On the Patagonia cruise tours between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia, there’s plenty of wildlife, including elephant seals, sea lions and penguins, but whales are relatively uncommon.
Chile has enacted legislation declaring the country a whale sanctuary, and populations are increasing, but in the eastern Strait of Magellan and the Beagle Channel they’re usually vagrants – the main feeding grounds for the southern humpback are in the western Strait, where adventure cruises only rarely go.
Except for the mammoth cruise ships that sail between Buenos Aires and Valparaíso – which are too big to see anything up close – mostly merchant shipping and private yachts frequent the area that Chile has designated as Parque Marino Francisco Coloane, a maritime reserve around Isla Carlos III and Isla Santa Inés. Several Punta Arenas operators, though, now offer one- to three day whale-watching excursions here.
Day trips, in a covered rigid inflatable, leave around 4:30 a.m. and return by early evening, spending a few hours among the whales, which frequent the area from mid-December to April. Overnight trips, on a 15-meter motor yacht, deliver passengers to a comfortable geodesic dome encampment on Isla Carlos III, where there are colonies of Magellanic penguins and sea lions within easy hiking distance – though the highlight is the offshore excursions to watch the whales breach and swim along the surface of the Strait. A side excursion visits the Santa Inés glaciers.
When I did the trip several years ago, that was the only option, and the accommodations and food were remarkable for a tiny island that’s a wooded wilderness. Today, though, another multi-day option lets whale-watchers sleep aboard the M/V Forrest, repurposed after spending 30 years hauling freight around the Falkland Islands. While I’ve never sailed on the Forrest, I did see it in the Islands, and I’ve been aboard to see the current version. Unfortunately, a rescheduled itinerary caused me to miss a trip a couple years ago but, in the not-too-distant future, I’m hoping the opportunity presents its again.