Heading south along the Chilean west coast after our stop at Punto Arenas we headed through the Beagle Channel, also known as Glacier Alley, due to the multitude of magnificent glaciers, and onto the most southerly city in the world, Ushuaia in Argentina.
Beagle Channel (Spanish: Canal Beagle) is a strait in Tierra del Fuego Archipelago on the extreme southern tip of South America between Chile and Argentina. The channel separates the larger main island of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego from various smaller islands including the islands of Picton, Lennox and Nueva; Navarino; Hoste; Londonderry; and Stewart. The channel’s eastern area forms part of the border between Chile and Argentina and the western area is entirely within Chile.
The Beagle Channel, the Straits of Magellan to the north, and the open-ocean Drake Passage to the south are the three navigable passages around South America between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. However, most commercial shipping uses the open-ocean Drake Passage.
The Beagle Channel is about 240 kilometres (130 nmi; 150 mi) long and is about 5 kilometres (3 nmi; 3 mi) wide at its narrowest point. It extends from Nueva Island in the east to Darwin Sound and Cook Bay of the Pacific Ocean in the west. Some 50 kilometres (27 nmi; 31 mi) from its western end it divides into two branches, north and south of Gordon Island. The southwest branch between Hoste Island and Gordon Island enters Cook Bay. The northwest branch between Gordon Island and Isla Grande enters Darwin Sound connecting to the Pacific Ocean by the O’Brien Channel and the Ballenero Channel. The biggest settlement on the channel is Ushuaia in Argentina followed by Puerto Williams in Chile. These are two of the southernmost settlements of the world.
Although it is navigable by large ships, there are safer waters to the south (Drake Passage) and to the north (Strait of Magellan). Under the Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1984 between Chile and Argentina, ships of other nations navigate with a Chilean pilot between the Strait of Magellan and Ushuaia through the Magdalena Channel and the Cockburn Channel to the Pacific Ocean, then by the Ballenero Channel, the O’Brien Channel and the northwest branch of the Beagle Channel.
The channel was named after the ship HMS Beagle during its first hydrographic survey of the coasts of the southern part of South America which lasted from 1826 to 1830. During that expedition, under the overall command of Commander Phillip Parker King, Beagle’s captain Pringle Stokes committed suicide and was replaced by captain Robert FitzRoy. The ship continued the survey in the second voyage of Beagle under the command of captain FitzRoy, who took Charles Darwin along as a self-funding supernumerary, giving him opportunities as an amateur naturalist. Darwin had his first sight of glaciers when they reached the channel on 29 January 1833, and wrote in his field notebook “It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow.”
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