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Thursday, 23 November 2017

A Mystery

ascidia paratropa - Glassy
When you have dived in Northern Europe and on the West Coast of North America, you more or less expect to encounter similar species, and even for amateurs like us we are not surprised that Alaska’s Giant King Crabs are roaming westwards, pulverizing less aggressive species and taking over in Russia and Norway. These animals share familiar habitats and it’s not surprising that Northern climates feature very similar species – especially those that move around. BUT – when you encounter a glassy tunicate (pictured) you have to wonder: “How did it get here?”

How did it make it through the equator? How did it make it through the torrid waters that stretch so far on either side of the equator? We certainly didn’t see any Glassies in Australia’s Coral Sea or even in the temperate waters of New Zealand.

 In our last dive at Caleta Damien, we saw not just a glassy tunicate (or ascidia paratropa) but another ascidian or tunicate called halocyntia aurantium or Sea Peach. They’re both quite amazing – the Glassy looking just like something that could be a distorted but lovely water glass – and the Peach quite the opposite – gnarled and mis-shapen like a plastic Halloween face that has first had ears and nose pulled out of place and then been left forgotten in an oven to partially melt. Both of these animals do not have the ability to move. So how did they get here?

David Behrens gives us a clue about all invertebrates when describing the dispersal of certain nudibranchs (- his specialty-) “the overwhelming majority have been distributed by natural means”. Some species of animals have a much greater tolerance for variety of temperatures and of prey animals. They can flourish while other similar creatures are excluded. “Phenomena such as El Nino events (when the ocean experiences a drastic increase in temperature) can provide … distribution of the species.”

Sometimes, it IS our influence that brings new animals from across the equatorial divide. The prey of some species can be organisms fouling the bottom of a boat, or in the bilge water of ocean-going vessels.   If the animal being brought into new water can survive, find appropriate prey and reproduce, it will have found a new home. Some are unwanted, so every country has strict regulations to reduce any impact a vessel like ours can have on their territorial waters. Neither the Glassy nor the Sea Peach are shown in the ‘Benthic Fauna of Chilean Patagonia’ but no doubt they find the climate, water and food here as agreeable as the waters across the equator and up North.

REFINEMENTS of the Tunicate/Ascidian family:

Eating and excreting with the same orifice? UGH! The glassy tunicate and its family are quite remarkable. They’re a more complex form of life because they have TWO orifices - unlike the anemone and most other marine invertebrates which have only the one. This earns it a higher number (16) in our Linnaeus-based numbering system as compared to the anemone (3.2) Andy Lamb explains:  “Each solitary tunicate has two siphons: an in-current one that brings in the food-laden water and an ex-current one that expels the filtered product.”

halocyntia aurantium - Sea Peach

Sex: Andy continues: “Nearly all tunicates are hermaphroditic, meaning that each adult specimen has both male and female organs. However, the Peach avoids the disadvantage of self-fertilization by releasing the eggs and sperm at different times.”

Saturday, 18 November 2017


Our last night in Puerto Natales was quite delightful. We had moved from our "secure" anchorage at Puerto Consuelo into town - or a mere half mile from town by dinghy - mindful of a good forecast for the night and the anticipation of a shared restaurant dinner with Martin and Patty of "Otra Vida", Mark and Rosie of "Merkava" and Greg of "Saoirse". Then we really wanted to get out of town as 1) the calendar was continuing its relentless progress and 2) the forecasts promised a lot of trouble with forced relocations and dragging anchors if we stayed.

Our departure the next morning was on a typically difficult Patagonian day with extra strong headwinds delaying us at a tidal pass and nearly preventing our getting through - a six hour delay; not a disaster. Our very safe planned destination for day one turned out to be too difficult to enter under the prevailing conditions so on we went for four more interminable hours to a spot we would have to leave if the wind shifted. It did! So we left!

A few days later, we find ourselves in Caleta Damien on Isla Whidbey. In conventional terms, we have made abysmal progress to date but the weather here only presents a decent day to the northbound small-boat sailor on one day in three.

This spot is a bit open to the southwest winds blowing at times at thirty knots but the waves are not traveling far and have no force to them. I know the anchor holding us off the beach is well dug into the gravelly sand fifteen meters down because I looked at it earlier today on an otherwise uninspiring dive. Four ropes to the most lively-looking trees I could easily reach from the shore add to our feeling of near-security. Our main concern is, of course, the strong gusty winds. The snow and five millimeter hail (on different occasions) earlier today are more in the way of entertainment.

We will get going again tomorrow or, more likely, the day after. The strongest squally winds have a way of flipping the dinghy and dumping the precious oars in the water while we are winching it aboard after using it to untie the shore lines. If you have seen small boat sailors towing a dinghy in your home waters, that is not good practice here as the fierce winds soon turn it into a kite and/or find some other way of depriving you of its further use. So we wait for weather at least good enough to safely get going.

All this aggravation, I must mention, is taking place while we are surrounded by unparalleled beauty.

Enough complaining ...

Mary Anne is playing Debussy on the piano, filling the boat with sound and beauty. I think I'd rather listen than write more.

At 2017-11-18 17:52 (utc) our position was 51°18.47'S 074°08.75'W

Friday, 17 November 2017

Caleta Damien

At 2017-11-17 12:20 (utc) our position was 51°18.47'S 074°08.75'W

Monday, 13 November 2017

Hits and Misses

tritonia odhneri in 2007
errina antarctica 2017

It’s with a feeling of relief that I’ve been able to remove a glaring and prominently placed mistake in one of my previous Blogs. I was feeling quite happy with my blog-writing ability, having a bit of a swagger about being able to bring some of the underwater creatures to ‘life’ for some folks who have never encountered them before.

I’ve now removed that source of embarrassment. No need to say more (particularly if you hadn’t noticed it!)

The ability to make huge errors is never really vanquished. Particularly in a Blog … we rarely have more than an hour to write these. And we both check them over – but we rarely seem to catch the big errors when we proofread each other’s blogs. Possibly Larry has an exaggerated idea of my writing ability because he sees me reading and reading …

errina antarctica fan coral 2007
I’m also very much aware that without a ‘real’ biologist’s skills and tools for dissecting and closely examining the animals, I can very easily be wrong in the identifications and information I give here. Also – with new discoveries in research, my ageing books and information may now be out of date. Even with Larry’s help in checking the data, there’s a huge margin for error.

The temptation to assign a cause for missing animals we saw 10 years ago would be very wrong. For one thing, we are not experienced specialized divers so we may just not have seen what was plainly there to be seen. In fact, I was brought to an awareness of my own deficiencies as a diver when I read David Behrens statement in ‘Pacific Coast Nudibranchs’ that “on a single dive, the inexperienced observer should be able to find 6 to 12 species of opistobranchs without too much difficulty”.
sunflower star - in British Columbia 2014
We rarely find more than 2 species. Also - the fact that we missed seeing any of the spectacular orange tritonia odhneri nudibranchs could be because 9 years ago we saw them in the middle of summer (January 6, 2009) and it’s still too early in spring. Or that their primary food source (the octocoral fan errina antarctica) didn’t seem as flourishing as on our previous trip.

latruncullia ciruela a new type?
Behrens shows several other reasons for our disappointment. One is as follows: “Many species have been observed to come and go from local habitats, disappearing for years at a time where it was once abundant, and then reappearing once again … biogeography is one of the most speculative aspects of the biology of organisms.” So the fact that we didn’t observe the the orange nudibranch may just be one of environmental fluctuation rather than loss. Similarly, one hopes that the same reason can be attributed to the losses of beautiful sunflower stars (pycnopodia helianthoides) in British Columbia and Washington.

latruncullia ciruela sponge
Some of the wonders of the trip have been that - with the help of the ‘Benthic Fauna’ book - we’ve seen some new animals and been able to properly identify some whose picture we took 8 or 9 years ago and could not identify earlier.

Newly identified for us: latruncullia ciruela.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

More Puerto Natales

The Scene from day to day near Puerto Natales is so striking that we can't help but share some of the images.
The emu like flightless bird is a darwin's rhea or lesser rhea.  He seemed quite large enough so we had trouble imagining the larger greater rhea.
Guanacos, the wild relatives of the llama are everywhere in the wild in large numbers.
We are anchored off a historic estancia (ranch) about 20 kilometers by road out of Puerto Natales.  Cowboys ride along the road herding their cattle in a most picturesque manner against the mountain background.
The estancia itself is always pretty with the everchanging light and cloud. Where we land from the boat, there are always horses wandering about.

Friday, 10 November 2017

A Day Complete

… complete with Heaven and Hell. Yesterday we took Highway 9 North to visit the famously beautiful Parque Torres del Paine. We were fortunate to start out around 0730 with the most peaceful and sunny day possible. Every 'local' we met during the day told us how lucky we were to be here: "such beautiful weather - NO WIND!" Every viewpoint from which Larry took a photo - familiar from the many tourist advertisements of the area - contained a glass encased little hut from which you could snap your picture without danger of being swept away by strong winds. Of course, he took these photos unimpeded by an enclosure.

My only problem with our day as tourists was the fact that I was driving. Apart from the main highway #9, travel was mostly on very poor and narrow roads composed of gravel alternated with tarmac. This pavement was made more interesting by large potholes. On these roads, we met few vehicles like ours. Alas - we'd followed our usual plan and I had sought the smallest and cheapest vehicle I could rent. The helpful people there DID warn me that many folks had accidents on the roads around here. Perhaps I should have taken heed at that point, and noticed that my little car was already covered in dust. Everyone who passed us - that is everyone going in the same direction - roared by in big 'Expedition' vehicles. Luckily, I grew up when Alberta's farms were mostly serviced by gravel roads. I'd learned to drive out on Uncle George Penner's farm. The advantage of gravel roads was that we could always tell when someone was coming to visit us because the cloud of dust announcing an arriving vehicle could be seen for miles across the flat countryside.

So now I knew when a car was coming towards me or coming up from behind. Most of the roads here are 1 or 1 ½ lanes. I could find a bit of wider road and pull over a little as the tour busses or large expedition vehicles cruised by. Of course, we'd have to close our windows (it was warm out) to wait for the dust to settle while I proceeded along slowly and in 2nd gear. In the low areas of road, the surface resembled corduroy. Being shaken to bits seemed a possibility. By my second driving day, we'd already had to take the car back to the Rental Agency because of a nearly flat tire. They seemed very accustomed to the problem and sent out an employee with a portable inflator. But it now seems flat once again.

After 9 hours of driving, we were ready to relax when we got back to the boat in the dinghy. We had just eaten a meal of wraps and had a drink when Larry warned that the winds were building up. About 1 minute afterwards, our anchor alarm blared and we both rushed out to find we were rapidly moving into the shallower water. The dinghy was bouncing around on its leash and there was no way of getting down to ease its troubles. Luckily we'd taken our usual precautions and secured it with double lines including a steel cable - but a constant worry was that it could turn over, fill with water, lose the oars or flood and ruin the engine (it didn't). I rushed out to lift the anchor (my job) but it came up with a meter-wide ball of tangled weeds and mud attached. Of course, without being grounded, the strong winds (35-40 knots) were blowing against the hull and driving us even faster into shallow waters and it was pure luck that we hadn't already 'grounded' and stuck. Larry got us into somewhat deeper water and came forward to finish dealing with the messy anchor, and I went back to steer - driving back and forth under his directions for the best course and the deepest water within a very narrow possible range. This would continue - until (1) he could get the muck off the anchor and it would be able to 'dig in' (2) we could find a deep enough spot to hold the boat with secure depth all around so that it couldn't start moving again and (3) it calmed just enough for the anchor to sink through the weeds into the mud below before the wind yanked it free.

The water is not much deeper in any direction and this is a far from an ideal anchorage, but there are few anchorages here and it's the one the Armada (Navy) directed us to.

Luckily our emergency only lasted for about 2 hours. Today, I'm having a 'rest' and editing photos while taking the antibiotics I got from the dentist on Tuesday. I have a problematic molar. Poor Larry is spending the day fixing the water-maker. Luckily, he thought ahead and has all the tools (including an impact wrench) that he needs.

At 1899-12-30 00:00 (utc) our position was 51°36.54'S 072°39.59'W

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

The Big City

Along the way
Puerto Profundo on the edge of Magellan Strait was our actual turnaround point but we needed to r
esupply with food and fuel to provide for our trip back north.  Puerto Natales, being the only inhabited port around here, was the only choice.

The way this normally works is that you arrive in the city, tie up in a marina berth for some expenditure of money and eat out a lot while going to supermarkets movies and concerts to mix the essential with the enjoyable.

It's different here!

We left an anchorage a few miles from Puerto Natales early on a calm morning to try to get as much done as possible mindful of the likely but unknown difficulties.  There is no a) secure (from weather) and b) available  - tie-up for a "pleasure boat" in Puerto Natales.  There is no anchorage either that doesn't get regularly beat up by the Patagonian winds. Needing around 600 liters of diesel fuel though, we really wanted to tie alongside something a fuel truck could park on.  Everything else we could solve from an anchorage using the dinghy.

A phone call established that the fisherman's dock would allow us to tie up no longer than necessary for the fueling ... and the paperwork the navy required to allow us to fuel. So in we came between two boats unloading fish and loading supplies. I headed off to the Port Captain office for the papers and a short time after I got back, the fuel truck appeared.

Puerto Consuelo
The Navy people - who had appeared almost as soon as we had tied up - confirmed that there was nowhere for us in town and "suggested" we should really head off to the secure anchorage at Puerto Consuelo about 2 hours by boat out of the city.  Mary Anne quickly digested all this and suggested that, since we would need transport from there, she could rent a car and meet me there.

While the day was evolving under light winds, brilliant sunshine and world-class scenery all around, the following problems emerged in no particular order.  These are the sort of things cruising sailors deal with that regular tourists cannot even imagine.

1) in front and behind our boat, various other boats tied up two-deep (a kind of legitimate double-parking).  It took the help of three or four fishermen on the dock to extricate Traversay from her position on the dock to the open water outside this considerable thickness of parked boats.

2) Everything, of course, takes place in Spanish

3) lots of docking paraphernalia (lines and fenders) for one person to put away while steering through unfamiliar waters.

4) very shallow water on the way to Puerto Consuelo.  On the best course there is only 10 centimeters of water under the keel - on the wrong course: none at all.

Meanwhile ...

5) the fact that Puerto Consuelo is an obvious location on a nautical chart does not mean that the highway people give it any thought at all.  Mary Anne toured a very scenic part of Patagonia getting no closer to where I had anchored for the longest while. Several of the roads which went to the water were closed for repairs, so she kept seeing the water far below, and no apparent way of getting to it.

6) Roads were gravel, dusty and slow.

The road to Puerto Consuelo
7) Mary Anne's ultimate arrival was delayed a considerable while by a large hole in the road and several large pieces of construction equipment attempting to fill it.

8) during these separate travels, there were no cellphone signals thus I had no idea of Mary Anne's progress and she had no idea of mine.

9) Did I mention that everything takes place in Spanish - including any helpful directions Mary Anne was offered along the way.

10) Her roadmap didn't show Puerto Consuelo and my nautical charts didn't show the roads to get there so neither of us would have been much help to the other if we could have communicated.  This is a typical problem; many people living on or near a beach cannot describe how to reach their location by water.

But now, we have a car, full fuel on the boat and a secure anchorage.  The city is only a half hour drive away and we are ready for a week of adventure here.  The failed desalinator that makes our drinking water can be repaired another day.