What an absolutely glorious day yesterday was! Blue skies, light breeze, warm sunshine – the perfect spring day – very rare for Ushuaia. Patagonian saying has it that at 40th parallel south, there are no rules. At 50th parallel south, there is no God. Well, at 54th parallel south, on a brilliant day with no rules and no God in Ushuaia, I had a great guide and the perfect conditions for sea kayaking the Beagle Channel.
Daniel Urriza is a professional guide with plenty of experience. Having rounded Cape Horn in a kayak, he was the man you’d want to have along for multiple crossings of the Beagle Channel. Lest I was lulled into any complacency due to the terrific weather, he educated me on the potential dangers of open water crossings**, especially in the treacherous and unpredictable waters of the Beagle Channel where the tides and weather can take a turn for the worse in no time.
I also overheard a brief exchange between him and a diving guide on leopard seal# sightings in the area during the winter season, which left me more than a little uneasy. For those of you who saw the movie ‘Eight Below’, that movie does not exaggerate on the dangers and fearsome nature of these predators. In fact, it was Daniel’s sighting of two leopard seals further out east that led to our decision not to undertake that particular two-day kayaking trip in favour of this one.
With the knowledge that there have been no reported sightings so far this spring in these waters but also well aware that low risk doesn’t mean no risk, we set off in our kayak. It didn’t take long for us to establish our paddling orderliness and I quickly found myself putting to use all the good skills I had picked up in my past life as teacher in charge of my school’s kayaking team.
We soon settled into a hypnotic, rhythmic paddling. There’s something about the entire combination of breathing in the fresh, crisp air; soaking in the warmth of the sun; feeling the glacial breeze against my face; hearing the cries of sea birds above the sound of paddles slicing the sea; and being so close to the icy waters in an area of such magnificent beauty ringed by the majesty of towering mountains that makes me feel so…so alive.
Maybe there is no God here, but he must have stopped by at some point in the past and crafted his artistry; such is the elegance, the exquisiteness, the enchantment, of the place.
That and my ever present, underlying fears – general fear of being out in open, unknown waters; specific fear of encountering dangerous predators; honest fear of capsizing and being swept under by the powerful currents – complete with the discomforting truth that out here we are all on our own, heightened all my senses and lent an edge to the entire experience.
I was fully in the moment, my awareness fully centred on the here and now, everything is complete. This is what living in acceptance means. That is what living is. Everyone should be so fortunate to experience that. Every day.
** (from Sea Kayaking Safety and Rescue by John Lull) Open water denotes a relatively large body of water with a fetch (length of an area where ocean waves are generated by the wind) of several miles or more. Wind is common in such areas and the long fetch will result in the formation of relatively large seas (local wind waves). Seas can reach from 3 to 8 feet in height. Tidal current is a major factor.
An open-water crossing (an area of water stretching out to an island or across a wide channel) of 3 miles or more has substantial exposure with no bailouts. The lack of bailouts is particularly important because the paddler must deal with whatever conditions arise during the crossing. Pick a time for crossing when weather and tidal currents are favourable but there is never any guarantee that the conditions won’t deteriorate.
# Leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) rank alongside killer whales as Antarctica’s top predator. Named after their spotted coats and fearsome jaws, leopard seals have large, reptilian heads and streamlined bodies. They propel themselves using powerful fore-flippers, reaching speeds of 25 miles per hour (40 kilometers per hour). Females grow larger than males, weighing up to 990 pounds (450 kilograms) and measuring over 13 feet (4 meters) in length.
Leopard seals will eat almost anything and are notorious for being manipulative, aggressive hunters. They have unusually large jaws with long and sharply pointed canine teeth, in contrast to many other seals. The death of a British marine biologist in Antarctica in 2003 is thought to be the first human fatality caused by a leopard seal. But scientists are worried that increased human activity in Antarctica could lead to more life-threatening encounters with leopard seals.