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Dispatch from Punta Arenas: Earthquake prefaces USF scientists' Antarctic expedition

PUNTA ARENAS, Chile -- Our travel to the Antarctic was interrupted by the massive earthquake on Feb. 27 that ripped through central Chile.

We had been preparing for months, but no amount of preparation is a match for a force of nature.

The Santiago airport was heavily damaged. The runways were fine, but the terminal building was unsafe. The interior ceiling was stacked in piles outside the building. Operations were moved to circus-style tents.

And yet, despite heavy air traffic and aftershocks (7.5 while we were there), it all worked.

Our ship, the Nathaniel Palmer, experienced only indirect effects in Punta Arenas, including the slowing down of all forms of transportation to and from the vessel. In the end, we lost only a week of time, though we had many heart-stopping moments with our large amounts of cargo.

The small city of Punta Arenas is located on the Strait of Magellan, a natural "intracoastal waterway" far south of the quake's epicenter in the Patagonian region of Chile.

The city has a colorful past that includes a brief time as a penal colony and a much longer history as an important seaport. Tall ships and steam vessels could avoid "rounding the horn" by using the Strait of Magellan to cross between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

If you stand on the present-day dock where the Palmer is and look to the east you can still see the relic docks that served the maritime traffic from years ago. Today, those skeletons are a favorite hangout for the local seabirds.

Modern-day Punta Arenas still has a nautical bent; the sea is the source of much of its commerce. Fishing vessels offload their cargo here for freezing and packing. Cruise ships (and scientific vessels) bound for the Antarctic often depart from here.

In fact, the Antarctic is an integral part of the city's character, from the cold south winds and rough water to the souvenir shops.

Statues honor the city's maritime history. Hernando (also known as Ferdinand) Magellan is preeminent in the town square, and he is flanked by statues of the natives that dwelt near here when the city was founded in 1848.

Tradition has it that if you rub the toe of one of the Indian statues, you will have good luck on your voyage and, most important to Antarctic lovers like me, you will return.

We had a large group of toe rubbers from our party who were wishing for good weather when it was our turn to cross the Drake Passage.

Dispatch from Punta Arenas: Earthquake prefaces USF scientists' Antarctic expedition 03/18/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 19, 2010 11:20am]
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