Note: This is a “classic” Interesting Thing of the Day article from over 10 years ago. It has not been edited recently, so it may contain broken links, outdated information, or other infelicities. We plan to eventually update or retire most classic articles, as time permits.

I’m always on the lookout for interesting things, especially when I travel. As a result, I’m constantly collecting little tidbits of information about the places I visit. But the key word here is “little”—if a certain fact can be conveyed adequately in a couple of sentences, I’m not going to write an entire article about it. Sure, I can always do a certain amount of padding, but I have my limits. My goal when I went to Patagonia was to collect two weeks’ worth of interesting things, but now that we come to the end of the series, I find I’ve got lots of snippets of information that may be interesting, but are just not very extensive individually. So in a bit of a departure from our usual format, I’d like to present a random assortment of interesting factoids about Patagonia that didn’t quite fit anywhere else.

Seals vs. Sea Lions

I’m embarrassed to say that despite living in a city with a large population of resident sea lions, and despite umpteen visits to Sea World as a kid, I never understood the difference between seals and sea lions until I went to Patagonia, which has plenty of each. Both are pinnipeds, or “fin-feet,” but sea lions have much larger front flippers, plus back flippers that can rotate underneath them. The result is that when on land, sea lions can walk on all four flippers, whereas seals sort of slide or bounce along on their bellies. Sea lions also have external ear flaps, whereas seals have ear holes but no outer appendage.

Elephant Seals

A great many southern elephant seals call the coast of Patagonia home; when we were there, we saw many of them molting on the beach. Elephant seals are immense creatures—some of them up to 6m (20 feet) long and weighing up to 4 tons. When fishing for squid or other seafood, the seals can dive up to 1,500m (5,000 feet) and stay underwater for as long as two hours at a time. After descending below about 50m (160 feet), their lungs collapse completely, which helps to prevent nitrogen build-up in the blood—seals never get the bends. They also conserve oxygen by lowering their heart rate to as little as one beat per minute when deep underwater.

The Sheep Industry

British settlers introduced sheep to Patagonia around 1865. By the 1930s, there were at least 16 million sheep in Patagonia, and wool was by far the largest industry. This explosive growth was great for the ranchers, but not so good for the environment. After more than a century of overgrazing, a great deal of Patagonia’s limited vegetation has been wiped out, turning much of the already-arid steppe into desert. The reduced food supply, in turn, took its toll on the sheep population. In addition, the eruption of a Chilean volcano called Mount Hudson in 1991, which sent huge amounts of ash into Patagonia, further decreased the sheep population by wiping out much of their food and water supplies. And as if that weren’t enough, falling demand for wool lowered prices to the point where only the largest estancias (sheep ranches) could turn a profit. Hundreds of smaller estancias that could not reinvent themselves as hotels or tourist attractions have been abandoned. Today, the sheep population is thought to be about six to eight million—and wool prices are up again. Many of these sheep are owned by clothing maker Benetton, which is also the largest single landowner in Patagonia. (Interestingly, the clothing company called Patagonia has very few wool items—most of their products are made from cotton or synthetic fibers.)

The Calafate Berry

While staying at an estancia in the town of El Calafate, Argentina, we went on a nature hike to see the local flora and fauna. Our guide pointed to a large but unassuming bush and said it was a Calafate—the plant after which the town had been named. The bush produced small berries; according to legend, whoever eats a Calafate berry will return to Patagonia. The guide said we should not sample the berries because they were unripe—perhaps that would have biased us against coming back. We did, however, sample Calafate jam, liqueur, and ice cream, and I feel confident that this will be adequate to ensure our return.

The Train at the End of the World

The world’s southernmost rail line is, unsurprisingly, in Patagonia. Built in the early years of the 20th century, this narrow-gauge railway was used for several decades to transport convicts from the Ushuaia prison to the locations where they were put to work felling trees; the train also carried the lumber back to town. Soon after the closure of the prison in 1947, the railway fell into disuse. In 1994, after a complex restoration project, a portion of the line was put back into service as the Tren del Fin del Mundo, the “End of the World Railway.” Most of the steam locomotives and cars, though modeled on the originals, are completely new. The train departs from a station about 10km (6 miles) from Ushuaia and travels in a loop; the trip lasts less than two hours. So you ride it just for the scenery and the history, not to travel from one place to another—though an extension to downtown Ushuaia is planned. (We opted to skip the train and see the landscape on foot.)

One final parting comment, courtesy of my wife, Morgen: the answer to the question “What’s left of Patagonia?” is, of course, “the Pacific ocean.” —Joe Kissell

More Information

Today’s article is part of two week-long series on Patagonia. To learn more about Patagonia, see the first article in the series from last month, Introduction to Patagonia.

Elephant seals are described in more detail at PBS, Antarctic Connection, and kidcyber. The Challenges of Diving to Depth by Gerald L. Kooyman and Paul J. Ponganis covers the physiological mechanisms elephant seals and other animals use when diving.

You can read about El Calafate, including the legend of the berry, at Inter Patagonia.

For more on the environmental impact of the sheep industry, see Conservacion Patagonica or Stories of Hope at PBS.

The official End of the World Railway Web site includes the history of the line and current information for tourists.

cover art

The Old Patagonian Express is a record of Paul Theroux’s attempt to travel by train from Boston all the way to Patagonia. Note that the eponymous rail line ends far north of Tierra del Fuego in Esquel, a town in the Chubut province; at the time Theroux wrote the book the Tren del Fin del Mundo was not running, so he couldn’t have taken it even if he’d made it all the way to Ushuaia.