclined to believe in continental drift long before their northern colleagues were persuaded that this is a realistic process by evidence of seafloor spreading.

“We stopped at the ‘Frying Pan’ Quarry to see exposures of the Carboniferous Fitzroy Tillite Formation – a displaced fragment of the Dwyka Tillite of southern Africa, and viewed the famous ‘stone runs’ that were first described by Charles Darwin. Modern surface dating studies indicate that only the highest ground on the islands was glaciated, and the clasts of the ‘runs’ have been exposed to cosmic radiation from 42-741 ka – though some of these dates may be minima. The strata of the islands were folded in the early Mesozoic Gondwanide folding that extends from Argentina, through the Cape Mountains of southern Africa to the Pensacola Mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula.”

Port Stanley is a very English-looking town along the inner harbor, with a few unique Southern Ocean touches: Giant Petrels soaring low up and down the quay and, in front of the church, an arch made of the massive jaw bones of two blue whales. A couple gift shops, the grocery and general store, and the visitor’s bureau were all open for shopping and mailing postcards.

Buses again took us to the ‘Akademic Ioffe’ moored outside town at the small ship pier. Expedition staff checked passengers in and there was a little time to settle into cabins before dinner. The captain cast off during dinner and some ventured out into the stiff breeze to look for Magellanic Penguins as we sailed out the straits to the open ocean. The lifeboat drill after dinner was thankfully quick as dark settled on our first night of the voyage, sailing south toward Sea Lion Island.

- Kate Spencer, Staff Naturalist; Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris