Cruceros Australis guides passengers
through Charles Darwin’s Patagonia.
Richard H. Wagner
At one The great attraction of expedition cruising has always been the
scenic beauty of the itinerary; cruising to remote locations that are often
uninhabited and in their pristine natural state. This year, however,
Cruceros Australis is overlaying the natural splendors that it will be
exploring on two voyages around the southern tip of South America with a
historic tale - - that of Charles Darwin's discoveries in Patagonia.
Charles Darwin was a 19th Century British natural scientist whose
theories on evolution contained in his book The Origin of Species changed
the course of scientific thinking. It also led to a great debate on social and
theological issues that continues to this day.
The well-spring for Darwin's theories was his nearly five-year voyage
on HMS Beagle, which began in 1831 Prior to that voyage, Darwin had
been at student at Cambridge University in England studying theology while
dabbling in geology and some natural science.
Beagle was not a large ship. She had been built as a 10-gun Cherokee
class brig and was later converted to do hydrographic work. As the major
maritime power of the day, Britain needed accurate charts of the world's
oceans and so it routinely sent ships on such missions.
During her first map-making voyage to South America in 1828, her
captain had found the work and the loneliness of command so stressful that
he committed suicide. Lieutenant Robert Fitzroy was appointed temporary
commander and spent the next two years completing the mission.
Upon returning to England, Fitzroy unsuccessfully stood for Parliament.
He then thought of chartering a ship to take three Fuegians who had been
captured during the first Beagle voyage back home to Tierra del Fuego.
However, some influential friends intervened and persuaded the Admiralty
to send the Beagle on another hydrographic mission with Fitzroy in
During the first voyage, Fitzroy, who had a Victorian gentleman's
interest in science, had often lamented that there was no naturalist onboard
the Beagle to study the lands that the ship visited. He had also become
concerned that the loneliness of command might cause him to follow the
path of Beagle's first captain. In those days, a captain had to remain aloof
from those he commanded and thus he could not even treat his officers as
equals. Therefore, when the second voyage was ordered, he decided to
find a gentleman naturalist to go along on the voyage who could both act
as his companion and study the lands that the ship visited. Charles Darwin
applied for and was selected for this position.
The Beagle spent two years at the southern tip of South America.
While the Beagle was surveying the waters, Darwin was often ashore
exploring Patagonia and Tierra Del Fuego. Darwin collected numerous
fossils and plant and animal specimens. He also made observations about
the geography and met with the indigenous peoples.
After Patagonia, the Beagle stopped in the Galapagos Islands, Tahiti,
New Zealand, Australia and South Africa before returning to England.
However, by the time the ship reached home Darwin was already a
celebrity as word of his work and his findings had been sent ahead. For the
rest of his career, Darwin's thinking was shaped and influenced by what he
saw and collected during his time on the Beagle.
"Every one thinks that Darwin developed his theories in Galapagos but
[Patagonia] really had a profound effect on him because here is where he
saw primitive people for the first time. It shocked him and he wrote about
it in his works, explains John Worman, an author who will be lecturing
during the cruises. "He was in Galapagos once for a little over a month. He
was in Tierra Del Fuego three times over a period of two years. He spent
maybe three and a half times as many days in Tierra Del Fuego and
Patagonia than he did in Galapagos."
. "Darwin actually developed his theories in Patagonia, particularly
when he saw the armadillo and the rhea. Then in Galapagos, he found the
best laboratory to prove his theories where he could go from one island to
another and prove that these animals were once the same animal but they
developed differently because they needed to adapt to their environment,"
adds Jorge Rodriguez, Cruceros Australis Director for North America.
Cruceros Australis included a Darwin-themed cruise in its schedule
for the first time in 2009 in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the
scientist's birth. "We decided [to include the cruise] because it is a reality
that Darwin spent two years in southern Patagonia. We thought that it
would be good information to give to the public and of course, it makes
business sense. For 50 years, the Galapagos Islands have capitalized on
Darwin," explains Rodriguez. "We will continue this program. I think the
Darwin in Patagonia story is big. It is new."
This year's Darwin cruises will begin with a three-day cruise from
Ushuaia, Argentina to Punta Araneas, Chile on October 16, 2010. The
second cruise, which will follow a somewhat different route, is four days
and will go from Punta Arenas back to Ushuaia. "The Via Australis route
is in common in many places with Darwin's route. So as we travel along
we can say there is where Darwin did so and so and in a couple of places
we land where Darwin landed," Worman points out. "There are all kinds of
great stories that we tell on the ship."
The feature that distinguishes the Darwin cruises from other Cruceros
Australis cruises is the lectures by Mr. Worman (speaking in English) and
Mr. Gerardo Bartolomé (speaking in Spanish). An American, Mr. Worman
is the author of nine books including Charles Darwin Slept Here: Tales of
Human History at World's End and Here Be Giants: Travelers' Tales from
the Land of the Patagons. Mr. Bartolomé is the author of Patagonia
Through the Eyes of Darwin, a photography-driven book about the area. He
is from Argentina and is bilingual in English and Spanish
"There are six lectures on the ship. Four of them concentrate heavily
on Darwin and what he was doing down there," says Worman. "The other
two are on mapping the area. The first is about mapping from pre-Magellan
to the Beagle. By the way, the maps that the Beagle made were still in use
up until about 1945. The second is from the Beagle to the present day."
This is a largely undeveloped area of the world with great natural
beauty. The ship makes several stops along the way during which
passengers disembark into Zodiac rigid inflatable boats to go ashore.
Guides take the guests to glaciers and to see wildlife including penguins
and elephant seals. A tradition at the end of each shore excursion is a
drink often chilled with a piece of the local ice.
One has to keep in mind that this is the extreme southern end of South
America, which is equivalent to northern Canada or Norway in the Northern
Hemisphere. While it is not wintertime, guests do have to dress
appropriately, which includes waterproof foul weather gear as the
excursions involve riding in small boats. However, "when you go ashore
and start walking around it is quite easy to work up a sweat. It is not cold.
It is chilly but definitely not freezing," comments Worman. "I had a
thermometer with me and I would periodically look at the temperature and
it was always between 50 and the high 60s; once in awhile a little lower but
In addition to sailing the Straits of Magellan and the Beagle Channel,
the ship has a scheduled stop at Cape Horn, which is the point of land
where the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans collide. It is notoriously stormy
there. "I have been there in October, February, March and April and the
weather is completely unpredictable," notes Worman.
Still, the ship is able to disembark passengers at Cape Horn most of
the time. "In our many years, we have had an 80 percent success rate,"
The Darwin cruises will take place on the Via Australis. Built by
Astilleros y Sericios Navates in Valencia, Chile in 2005, the Via Australis
is a expedition-style cruise ship. She is 2,716 gross tons, 72 meters long
and carries 136 passengers. Her two traditional propellers are driven by a
diesel propulsion plant.
Via Australis is a modern ship with large picture windows so that
guests can enjoy the passing scenery without going on deck. Her five
decks include two lounges and a dining room. The fare includes meals as
well as an open bar for wine, beer, liquor and other beverages.
The passengers are a mix of Europeans and Americans. Both English
and Spanish are spoken on the ship.
Cruceros Australis is a Chilean company founded in 1990. In addition
to the Via Australis, the line also operates her sister ship the Mare
Australiis, which does a similar itinerary. Later this year, the slightly larger
Stella Australis (202 passengers) will enter service.
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|Via Australis (Courtesy of Cruceros Australis)
Author John Worman will be lecturing
on the cruises.