Strait of Magellan

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Strait of Magellan
South America southern tip pol.png
Strait of Magellan, in South America's southern tip
Coordinates 53°28′S70°47′W / 53.467°S 70.783°W / -53.467; -70.783 Coordinates: 53°28′S70°47′W / 53.467°S 70.783°W / -53.467; -70.783
Type strait
Basin  countriesFlag of Chile.svg  Chile
Max. length570 km (350 mi)
Min. width2 km (1.2 mi)

The Strait of Magellan (Spanish : Estrecho de Magallanes), also called the Straits of Magellan, is a navigable sea route in southern Chile separating mainland South America to the north and Tierra del Fuego to the south. The strait is the most important natural passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Spanish language Romance language

Spanish or Castilian is a Romance language that originated in the Castile region of Spain and today has hundreds of millions of native speakers in the Americas and Spain. It is a global language and the world's second-most spoken native language, after Mandarin Chinese.

Chile Republic in South America

Chile, officially the Republic of Chile, is a South American country occupying a long, narrow strip of land between the Andes to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. It borders Peru to the north, Bolivia to the northeast, Argentina to the east, and the Drake Passage in the far south. Chilean territory includes the Pacific islands of Juan Fernández, Salas y Gómez, Desventuradas, and Easter Island in Oceania. Chile also claims about 1,250,000 square kilometres (480,000 sq mi) of Antarctica, although all claims are suspended under the Antarctic Treaty.

South America A continent in the Western Hemisphere, and mostly in the Southern Hemisphere

South America is a continent in the Western Hemisphere, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, with a relatively small portion in the Northern Hemisphere. It may also be considered a subcontinent of the Americas, which is how it is viewed in the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking regions of the Americas. The reference to South America instead of other regions has increased in the last decades due to changing geopolitical dynamics.


The route is considered difficult to navigate due to frequent narrows and unpredictable winds and currents. Maritime piloting is now compulsory. The strait is shorter and more sheltered than the Drake Passage, the often stormy open sea route around Cape Horn. Along with the narrow and sometimes treacherous Beagle Channel and the seasonal and historically treacherous North West Passage, these were the only sea routes between the Atlantic and Pacific until the construction of the Panama Canal.

Maritime pilot mariner who manoeuvres ships through dangerous or congested waters

A maritime pilot, marine pilot, harbor pilot, bar pilot, or simply pilot, is a sailor who maneuvers ships through dangerous or congested waters, such as harbors or river mouths. They are navigational experts possessing knowledge of the particular waterway such as its depth, currents, and hazards.

Drake Passage body of water between South America and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica

The Drake Passage or Mar de Hoces—Sea of Hoces—is the body of water between South America's Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. It connects the southwestern part of the Atlantic Ocean with the southeastern part of the Pacific Ocean and extends into the Southern Ocean.

Cape Horn Headland of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago located in Chile

Cape Horn is the southernmost headland of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago of southern Chile, and is located on the small Hornos Island. Although not the most southerly point of South America, Cape Horn marks the northern boundary of the Drake Passage and marks where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet.


Indigenous peoples

The Strait of Magellan has been inhabited by indigenous Americans for thousands of years. On the western part of its northern coast lived the Alacalufe, also known as the Kawésqar. To the east of the Kawésqar lived the Tehuelche, whose territory extended to the north in Patagonia. South of the Tehuelche, across the Strait of Magellan, lived the Selk'nam, who inhabited the majority of the eastern portion of Tierra del Fuego. To the west of the Selk'nam were the Yaghan, who inhabited the southernmost part of Tierra del Fuego.


The Alacalufe, also known as the Kawésqar, Kaweskar, Alacaluf or Halakwulup, are an indigenous people who live in Chilean Patagonia, specifically in the Brunswick Peninsula, and Wellington, Santa Inés, and Desolación islands of the western area of Tierra del Fuego. Their traditional language is known as Kawésqar; it is endangered as few native speakers survive.

Tehuelche people ethnic group

The Aónikenk people, better known by the exonym Tehuelche, are a group of indigenous peoples of Patagonia and the southern regions of Argentina and Chile. They are widely believed to be the basis for the Patagones described by European explorers.

Patagonia Region of South America

Patagonia is a sparsely populated region at the southern end of South America, shared by Chile and Argentina. The region comprises the southern section of the Andes mountains and the deserts, pampas and grasslands to the east. Patagonia is one of the few regions with coasts on three oceans, with the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and the Southern Ocean to the south.

All tribes in the Strait of Magellan area were nomadic hunter-gatherers. The only non-maritime culture in the area were the Tehuelche, who fished and gathered shellfish along the coast during the winter and moved into the southern Andes in the summer to hunt. In the other three maritime-based tribes, each family had a canoe, around 7 to 9 feet long, that held the entire family and a dog. The canoe often contained a fire the family would use for warmth. Their sustenance came almost entirely from the sea: the men typically hunted seals and fished, while the women dove into the frigid waters to gather shellfish. They wore little to no clothing, and made extensive use of fires to keep warm in the bitterly-cold climate.

The tribes of the region faced little European interference until the late 19th century. Then, European diseases wiped out large portions of the indigenous population, and extermination campaigns sponsored by the governments of Chile and Argentina, like the Selk'nam genocide, eliminated the rest. Some were taken in by missionaries, but today, almost no full-blooded descendants of these peoples remain, and almost all of their culture is lost. Only two languages formerly spoken along the Strait of Magellan are extant, and both are spoken by less than ten people, although today there are hundreds of people who self-identify as descendants of indigenous peoples from the Strait of Magellan.

Selknam genocide

The Selk'nam genocide was the genocide of the Selk'nam people, one of three indigenous tribes populating the Tierra del Fuego in South America, from the second half of the 19th to the early 20th century. Spanning a period of between ten and fifteen years the Selk'nam, which had an estimated population of 3,000 people, saw their numbers reduced to 500.

Discovery by Europeans

Accounts before Magellan

It was reported by António Galvão in 1563 that the position of the Strait of Magellan was previously mentioned in old charts as Dragon's Tail (Draco Cola): [1]

António Galvão Portuguese administrator and historian

António Galvão, known in English as Antonio Galvano, was a Portuguese soldier, chronicler and administrator in the Maluku islands, and a Renaissance historian, the first to present a comprehensive report of all the leading voyages and explorers up to 1550, either by Portuguese and by other nationalities. His works show a remarkable accuracy, especially the Treaty of Discovery published in Lisbon in 1563 and in English by Richard Hakluyt in 1601.

he [ Pedro ] brought a map which had all the circuit of the world described. The Strait of Magellan was called the Dragon's Tail; and there were also the Cape of Good Hope and the coast of Africa. ... Francisco de Sousa Tavares told me that in the year 1528, the Infant D. Fernando showed him a map which had been found in the Cartorio of Alcobaça, which had been made more than 120 years before, the which contained all the navigation of India with the Cape of Good Hope.

Peter, Duke of Coimbra Regent of Portugal

Infante D. Pedro, Duke of CoimbraKG, was a Portuguese infante (prince) of the House of Aviz, son of King John I of Portugal and his wife Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt. In Portugal, he is better known as Infante D. Pedro das Sete Partidas [do Mundo], "of the Seven Parts [of the World]" because of his travels. Possibly the best-travelled prince of his time, he was regent between 1439 and 1448. He was also 1st Lord of Montemor-o-Velho, Aveiro, Tentúgal, Cernache, Pereira, Condeixa and Lousã.

Galvano, Discovery of the World, sub ann. 1428.

This, however, would suggest that the Strait was mentioned in maps before the Americas were discovered, and consequently the claim has to be considered dubious.


A replica of Victoria, one of Magellan's ships, in the Museo Nao Victoria, Punta Arenas. Chile NaoVictoria.JPG
A replica of Victoria, one of Magellan's ships, in the Museo Nao Victoria, Punta Arenas. Chile

Ferdinand Magellan (Portuguese : Fernão de Magalhães), a Portuguese explorer and navigator in the service of Charles I of Spain, became the first European to navigate the strait in 1520 during his global circumnavigation voyage.

On March 22, 1518, the expedition was organized in Valladolid, naming Magellan captain general of the fleet and governor of all the lands discovered, and establishing the privileges of Magellan and his business associate Rui Faleiro. The fleet would become known as the "Armada de las Molucas" or "Fleet of the Moluccas". The expeditionary fleet of five ships set sail from Sanlúcar de Barrameda on September 20, 1519. [2]

The five ships included La Trinidad (110 tons, crew 55), under the command of Magellan; La San Antonio (120 tons, crew 60) under the command of Juan de Cartagena; La Concepción (90 tons, crew 45) under the command of Gaspar de Quezada (Juan Sebastián Elcano served as boatswain); La Victoria (85 tons, crew 42) under the command of Luis de Mendoza; and La Santiago (75 tons, crew 32), under command of Juan Rodríguez Serrano (João Rodrigues Serrão). Before the passage of the Strait (and after the mutiny in Puerto San Julián), Álvaro de Mesquita became captain of the San Antonio, and Duarte Barbosa of Victoria. Later, Serrão became captain of Concepcion (his Santiago, sent on a mission to find the passage, was caught in a storm and wrecked). San Antonio, charged to explore Magdalen Sound, failed to return to the fleet, instead sailing back to Spain under Estêvão Gomes who imprisoned the captain Mesquita.

Magellan's ships entered the strait on November 1, 1520, All Saints' Day, and it was initially called Estrecho de Todos los Santos (Strait of All Saints). Magellan's chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta, called it the Patagonian Strait, and others Victoria Strait, commemorating the first ship entering it. [2] [3] Within seven years it was being called Estrecho de Magallanes in honor of Magellan. [2] [3] The Spanish Empire and the Captaincy General of Chile used it as the southern boundary of their territory.[ citation needed ]

Other explorers

The first Spanish colony was established in 1584 by Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, who founded Nombre de Jesús and Rey Don Felipe on the northern shore of the strait. These towns suffered severe food shortages, and when the English navigator Sir Thomas Cavendish landed at the site of Rey Don Felipe in 1587, he found only ruins of the settlement. He renamed the place Port Famine .

Other early explorers included Francis Drake (1578). In February 1696 the first French expedition, under the command of M. de Gennes reached the Strait of Magellan. The expedition is described by the young French explorer, engineer and hydrographer François Froger in his A Relation of a Voyage (1699). The first map of the Pacific Ocean, Descriptio Maris Pacifici from 1589, depicts the strait as the only route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The much wider Drake Passage was discovered in 1616.

The strait was first carefully explored and thoroughly charted by Phillip Parker King, who commanded the British survey vessel HMS Adventure, and in consort with HMS Beagle spent five years surveying the complex coasts around the strait (1826–1830). A report on the survey was presented at two meetings of the Geographical Society of London in 1831. [4]

Incorporation into Chile

Chile took possession of the Strait of Magellan on May 23, 1843. President Bulnes of Chile ordered this expedition after consulting the Chilean libertador Bernardo O'Higgins (1778–1842), who feared an occupation by Great Britain or France. The first Chilean settlement was Fuerte Bulnes, situated in a forested zone on the north side of the strait. Fuerte Bulnes was later abandoned, and in 1848 the city of Punta Arenas was founded farther north where the Magellanic forests meet the Patagonian plains. In Tierra del Fuego, across the strait from Punta Arenas, the village of Porvenir emerged during the Tierra del Fuego gold rush in the late 19th century.

Argentina effectively recognized Chilean sovereignty over the Strait of Magellan in the Boundary treaty of 1881 between Chile and Argentina. Argentina had previously claimed all of the strait, or at least the eastern third of it.

In 1840 the Pacific Steam Navigation Company was the first to use steamships for commercial traffic in the strait.

Until the Panama Canal opened in 1914, the Strait of Magellan was the main route for steamships traveling from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. It was often considered the only safe way to move between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, as the Drake Passage separating Cape Horn (the southern tip of South America) from Antarctica is notorious for turbulent and unpredictable weather, and is frequented by icebergs and sea ice. Ships in the strait, protected by Tierra del Fuego to the south and the coast of continental South America to the north crossed with relative ease, and Punta Arenas became a primary refueling port providing coal for steam ships in transit. Sailing ships, however, partly because of variable winds and currents in the strait, generally preferred the Drake Passage, as they had more room to maneuver there.


Map showing the extent of the Patagonian Ice Sheet in the Strait of Magellan area during the last glacial period. Selected modern settlements are shown with yellow dots. Magellanglaciacion.jpg
Map showing the extent of the Patagonian Ice Sheet in the Strait of Magellan area during the last glacial period. Selected modern settlements are shown with yellow dots.

The strait is approximately 570 kilometres (310 nmi; 350 mi) long and about 2 kilometres (1.1 nmi; 1.2 mi) wide at its narrowest point (Carlos III Island, west of Cape Froward). [5] The northwestern portion of the strait is connected with other sheltered waterways via the Smyth Channel. This area is similar to the Inside Passage of Alaska. South of Cape Froward, the principal shipping route follows the Magdalena Channel.

The eastern opening is a wide bay on the border of Chile and Argentina between Punta Dúngeness on the mainland and Cabo del Espíritu Santo (Cape of the Holy Spirit) on Tierra del Fuego, the border as defined in the Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1984 between Chile and Argentina. Immediately west are Primera Angostura and Segunda Angostura, narrows formed by two terminal moraines of different ages. [6] The Primera Angostura is the closest approach of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego to the mainland of South America. Farther west lies Magdalena Island, part of Los Pingüinos Natural Monument. The strait's southern boundary in the east follows first the shoreline of the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, then the northern end of the Canal Whiteside and the shoreline of Dawson Island.

The western part of the strait leads northwest from the northern end of the Magdalena Channel to the strait's Pacific entrance. This portion of the strait is flanked on the south by Capitán Aracena Island, Clarence Island, Santa Inés Island, Desolación Island (Cabo Pilar) and other smaller islands, and on the north by Brunswick Peninsula, Riesco Island, Muñoz Gamero Peninsula, Manuel Rodriguez Island and other minor islands of the Queen Adelaide Archipelago. Two narrow channels connect the strait with Seno Otway and Seno Skyring. A broader channel, Smyth Channel, leads north from the strait between Muñoz Gamero Peninsula and Manuel Rodriguez Island. Francisco Coloane Coastal and Marine Protected Area, a sanctuary for humpback whales, is located in this area. This part of the strait lies on the elongated Magallanes-Fagnano Fault, which marks a plate boundary between the South American Plate and the Scotia Plate. This fault continues southward under Almirantazgo Fjord and then below Fagnano Lake. [7] Possibly, new tourism industries could be established in the eastern part of the strait for watching southern right whales, [8] as the number of observations in the area has increased in recent years. [9] [10]

Place names

The place names of the area around the strait come from a variety of languages. Many are from Spanish and English. Several are from the Ona language, adapted to Spanish phonology and spelling, [11] like Timaukel (a hamlet at the east side of Tierra del Fuego), Carukinka (the end of the Almirantazgo Fjord), Anika (a channel located at 54° 7’ S and 70° 30’ W), and Arska (the north side of the Dawson Island).

Magellan named the strait Todos los Santos, [12] as he began his voyage through the strait in 1520 on 1 November: the day of "All Saints" ("Todos los Santos" in Spanish). Emperor Charles V renamed it Estrecho de Magallanes.[ citation needed ] Magellan named the island on the south side of the strait Tierra del Fuego, which the Yaghan people called Onaisín in the Yaghan language. Magellan also gave the name Patagones to the mainland Indians, and their land was subsequently known as Patagonia .

Bahía Cordes is named for the Dutch pirate Baltazar de Cordes. [13]

Lighthouses in the Strait

The County of Peebles and Cavenga are used as a breakwater for the harbour at Punta Arenas. Vista Sur.jpg
The County of Peebles and Cavenga are used as a breakwater for the harbour at Punta Arenas.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency lists 41 lighthouses in the waterway. Some of them are more than a century old, and some are declared Monumento Nacional. Among the most impressive lighthouses are the County of Peebles hulk, the world's first four-masted, iron-hulled "full-rig ship", used now as a breakwater for the harbour at Punta Arenas, the San Isidro lighthouse, restored in 2004 and which is now a museum and lodge, [14] and the Evangelistas Lighthouse, located at the western mouth of the Strait and built by George Slight, who wrote on his arrival in 1934:

I never imagined seeing something so wild and desolate as those emerging dark rocks in the middle of the raging waves. To see these stormy craggy rocks was frightening. With a dim light on the horizon we could see large waves crashing heavily in the western part of the islands: a vision that hardly anyone can imagine ... [15]

Tidal characteristics of the Strait of Magellan

On the Atlantic side, the Strait is characterized by semidiurnal macrotides with mean and spring tide ranges of 7.1 and 9.0 m, respectively. On the Pacific side, tides are mixed, mainly semidiurnal, with mean and spring tide ranges of 1.1 and 1.2 m, respectively. [16]

There is enormous tidal energy potential in the Strait. [17]


Located around the strait are protected systems (S.P.=Sistema Protegido & B.N.P=Bienes Nacionales Protegidos) listed below: [18]


As the strait provides a well-protected inland waterway for safe navigation, sheltered from rough weather and high seas, ships sail through the strait

571 Chilean ships and 1,681 non-Chilean ships sailed through the strait in 2008. [19] Piloting is compulsory for sailing the strait.

Article 35 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea states that "Nothing in this Part affects: ... (c) the legal regime in straits in which passage is regulated in whole or in part by long-standing international conventions in force specifically relating to such straits". Article V of the Boundary treaty of 1881 between Chile and Argentina established a legal regime for the Strait of Magellan, and in a diplomatic letter to major shipping nations in 1873 Chile promised freedom of navigation through and neutrality within the strait. [20] [21]

See also

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  3. 1 2 Laurence Bergreen (2003-10-14). Over the Edge of the World. Harper Perennial, 2003. p. 194. ISBN   978-0-06-621173-2.
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  9. The Patagon _Journal. 2009. Southern Right Whale Spotted in Chilean Waters. Retrieved on October 16, 2014
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  11. Guillermo Latorre, Sustrato y superestrato multilingües en la toponimia del extremo sur de Chile, Facultad de Filosofía y Humanidades de la Universidad Austral de Chile
  12. Memoria Chilena, Navegantes europeos en el estrecho de Magallanes
  13. "Hostería Faro san Isidro". Archived from the original on 2013-09-16.
  14. Quoted at "Bell Rock Bicentennial : Biographies". 1934-06-26. Retrieved 2013-09-18.
  16. "Chile ponders tidal energy potential in Magellan Strait — MercoPress". 2009-08-17. Retrieved 2013-09-18.
  17. Mapas ambientales de Ministerio de Obras Públicas, retrieved on 26 August 2013
  18. "Estrecho De Magallanes". Retrieved 2013-09-18.
  19. See Michael A. Morris, "The Strait of Magellan", Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1988, ISBN   0-7923-0181-1, pp. 68, 104
  20. See also Chilean note to the UN Law of Sea, Declaración formulada al momento de la ratificación, p. 9.