In Patagonia

New lighthouse cuts distance from Punta Arenas to Antarctica

The new structure, the most modern of its kind in Chile, will allow ships to navigate the Thomson Channel, trimming travel to Antarctica by more than 60 miles.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011  
The Beagle Channel. (Photo: Geoff Livingston/Flickr) The Beagle Channel. (Photo: Geoff Livingston/Flickr)

Though the minuscule naval outpost of Puerto Williams may be the southernmost town on earth, Chile’s last major commercial center lies farther north on the banks of the Strait of Magellan at Punta Arenas.

Punta Arenas is one of the major ports of the region, and is the Chilean navy’s base for all trips across the Drake Passage to Villa Las Estrellas - the only civilian settlement on Antarctica.

The Drake Passage is notoriously long and rough, separating Cape Horn from the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsular, and ships traveling to Antarctica must first navigate a circuitous route down the Beagle Channel and around Isla Navarino.

Now, the installation of Chile’s most modern lighthouse on a crop of small islands in the Thomson Channel could trim the length of this trip by over 60 miles (100 km).

The new lighthouse will allow ships to cut a direct line to the Drake Passage via the Thomson Channel, which branches south at the western end of the Beagle Channel. It will also be used to improve safety conditions for the fishers that continue to work in these remote waters.

The lighthouse stands on the highest of the Sandwich Islets at 64 meters above sea level and will itself rise another 13 feet (4 m). Its beam will extend nearly 10 miles out to sea.

An automatic universal identification system in the lighthouse will also assist in navigating these new waters, and is the feature that has earned the lighthouse its designation as the most modern in Chile.