Terra Incognita

An enormous white cross on the distant mountaintop marks the southernmost point of the continent proper, where the spine of the Andes subsides and finally succumbs to the Southern Ocean. Other than the cross, which looks no larger than a front-yard Christmas ornament from here, there has been no sign of human existence since morning – only towering, snow-covered peaks and wind-tossed water. We’re picking our way out through the fragmented maze of islands that make up the western end of the Strait of Magellan. Tomorrow, noon, we will bid land goodbye and venture south for a month of the open sea, bobbing around in the Drake Passage.

We weighed anchor a full day early, which is a good sign. It means the turnover went smoothly, and the science team and Marine Techs have their acts together. It means that, if the weather cooperates, we might even get back into port early. I know I’ve been vague on what exactly we’ll be doing all month out at sea – mostly that’s because I didn’t have a particularly good idea myself. But I’ve picked up quite a bit since then, and promise a full accounting as we get closer. It’s pretty awesome, I promise, and there’ll be plenty of time to muse on that in the coming weeks.

For now, it’s worth spending time watching this terra incognita slip by. António Galvão reported in 1563 that he had been shown an ancient map charting a circumnavigation of the world, including a path through “the Dragon’s Tail” at the bottom of the western continent. The eastern approach to the Strait is, um, straightforward, but the western approach is a labyrinth of dead ends. The land is stark, breathtaking, and apparently devoid of human habitation. The snow-capped spires don’t reach as high as their Andean cousins further up the continental spine, but they are no less jagged and foreboding. It is impossible, even in a 75000 ton icebreaker, not to feel small and insignificant, as if we are Jack, tiptoeing our way through the sleeping giant’s house.

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