19 January 2010

first jaunt in the Beagle


first swim in the Beagle Channel!

the rain has let up. we climb down to the little beach and set our towels and shoes inside a small rowboat laid on its side in the black-purple mixture of gravel and mussel shells.

a schooner-houseboat is moored mid-channel, sprouting electrical connections to shore. there is a grill on deck and a motor appears to be running in the hold below. someone climbs from the deck and starts a worn white zodiac, which rears up-- a sort of water wheelie-- and starts toward the boat-dock. the driver wears shades and a red parka.

on the road above, against a slope dotted with thistles and blindingly yellow buttercups, a ruddy man comes along with a bag of pan amasado. he looks incredulous. van a nadar?! si, Cristian grins. we straighten up and look tough. he raises his brows. hay tiburones! we laugh. Patti doesn't hear, and we don't clarify. he clambers down to the beach and we quickly realise that the zodiac is there to pick him up-- he lives on the schooner. they shake their head one more time at the three gringos in bathing suits and the boat speeds off, leaving behind a haze of fumes and a surprisingly thick streak of rainbow-slick oil.

I'm rather dismayed at the pollution from a 600-yard zodiac trip, and the green algae beneath the water repels me. the water looks filthy, I tell myself. I know it's a closed bay, and a hotbed of naval and aeronautic activity, but there are few relatively clean places to get in and I can barely bring myself to dive under the slick. luckily, Cristian is still in getitdone mode. he dives in and I wade behind his wake. there's a wide swath of clean water where he entered and I dive deep-- the shoreline is deceptively shallow-- and swim hard with my eyes closed, not wanting to deal with seeing massive kelp forests on top of everything else.

I promise myself twenty strokes, but after ten I have to peek. there is a tree-like plant to my right. i startle, blink, then realise that the water is a deep, deep aquamarine green, similar to puget sound, but with more of a glacial-pastel shade, and clear, clear, clear. my hands look like cut-outs. the underwater light and colour is so engrossing that I quickly begin to enjoy the swim. I've been holding my breath, comically puffing out my cheeks underwater-- I hate to knowingly swim through an oil slick since I swim with my mouth open-- and now I relax my face and taste the clear green, which is deeply salty in a thick, viscous blend very unlike the Atantic. it tastes of the Pacific, but also of something deeper. it's almost like a salted lake. perhaps there are minerals in the sediment.

the water is, of course, freezing cold. after Coney Island at 33 degrees fahrenheit, this water is balmy. the cold takes a few minutes to sink in, or perhaps I've tricked myself by transferring the initial shock to my deep fears of the underwater. the wind has momentarily died down, though it is still raining lightly. I stop for a second to see where Cristian is heading and find him treading water just ahead. he is bright red, which makes me realise just how cold the water is, even though we barely feel it after so much rest and eating this past week. Patti catches up-- we won't try to get out on the far shore, where it is steep, rocky, and fenced by a thick line of sticky kelp. having flown over these clear waters just the day before, it's easy to see just how much of the purplish-greenish mess there is, not just in the shallows, but in giant patches throughout both the Strait of Magellan and the Beagle Channel.

as we head back to shore, the schooner revs off into the East, its residents waving and cheering from the deck. I end up swimming in Cristian's draft-- we all look fantastically surreal under the water, and it's fun to watch the others swim-- and his kick gives off perfect circles of bubbles, like smoke-rings. the water is incredibly calm, though I've already seen that it can become whitecap-torrential within minutes, whipped by winds from all directions.

the beach has a surprisingly steep drop-off and is far less intimidating on approach. this time, I keep my eyes open. in the mirrored periphery of my goggles I see the bullet-grey hull of the ship tapering underwater.

as I stand, I pluck an eye-catching shell from the bottom, checking first to make sure it's been vacated. the mollusks here are many and colourful. these shells for me, which I often give to friends, are like notches in a wall-- reminders of every time I've gone in against my instincts and come out on top. this one glowers, algal green against my flame-red palm.

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