Lindblad Expeditions - From the National Geographic Explorer in South America - Michael Nolan, photo instructor/naturalist
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From the National Geographic Explorer in South America

Nov 2, 2012 - National Geographic Explorer

Undersea Specialist Justin Hofman gets the shot
Rainbow over the Strait of Magellan

Straits of Magellan, Chile

Ferdinand Magellan, sailing in the service of King Charles I of Spain, entered into the strait that today bears his name with a fleet of five ships on November 1, 1520. Magellan initially called this strait Estrecho de Todos los Santos (Strait of All Saints), but within a few years the name was changed to Estrecho de Magallanes in honor of the first European to navigate this body of water that separates continental South America to the north and Tierra del Fuego to the south.

Interestingly enough, several very famous navigators tried unsuccessfully to follow in Magellan’s wake through the Strait. In 1526 two Genoese ships tried in vain to find and follow the course. Ferdinand Cortez, the conqueror of New Spain, failed with two ships and 400 men in 1528. Under commission from the King of Portugal, Don Emanuel, Sebastian Cabot also failed to find the passage. Americus Vespusius and Simon Alcasara likewise failed in their attempts, the latter having to return after facing a mutiny from his men. All of this failed effort only added to the mystique of the Strait. It wasn’t until the 1830s that the British survey vessel HMSS Adventure, with the help of the HMSS Beagle (of Charles Darwin fame) finally surveyed and charted the complex system.

Prior to the 1914 opening of the Panama Canal, the Straits of Magellan were often considered the safest route for steam ships to move between the South Atlantic and South Pacific oceans. Sailing ships considered the Straits of Magellan to be too dangerous due to inconsistent winds and strong tidal currents; they usually chose the Drake Passage between the tip of South America and Antarctica, even though “rounding the horn” often brought its own perils.

Exactly 492 years and a day after Magellan entered the Straits, National Geographic Explorer worked her way carefully along the often narrow channels towards the open Pacific Ocean to the west. Mother Nature showed us her many moods as we navigated through first fog, then rain, then bright sunshine and back to rain again with wind speeds gusting to over 60 knots and seas sending spray over the bow, much to the delight of some! Captain Benjamin Lyons and his officers used all the marvels of modern technology and good seamanship to guide us safely through this narrow but scenic waterway. What would Ferdinand Magellan have thought of the relative comfort and ease with which we followed in his wake?

About the Author

Michael S. Nolan·Naturalist/Certified Photo Instructor

Michael Nolan was born in Bitburg, Germany to an Air Force family stationed there. His first experience of the ocean came at age 12, when he learned to snorkel in the Italian Mediterranean. At age 17 he moved to Tucson, Arizona and became a PADI SCUBA instructor, before starting a SCUBA diving business that specialized in diving trips to the Sea of Cortez.