Southern Patagonia: Bend, do not break.
San Isidro Lighthouse, Chile
Off to the races I go. Yesterday I was sitting in a military air strip waiting room with what felt like half of the Falkland Islands (screaming kids included) and now I write to you from a small house on the Straits of Magellan. Punta Arenas is but a dim afterthought on the northern horizon. The Cordillera Darwin raises to the south on the back of Tierra del Fuego. Nothing but islands, glaciers, and mountains. Very few humans still live anywhere to the south of here.
We start to gear up on the giant wooden deck and eventually walk 50 feet down a stony beach slope to our boat. The only thing that would make it more convenient would be a jetty. Or warmer water. Mateo's family owns this former hostel and current lighthouse. They plan on reopening it for accommodation later this year and I'm here to see what is possible from a diving point of view. We decide to dive two sites right off of the hostel, so close you could easily shore dive it but we have a boat, so might as well use it.
The water is noticeably colder than the Falklands. Shit. Visibility is quite good, so at least there's that. This time of year the sun never gets very high on the horizon, so even at 1pm, it's still pretty dark underwater and will be even darker where we're going. The plan is to swim over a gently sloping sand/mud bottom until we reach a huge drop off. Starting at 100 feet it descends to more than 250, so we will only scratch the surface of our potential dive site. It takes a lot longer to reach the ledge than I expected and kicking in a dry suit has severe disadvantages, namely it's hard ass work. I hover over deep green water at 105 feet and can make out the telltale sign of cliff dwellers below me. I know this is not going to be very fun, so I check my air and note the time. We are only going to have a few minutes at this depth and I suspect that it will end up being a deco dive regardless of our attention to detail. A few more breaths in the 'relaxing' depth of 100 feet. Even here the pangs of narcosis are ringing in my ears and it's only going to get worse.
A bright white feather star beckons me deeper. 115, 120, 130, 135. The visibility is very good and my 4,000 lumen light makes short work of the dark. I add a long burst of air into my dry suit. At this depth it takes a large volume to counteract the 32 pounds of lead on my hips. The crinoid is perched on a yellow sponge, fern-like arms extended into the still green water. Abyss below, distant sun above.
Every movement is deliberate. It feels like my entire focus is needed just to move the arms of my strobes into the right position. Trying to figure out flash levels and exposure feels like calculus at this depth. I am absolutely off my rocker. Deep and on air. The most interesting composition is to put the crinoid against the diffuse sunlight beaming through the green water, 140 feet above. Millions of miles away. So I must go just a little deeper to shoot upwards. Separate the subject from its background. Put the crinoid in a habitat. Go deeper. I feel cross eyed at this point and probably am. Check the time. Been here for three minutes. I think. What's 9 minus 6? Computer tells me I have a ceiling at 40 feet for 1 minute. That means I have at least 10 minutes at 10 feet. Every minute counts down here. I check my gauge and am certain still have plenty of air, even for a lengthy deco swim. The gauge needle is my friend. We are old buddies and it never confuses me with its one red arm pointing well to the right of 1500psi. Plenty of air.
I snap off a few more shots while breathing the dense gas supplied by my life support system. None of the breaths feel satisfactory. It's a nerve racking feeling and not at all fun. Beautiful sponges and pink stony corals dot the wall. I guess it's worth it?
We ascend the slope after passing a huge yellow elephant sponge measuring 4-5 feet across. Slowly we go up the ledge, leaving the unknown, back to the predictable. The air becomes easier to breathe but the workout has taken its toll. My heart is still pumping like a crash survivor even though my head is becoming clearer with each foot we rise. It's a very uncomfortable feeling. Thoughts of limitless, cool Patagonia wind call me to the surface but I simply cannot ascend. The heat starts to build. Thumping in my ears. I know this feeling. I've been in this situation before. I need to cool down and I need a distraction to keep my brain from becoming a runaway train of mistakes and panic. My body is still in flight mode, instincts screaming "You're not supposed to be here!". Flush the hood with cold water a few times, it's the only way to cool down while wearing a dry suit and dry gloves. 46 degree water has never felt so good. Now for something to do while we make our slow swim up the sandy draw. The bottom is sparsely populated and barren. Something, anything to take my mind off the desire to be on the surface. A dark glob a few feet to my right catches my eye. Pulsating. A jelly. There's nothing more peaceful than jellies. Under the relative comfort of 85 feet of sea water I drifted with the jelly and focused on its beautiful form. Deep red with pale yellow accents. Short tentacles. Strong pulsating bell. The sun now brilliant as a backdrop. Surface waters mirror calm. Heartbeat subsides. My savior on Easter Sunday did not have a brain or a backbone. Diving is fun again.
Night slowly crept upon us. The daylight hours were never really that bright to begin with. I fought off exhaustion for a short walk alone on a moonless and cloudless night. My cheeks are still icy cold from the crisp fall air. It's colder than usual, winter is not far off. I made a vain attempt at star photography without the use of a tripod. I found a nice lineup of a solitary Antarctic beech on an exposed headland. Sculpted and tortured by a lifetime of west winds, the tree was nearly prone, slowly forsaking land and being pushed towards certain death in the Straits of Magellan. Bend, but do not break. Trees in southern Patagonia must abide by this rule or perish. To the tree's left the Milky Way splashed from horizon to horizon in a curve not unlike the trunk of the tortured tree. Mount Sarmiento, tallest on Tierra del Fuego, stands tall against the starry sky, appearing to be the source of this bright swath of light like a volcano birthing stars into space. Worlds and lifetimes blink from an indifferent sky, casting their light for everyone and no one to see.
The Strait of Magellan is uncharacteristically calm tonight and even offers a weak attempt at a reflection. Swirling wind touches the water with a familiar caress shattering the starlight into a million imperceptible directions. Wind is relentless here. Old habits die hard. An impatient lover with an invisible touch, it traces soft lines with a gentle breeze. Roused from a midnight sleep the water responds in waves of building intensity. Duration and direction are important. Tomorrow the wind will dominate the placid sea and turn the clear sky a deep gray. For now an elemental dance between land, sea, sky, and stars unfolds before me but I know it will not last long.
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