Day 5 |
Nov 18, 2011

Castro and Chiloé, Southern Chile 

By Uli Kunz – Oceanographer and Zodiac-Driver

Position: 43°40’ S, 73°20’ W
Air temperature: 10 °C, 50 °F
Water temperature: 12 °C, 53.6 °F
Air pressure: 1015 hPa
Wind speed: 45 km/h

I woke up very early in the morning because I heard a strange noise as though something was continuously banging against the ship's hull. The sound only stopped when we dropped anchor off Castro; today's destination. Together with the Expedition Team, I jumped in the Zodiacs to disembark the guests for their tours to a National Park and to the famous wooden churches in the region.

When the disembarkation was finished, we assessed the situation together with the officers of the Silver Explorer to determine the reason for the unusual noises during the night. To our surprise, we found heavy ropes wrapped around the bulb in front of the ship. The ship must have picked up drifting fishing gear in the night! This is not uncommon in areas of intense fishing and aquaculture, but always inconvenient because of their potential to get entangled in the ship's propellers. There were more and more lines appearing around the ship that we could not simply pull away, as the ropes were leading under the hull, and were inaccessible for us at the moment. The noise was created by small buoys along the lines that kept on bashing against the hull while the ship was sailing.

It became clear that only by diving under the ship we would be able to cut the ropes off and check whether the propellers were safe. But the water in Southern Chile is a chilly 12° Celsius and we did not have proper dive suits on board for cold water... Everything else, bottles, regulators, fins, masks were there.

Together with our Expedition Leader Robin West and our agent Hernán, I set out to the small town of Castro for our quest to organize the right equipment. In that village with all its fishing industry, it should be easy to find diving gear and dive suits, we thought... it turned out to be a rather difficult task! The first shop we visited had a 3mm neoprene chest vest (which was not enough for us, we decided), the local Navy base did not have divers (but could have organized the suits for us within three days...) and the fire workers had other problems (there had been a fire inside the fire station a week earlier...). All hope was now lost and we boarded the Zodiac for a sad drive back to the ship. On our way back, we saw a local fishermen trying to move his 10-meter fishing boat into the harbour with only a small rowing boat. We helped him with our Zodiac and asked him whether he knew someone who rented out dive gear and especially dive suits. Within one hour, he was back and had not only brought us two thick neoprene dive suits but also two heavy weight belts to dive below the surface! There was still hope that we would be able to heave anchor in time to make it to tomorrow’s destination. We still had one hour before our guests would return from their excursions.

To get into the tight dive suits, we had to use shampoo and water that served as a lubricant. We laughed at each other as we looked like elephant seals on a “mission impossible”. Entering the water, Robin West and I grabbed the lines and pulled ourselves under the hull in a strong current. The visibility was very low but we could clearly see two big blocks of styrofoam that were wedged under the ship because of their buoyancy in a fashion that made it impossible to pull them away at the surface. Only by pushing them hard, inch-by-inch towards the edge we were able to free them and they popped to the surface, together with all the entangled lines and ropes. We continued our dive towards the propellers and the rudder for a thorough examination. Here and there we could still find some remaining line, hooked to a bolt or anode, but the back of the ship was fortunately free of ropes. The current here was incredibly strong, our exhaust bubbles did not go straight to the surface but were first transported horizontally in the water column. We were back on board a few minutes later together with all guests, who enjoyed their various trips into the area of Castro and the island of Chiloé.

In the afternoon we resumed our lecture program and I watched marine biologist Kara Weller and ornithologist Liz Bradfield talking about the amazing life forms and their behaviour under the ocean surface and above. Both provided fantastic information, showed pictures of soaring birds and fluking whales and gave an overview of some of the species that we are hopefully going to see during our voyage!

The day that had started slightly miserable with overcast sky and drizzle, turned into a beautiful afternoon and evening with a colourful sunset as the Silver Explorer was heading further south along the Chilean coastline to explore the spectacular fjords.