The Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve, which spans nearly 50,000 square kilometers of southern Chile, is one of the last great pristine areas on the planet. It is almost entirely intact — windswept and desolate but largely untouched, partly because of the forbidding weather itself. Most of its human inhabitants live in one of only a couple of small towns. The entire western side of the region, hundreds of islands, glaciers, and mountains, is unpopulated.
This region is not only pristine, it is incredibly singular. Separated from the rest of the continent by the white-capped Andes and the arid Argentinian plains to the north, the plants and animals of Cape Horn have evolved in climatic isolation for millions of years. More recently, only 15,000 years ago, ice sprawling from the mountains dug fjords and excavated cirques that speckle the landscape, trenching out convoluted topography protected from the fury of the westerly winds. Cape Horn itself was probably under ice at the time, but the Diego Ramírez Islands were likely not. Today, temperatures are surprisingly benign. Despite being the last stop before Antarctica, the ocean influence is so strong that snow is infrequent. These islands were potentially important refugia for plant and animal species to repopulate the post-glacial world, resulting in a unique pool of species in a unique and complicated landscape.
From a global perspective, Cape Horn is also special for what it does not have: nonnative species.
In other words, the edge of the continent is like nowhere else — and looks it.
The small stretch of land that is southern Chile, poking into the global south and comprising only 0.1 percent of the world’s land, holds 5 percent of its moss and liverwort species (and 50 percent of those are found only in southwestern South America). A Megallanic beech tree here, at the southern edge of arboreal life, can host 100 species of epiphytes on its trunk, branches, and leaves. As I climbed into the canopy taking measurements, I became intimately familiar with the slick feel of the mossy bark on cold fingers. The animals are equally specialized. Due to the isolation, half of the fish species and a third of the mammals are endemic to this region.
From a global perspective, Cape Horn is also special for what it does not have: nonnative species. Our research on Isla Hornos found no invasive plants or fish; Diego Ramírez matches that, and also has no invasive mammals. This point is significant, as seabirds that nest on the ground are often easy targets for invasive predators like cats, mice, and rats. On the Diego Ramírez Islands available real estate is quite small — the largest island, Isla Bartolomé, is only 93 hectares; the second largest, Isla Gonzalo, is 38 hectares — and they are highly vulnerable to invasion as a result. But it has not happened yet.
“The marine and terrestrial ecosystems of the Cape Horn and Diego Ramírez island groups are one of the few insular systems on the planet that are largely free of direct human impact,” said Ricardo Rozzi, director of the Sub-Antarctic Biocultural Conservation program, coordinated by the Universidad de Magallanes and the University of North Texas. This program has taken a lead in conservation of the region for over a decade, coordinating participants from both hemispheres and recently opening a new research and education facility called the Sub-Antarctic Cape Horn Center in Puerto Williams, the southernmost town in the region and world.
What Chile has done in preserving this landscape is remarkable. The designation of the Diego Ramírez-Drake Passage Marine Park takes it a step further. Aside from protecting habitat for albatross, penguins, whales, and other known wildlife, the cumulative protected area now also reaches beneath the waves, covering the southern continental shelf of the South American continent. Here, a complex of underwater canyons as deep as 4,500 meters and unique environments like the Sars Seamount provide a home to barely-studied endemic species and enormous quantities of sea sponges. The newly protected land-and-seascape has treasures still undiscovered.
The Yaghan peoples — the dominant cultural group in the area when Europeans arrived — even ventured to the far-flung end, the exposed Cape Horn archipelago itself, for hunting. This sea-nomad lifestyle drove a marine economy that provided residents with a wide variety of food and resources, including materials like green obsidian, which was traded over distances of at least 300 km (as the albatross flies).
While the Yaghan saw the landscape as an integral part of their identity, European explorers saw it as an obstacle.
The land was a bounty, with both land- and sea-based resources available around every corner — and in the mishmash of mountains and water, rivers and plains, there are a lot of corners. People were abundant. We are still discovering fish weirs (corrales de pesca) and rock art hidden in caves throughout the archipelago. In lieu of larger political groups, families and kin groups were the highest authority, with local territories, dialects, and customs. In perhaps the strongest possible manifestation of these peoples’ intimate sense of place, every Yaghan child was named after the place they were born, or “the land that welcomes us,” as Lakutaia le Kipa said to Chilean author Patricia Stambuk. One of the last full-blooded Yaghan, Lakutaia le Kipa, who died in 1983, had visited Cape Horn tied to her mother’s back as a child, and knew the landscape intimately. “Lakuta is the name of a bird, and kipa means woman. Each Yaghan carries the name of the place where he or she was born, and my mother brought me into the world in Lakuta Bay.”
While the Yaghan saw the landscape as an integral part of their identity, European explorers saw it as an obstacle. “Nothing could be more dreary than the scene around us,” wrote the eminent explorer Robert Fitzroy as he attempted to navigate the Beagle through this austere landscape. “The lofty, bleak, and barren heights that surround the inhospitable shores … were covered, even low down their sides, with dense clouds, upon which the fierce squalls that assailed us beat, without causing any change: they seemed as immovable as the mountains where they rested…. The weather was that in which, ‘the soul of man dies in him.’”
Why bother exploring, then? The answer, of course, is economics. In the 1500s, as industrious Europe started fanning out across the map, the bulk of the continent stood in the way of lucrative Atlantic-Pacific trade. Several explorers tried and died looking for a way around. Ferdinand Magellan eventually poked his way through, passing through the extravagantly named “Cape of Eleven Thousand Virgins” in 1520 via the jagged strait that now bears his name. But even then, it was still unclear if South America even had an end, or if it was connected to some other southern continent. Sailors blown off course reported seeing “land’s end” in 1525, but the Southern Ocean was then only a rumor, its truth protected by waves as tall as the masts of a ship.