By John Nightingale, Ph.D., president and CEO of Vancouver Aquarium
“El fin del mundo…” or, as we would say in English – “the end of the world.” Argentina is not a very wide country, but it is long. It took us over four hours to fly from Buenos Aires (B.A.) to Ushuaia today, and B.A. is not even at the northernmost part of Argentina. Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, lies at about 55 degrees South. There are settlements or villages on what little land is left south of here, but no big towns.
Ushuaia has about 60,000 inhabitants. People here make their living in the service industries, such as on expedition and cruise ships, in government positions, and in the fishing, logging, and now mining industries. In some ways, with the rocky crags visible just outside of town, and the cool to downright cold weather, it might be considered a bit bleak. But the colourful houses and summer flowers, along with the hustle and bustle of ships and people coming and going, make it anything but that. With all of the tourists in town, there is the predictable concentration of shops catering to them, peddling anything you might want for a one-, two-, or three-week cruise, or a real expedition.
If you can envision the B.C. Coast, you wouldn’t be far off in terms of how Ushuaia appears – lots of water, rocks and trees. The trees just aren’t as big as B.C.’s Cedar Trees and Douglas Firs, but otherwise, things look a lot like home. Things are very colourful here – houses in particular. It’s also much cooler here, about 7 degrees C today. The weather comes in straight from the South Pacific – south enough that there is most often a cold wind blowing in from the cold ocean water. Summer is much cooler than in Vancouver, and winters somewhat colder, with more snow. The local ski hill starts a few feet uphill from our hotel at the edge of town.
Ushuaia lies at the head of the Beagle Channel. This channel runs for over 100 km from the southeast tip of South America in north-westerly direction into the continent, and separates Tierra del Fuego from the other smaller islands at the tip of South America. It also separates Argentina from Chile in this part of the world. Cape Horn, which is actually in Chile, is at the southern end, or mouth, of the channel. Beagle channel is named for the ship the HMS Beagle, which mapped this area in the 1800s. And yes, it’s the same Beagle that Charles Darwin sailed on.
A picturesque oddity in Ushuaia is the very large (waist high) and very brightly coloured lupins, a type of plant. We have lupin in B.C., but nothing like the ones you see growing everywhere here. It is summer here, after all, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.
From Ushuaia, we board our expedition vessel, a Russian ice-capable research vessel named the Akademik Ioffe. Built in Finland in 1989, she is 117 meters long and carries 150 crew and passengers. I’ll send along a full description as we sail down the Beagle Channel.
John Nightingale, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Vancouver Aquarium, is currently on a once-in-a-lifetime expedition to Antarctica with a group of explorers. He is providing regular updates during the journey.