At Sea, Magellan Strait, Chile

Nov 01, 2017 - National Geographic Orion


This was the final day of an extraordinary voyage that has brought us some 6,762 nautical miles from Europe via Africa to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America. Today we departed Punta Arenas, where the central square has a large monument depicting a proud Ferdinand Magellan surveying a new land imperiously from the shoulders of the native people, tribes of varying ethnicities that Captain FitzRoy of HMSS Beagle later called Fuegian, from their hinterland in Tierra del Fuego. We sailed the Magellan Strait, named after the first European explorer to chart his way through the maze of channels that link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Magellan, from Portugal but sailing under the patronage of the Spanish king, took six weeks to navigate these waters, entering the strait on October 21, 1520 near Islas de Virgenes before, in the words of Pigafetta (a Venetian employed to keep a journal of the voyage), “we debouched from that strait, engulfing ourselves in the Pacific Sea.” “Pacific” was to be an enduring misnomer, as Magellan was fortunate with the weather. He had become the first European to reach and name Tierra del Fuego, after the fires that the native peoples lit everywhere, including in their canoes. On this day, 487 years ago, All Saints’ Day 1520, he passed through Estrecho de Todos los Santos, before finally, after 373 nautical miles, reaching Cape Desire on November 28th. Our use of the term Magellanic for birds and stars in the southern hemisphere also dates from this voyage. Magellanic penguins, of the kind we saw yesterday at Isla Magdalena, were well described by Reverend Francis Fletcher aboard Golden Hind anchored at Puerto Deseado in 1578:

  “Great store of strange birds which could not flie at all, nor yet runne so fast that they could escape us with their lives; in body they are less than a goose, and bigger than a mallard, short and thicke sette together, having no feathers, but instead thereof a certaine hard and matted downe; their beakes are not unlike the beakes of crowes, they lodge and breed upon the land, where making earthes, as the conies doe, in the ground, they lay their eggs and bring up their young; their feeding and provision to live on is the sea, where they swimme in such sort as nature may seeme to have granted them no small prerogative in swiftnesse, both to prey upon others and themselves, to escape from any others that seeke to seize upon them; and such was the infinite resort of these birds to these ilands, that in the space of a day we killed no less than 3000.”  

Francis Drake passed through these waters in that year becoming the first man to successfully lead an expedition of circumnavigation, since Magellan was killed on the island of Cebu in today’s Philippines before completing the voyage. Drake became a Protestant hero to rival Columbus and Magellan in the English national imagination and his patron was Queen Elizabeth, the “Virgin” Queen. As a protestant she felt under no obligation to be bound by the Catholic Treaty of Tordesillas, of which Pope Alexander VI had divided the New World between the two rival Catholic powers of Spain and Portugal. Elizabeth was eager to establish her own colonies in the New World. To strengthen her claims her advisor, Dr. John Dee, leaked various “fake news” stories claiming that the Welsh (the Tudors were a Welsh dynasty as was he) had discovered America before Columbus and that Welsh vocabulary could be found amongst native peoples in the Americas, north and south. In Drake’s widely read account of his voyage World Encompassed (1628) he describes “birds that our Welsh sailors do call penguins.” This particular example has persisted to this day in respectable dictionaries where the etymology of “penguin” is still given as Welsh, pen meaning “head” and gwyn meaning “white.” Unfortunately for Dr. Dee, who had never seen a penguin, they have black heads; the true etymology derives from the Latin word for “plump” or “fat,” for these birds were considered a delicacy by hungry sailors.

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About the Author

David Barnes

Expedition Leader

David studied history at the University of York in England and theology at the University of Wales.  Research in the field of religious history (at Cardiff) followed on naturally.  He has spent most of his professional life teaching history, most recently in adult education departments within the University of Wales where he has taught a wide variety of courses pertinent to the wider Atlantic world.  In 1988, he made his first lecture-tour of the U.S. for the English Speaking Union. He has published extensively on Welsh history and topography–his most recent book being the Companion Guide to Wales (2005)–and is a frequent contributor of articles and reviews to Welsh cultural and literary journals.  In the1990s, David was active in the field of international education, traveling worldwide and spending a year in the U.S. (in Atlanta and New York City).  He speaks English and French in addition to his native Welsh.

About the Photographer

Mike Greenfelder

Undersea Specialist

Mike learned early on that the best way to escape Ohio was to become a marine biologist.  During college at Wittenberg University he attended a semester at Duke University's Marine Lab — that time only confirmed his love for all things oceanic and maritime.  After graduation, Mike promptly moved to Catalina Island in California where he taught marine biology to school kids.  Since 1999, Mike has been working and traveling chasing his three loves: marine critters, photography, and birds.

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