Straits Of Magellan, a channel separating the southern extremity of the American continent from a group of islands called Tierra del Fuego. Those bordering on the channel are, going from E. to W., Tierra del Fuego proper, the largest, Dawson, Clarence, St. Inez, and Desolation islands. The channel received its name from the great navigator who discovered it, Magalhaens, now commonly known as Magellan among northern nations. The eastern entrance of the channel lies between Cape Virgins on the north and Cape Espiritu Santo on the south, and is about 20 m. wide. It enlarges at first into a wider basin, the northern part of which is called Possession bay and the southern Lomas bay. Thence it passes through the First Narrows, about 9 m. long and 2 m. wide, widens again into St. Jago and Philip bays, and after passing the Second Narrows takes gradually a southerly sweep, widening out as far as Cape Froward, the southernmost point of the American continent. Here the direction takes a sudden northwesterly course, which it keeps to its outlet into the Pacific ocean at Cape Pillars. The total length of the straits is 315 m., divided by Cape Froward into two parts, of which the eastern is somewhat the larger. The narrowest part, at Cape Quod in Crooked reach, is only about one mile.
The straits have been described or surveyed frequently and from an early period, as for instance by Sir John Narborough, Cordova, Byron, Wallis, Carteret, and Bougainville; but our principal source of knowledge is the surveys and explorations conducted by order of the British government by Captains King, Stokes, and Fitzroy, in the Beagle and Adventure, between 1826 and 1836, Charles Darwin being attached to the expedition as naturalist during part of the time. In 1866-'9 additional surveys were made by Capt. Mayne in the Nassau, the natural history explorations being in charge of Dr. Cunningham. Numerous accounts can also be found in the records of voyages of circumnavigation by ships of different nations. In 1872 the straits were visited by Agassiz in the United States steamer Hassler, and many interesting observations were made on their natural history. - The passage through the straits of Magellan, notwithstanding the advantages it offers over the stormy and dangerous passage round Cape Horn, is seldom attempted by large sailing vessels, principally because of the narrowness of the western reaches, and the violent gusts of wind blowing through them, chiefly from the northwest.
Long detentions often occur, as there is not sufficient room for working ship; and many of the harbors being difficult of access, it is often necessary to put back for long distances. It is said that a United States frigate was once 80 days in accomplishing the passage. Actual dangers are few. The water is deep, the shores are bold, and every hidden rock is, as it were, buoyed out by the abundant giant kelp growing over it. Heavy squalls blowing suddenly downward from the mountains, and known as williwaws, are much dreaded, as a vessel may be thrown almost on her beam ends, when at anchor, before she has time to swing. For small vessels, and particularly for steamers, the channel is invaluable. The latter, instead of leaving or entering the ocean at Cape Pillars, now frequently use the channels known as Smyth's, Sarmiento's, and Messier, as far as the gulf of Penas, thus having the advantage of over 300 m. of inland navigation. But for the narrow isthmus of Ofqui, which separates the gulf of Penas from the sounds inside of the Chonos archipelago, this inland navigation might be extended to the northern end of Chiloe, nearly as much further.
A fortnightly line of steamers, running from England to Valparaiso, passes regularly through the straits of Magellan, touching at Punta Arenas; and it is intended to make still more frequent trips. A French line has also lately been started. It has been proposed to establish a service of tug boats to tow sailing ships through, for which the successful working of the coal mine at Punta Arenas would offer considerable facilities. In coming into the straits from the east, particular attention must be paid to the tides. The rise and fall in Possession bay is more than 40 ft.; inside the First Narrows it is only 12, and inside the Second 7 ft. These differences occasion a current of 5 or 6 m. an hour. It is therefore usual to anchor in Possession bay, to wait and take advantage of the flood tide to make the passage through the narrows and into the wider parts of the straits. In passing from the Second Narrows to Cape Froward, vessels keep near the western shore. In this reach, and on that same shore, several good harbors are found, such as Royal road, between Elizabeth island and Peckett harbor (the latter fit only for small vessels), Laredo bay, Punta Arenas or Sandy Point, Freshwater bay, Port Famine, and San Nicolas bay.
Sandy Point, the only settlement in the straits, is a penal colony founded by the Chilian government. The situation is well chosen, at the mouth of a clear mountain stream, and at the foot of mountains clothed with luxuriant forests. The climate is less humid than at Port Famine, where the settlement was at first located, and not so arid as on the Patagonian plains further east. Fair pasture is found for cattle, but the summer is not warm enough to allow the ripening of cereals, except a few of the hardiest kinds. Potatoes and green vegetables are raised without difficulty. A coal mine has been opened a few miles up the valley, and connected with the shore by a tramway. The coal appears to belong to the cretaceous formation, is abundant and easily mined, but burns very rapidly and with much smoke. Gold is found in the gravel at the bottom of the stream. Port Famine owes its name to the unfortunate result of the colony founded there in 1584 by Sarmiento. Of the 300 men left by him there and at the Narrows, one was saved in 1587 by Cavendish, and the last survivor by Meriche two years after; all the rest perished miserably.
This harbor is still resorted to by vessels detained by contrary winds, and by those in want of firewood, which can be obtained with great ease, the shores being covered with well seasoned driftwood brought down by Sedger river, the largest stream emptying into the straits. From Cape Froward the Pacific ocean can be reached through the Magdalen and Cockburn channel, or through the Barbara channel, a little further west; but they are seldom used except by sealing vessels. The western part of the straits is abundantly provided with small well sheltered bays; unfortunately a number of them are useless as harbors on account of the great depth of water. After passing Cape Froward the channel receives successively the names of Froward reach, English reach, Crooked reach, Long reach, and Sea reach. The harbors are generally small landlocked bays, surrounded by high mountains. The first good one encountered is Fortescue bay, on the E. shore, with its inner harbor, called Port Gallant. Another is York road, at the entrance of Jerome channel. The latter leads off from the straits in a N. E. direction, connecting with two large inland basins, Otway and Skyring Water, very seldom visited and little known.
Borja bay in Crooked reach is a convenient and safe harbor, where wood and fresh water can be procured with ease. Playa Parda cove in Long reach is of similar character. These two harbors are on the N.
shore, in Cordova peninsula. Near the entrance to Smyth's channel, Port Tamar and Sholl bay afford good shelter and safe anchorages. On the S. shore, though it is much indented, good harbors are scarce; the best ones are Half-port bay at the W. end of Long reach, and Port Mercy, only 4 m. inside of Cape Pillars. Besides wood and water, the only supplies the country offers to the navigator are fish and shell fish of various kinds. - The character of the country around the straits of Magellan depends in a great measure on the geological formation. In the east it is tertiary overlaid by glacial drift, and the climate is very dry and vegetation scanty, consisting only of grass and small spiny shrubs. The middle region, from Peckett's harbor to Port Gallant, is mostly of secondary formation; the climate is very moist and the soil very favorable to vegetation. The land therefore is covered with dense forests, chiefly of beech, some of the trees attaining great size. In the western section primitive rocks prevail, and the trees are few and small. The shores of this section are very bold and the water deep.
Steep mountains terminating in ragged peaks rise here on both sides of the straits, the loftiest being Mt. Sarmiento, 6,800 ft. high, from which and from its neighbor Mt. Buckland descend magnificent glaciers. In the eastern region the grassy plains support numerous herds of guanacos and small troops of ostriches. The other land animals are pumas, foxes, skunks, cavies, a burrowing rodent of the genus ctenomys, etc. Eared seals of at least two species, distinguished as hair and fur seals, are common. Large flocks of the upland goose (chloephaga Magellanica) feed on the plains and congregate on the islands in the breeding season, in company with black-necked swans and swans with black-tipped wings. The small owl found in the burrows of the North American prairie dog inhabits here those of the cavy. The condor and the carraucha (polyborus) are very common, and on the water and along the shores ducks, penguins, cormorants, gulls, oyster catchers, etc, are abundant. In the wooded parts of the straits are found humming birds and small flocks of paroquets. The western region is remarkably destitute of animal life, a few species of small birds being the only creatures observed on the shores.
Ducks, geese, penguins, and other water birds abound in the channels, and otters, seals, and whales are not uncommon. Fish and shell fish abound in all parts of the straits, and contribute largely to the food of the natives. The native population consists of Patagonians and Fuegians. (See Patagonia, and Tierra del Fuego.)