Changing Planet

Where the Glaciers Vanish

Where the Glaciers Vanish

(Patagonia’s Untold Stories)

Halfway buried in the sand lays the forgotten skull of a whale. Its flesh has been removed by the gentle erosion sustained by the pulsating sea.

Its white form contrasts the dark sand layer covering the beach. Its rostrum points towards the only island in the middle of the gulf populated by trees, a safe refuge from the elements for those who dare to venture. Could that be the habitat the insects I am looking for have survived in?

Whale skull overlooking the gulf of Penas on the western end of Ofqui Isthmus. (R. Isaí Madriz)

A few feet away from the inanimate whale remains, life commences. Two brown dappled Magellanic oystercatcher eggs lay partially protected from the elements within their simple sand nest.

Behind the whale skull, half a mile across the dunes where the glaciers vanish into the sea, Diablo’s Island beckons.

Its soft ground is composed of generations of moss, growing on top of each other like coral. Their dampened nature is the perfect habitat for moist-loving insects.

As I step onto the island, strange and small endemic crimson-red plants adorn the ground. Their filamentous leaves bear transparent droplets of seemingly harmless liquid. Close inspection reveals their sinister purpose. The remains of partially digested flies lay trapped within, providing the carnivorous plant with vital nutrients to continue its development on the impoverished soil.

Chilean sundew (Drosera uniflora) in its natural habitat at Diablo’s Island. (R. Isaí Madriz)

Shaped by the strong winds and the lack of firm soil to grow on, the few trees on the island are a smaller version of those inhabiting the Andean slopes. The tallest border a small pond where its crystal-clear waters are stained by the dissolved organic matter of the surrounding wetland.

Inch-long frogs seek refuge from the wind in the cavities of broken and decaying stumps. There, they remain motionless, camouflaged by their exquisite coloration resembling the variegated yellow tones of the small moldering tree leaves surrounding them.

Diablo’s Island pond. The dark water is caused by the colored fine organic matter of the decomposing vegetation in the surroundings. (R. Isaí Madriz)

The constant wind ceases momentarily. The island stands till. Silence announces the advent of danger. Small dark-colored damselflies glide effortlessly over open areas, swiftly hunting unaware moss-inhabiting insects in the air. Below, predatory beetles emerge from cavities in the soft ground.  They scour the moss surface in search of injured insects. Disoriented wind-drifted new comers become rapidly eradicated from the unfamiliar landscape. Alas, the group of flies I am looking for is not here.

Bordering the northern edge of the island, the sediment-rich waters of San Tadeo’s river meanders for miles, originating from San Quintin glacier to the east, augmenting its volume from the waters of unnamed melted glaciers in the north.

The clouded river carries a mournful sentiment conceived by the vanished endemic tribes that once navigated its pristine waters.

Digging shallowly in the sand below discloses fresh water seeping through the sand underneath the island. This seemingly insignificant act elucidates the need of a healthy flow of glacial melts to sustain the current island’s ecosystem.

A few hundred feet upstream from the island, Chile’s largest beaver-like endemic rodent, the Coipo, swims across the cold channel.

Close by, among the tall grass above the waterline, the lamenting wind reveals the exposed grave site of an adult Sei whale. Its complete skeleton stands as testimony of the unpredictable tide surrounding the island’s ominous name.

Unlike its counterpart across the dunes, the bones are covered by a colorful film of algae and diatoms nourished by the adjacent river. Minute black primitive insects are distributed throughout the multicolored surface. They congregate in small groups, feeding on nutrients from the remaining fat residues impregnated in the moist microscopic bone cavities.

Sei whale bones. The coloration on their surface is due to a combination of algae, diatoms and springtails. (R. Isaí Madriz)

Back in camp, I stand barefoot at the ocean’s edge. Its cold waters aid in relieving the pain of my dislocated ankle. There, I look into the horizon, contemplating the sunset. A stream of transient thoughts disrupts the moment: Am I too early in the year to find the insects I am looking for? Can flying insects inhabit the dunes’ extremes? If they are here, how have they evolved to cope with such environmental conditions?

Behind a dune, protected from the southern winds, sand is being blown in a vortex. At that moment, the wind pauses momentarily but the vortex persists. A closer look reveals that the revolving sand is actually an insect swarm. The flying insects belong to the winter crane fly family (Trichoceridae). At last, I found the group I was looking for.

To my surprise, the species seems unusual. Unlike other species known to inhabit Patagonia, this species exhibits reduced leg segments.

Oceanside sunset at the western end of Ofqui Isthmus. (R. Isaí Madriz)

At dusk the entire population disappears.

I stand in the same place at the same time the following day, but the site is barren. As I examine the close surroundings, I locate a single male. He flies around looking for others, unaware that the rest of the population has vanished.

I stand motionless, observing. As the sun hides behind the horizon, it takes with it the warmth in the vicinity. The temperature drops even faster with the arrival of the southern winds.

The fly’s energy is fading. The body fat he uses to power his flight is depleting rapidly. Unable to fight the elements any longer he falls onto the sand below. Within minutes, his body becomes entombed by the ever-shifting sands.

Looking for another population to emerge in a close by location, I continue my search for the species throughout the following days. All in vain.

Fifteen miles upstream from the Island, across a strenuous bog, lays San Rafael Lagoon, bearing its name from San Rafael glacier arising directly from the Northern Patagonia Ice Field. With the Andean mountains in the east, the narrow fjord channels to the west and the twenty-mile-wide Isthmus to the south, the Pacific Ocean waters become encapsulated within these formidable barriers.

As I rest on the lagoon’s beach, I ponder the whereabouts of the strange insect I found in the days prior, evaluating the evidence. The remarkable modification of their reduced legs, which a closely related species uses for hanging on to vegetation, suggests this species is unable to rest, leading to an unusually short adult lifespan.

Meanwhile, one hundred yards in front of me, I witness in shock the accelerated melting rate of a school bus-sized iceberg disappearing into the calm waters within hours.

Further ahead in the middle of the lagoon, as they float adrift, collapsed fragments of the glacier display a kaleidoscope of vivid blue and green hues. Among them near the base of the glacier, the lagoon’s top predator, an adult leopard seal, rests peacefully on top of a flat iceberg unaware that the glacier he fully depends on is slowly disappearing.


Follow Isaí Madriz on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.

Equipment used for this nine month project is courtesy of Fulbright, National Geographic, Iridium, Alpacka Raft, Aqua-BoundBoo Bicycles, Kokatat, Seal Line, Osprey, TentsilePatagonia, Voltaic & Jax Outdoor Gear.

Special thanks to Destino Patagonia for their support and expertise throughout this expedition.

Dr. R. Isaí Madriz is an entomologist and zoologist with expertise in freshwater aquatic insects of Patagonia. As a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow, he is telling the story of deglaciation of the Northern Patagonia Ice Field, focusing on its vanishing aquatic insect diversity through images and stories of exploration, science and human connections. He combines hiking, bikepacking and packrafting to transect unexplored areas and secluded fjords in search of some of the rarest insects on the planet. This low-carbon footprint approach utilizes renewable energy sources to capture never-before-seen footage of remote glacial outlets and hidden valleys of wild Patagonia. Madriz is documenting the largely unknown endemic aquatic insect fauna of this vital region before Chile’s Aysén region’s biodiversity is transformed forever.
  • Kathy Burch

    Beautifully written piece, Isai.

  • Targe Lindsay

    Isai, another scientific, beautifully written narration for laymen.
    Again, I felt as though I was with you on this expedition.

  • Barbara Lindsay

    Another richly-descriptive story! Your photos are absolutely beautiful, and need to be published!

  • Shawna Snyder

    Another impressive account! Something struck me as curious… Why are the whale bones by the ocean bleached and white while the whale bones near the fresh water are covered in algae and other ‘decomposers’? Is the ocean side environment too harsh for decomposers? Is there a counterpart to the fresh water decomposers that live at the ocean side? Just curious! I hope your ankle heals!

    • Isaí Madriz

      That is a good observation Shawna! The whale skull by the ocean is exposed to constant winds and tide, while the skeleton by the river is partially covered from the southern winds by dunes and tall grass. Likewise, the skull seemed to have been there a significant amount of time longer than the skeleton by the river. I hope this helps. please do not hesitate in asking any other questions.

  • Melissa

    My name is Franco and I’m 8 years old. I think that finding a new species is hard to do. Because they are not really everywhere. I like the calm pictures and the video of the seal chilling on the ice. The diablo island sounds scary too. I want to see a picture of the new species in the story because they sound really cool and it’s fun to look at.

    • Isaí Madriz

      Hi Franco,
      Thank you for your wonderful comment. Finding new species of insects is a lot of work, but is very, very fun. Patagonia is full of wonderful insects and many are awaiting discovery. I’m glad you are enjoying my pictures and story. Yes, that Leopard seal likes to rest on the ice in-between meals. Maybe when you grow up you can continue the work I do. I hope you continue reading. There are many cool stories coming up. Thanks again!

    • Isaí Madriz

      Look Franco, I just took this picture through my microscope so you can see what these awesome insects look like.

      • Melissa

        Wow! I like it. Super cool. Thank you!

  • Melissa

    My name is Leane and I’m 10 years old. I like the whale skeleton since I’ve never seen one before. I also think is cool that you can find a new species. And the red carnivorous plant is awesome because it eats bugs. Why is the diablo island called that way? I want to go to Patagonia to see!

    • Isaí Madriz

      Hello Leane,

      Thank you for writing! Whale skeletons are amazing upclose-I hope you can see one someday. Finding new species is super cool and thrilling. The carnivorous plant is awesome and what is incredible is that it is the size of a quarter. Diablo’s Island sounds scary, but it is a magical place like no other. I am not sure of the meaning of the name, but now I want to find out, too! I hope you can make it to Patagonia someday to see all the wonders of this land. Thanks again!

  • Stephanie Lindsay

    Beautiful photos and video, and another descriptive story that brings to life these rare insects and the untamed environment around them.

  • Mariela Celis Terrazas

    Isai, again your story it’s so well written that I almost can see the insects that you are discovering. Your narration is so good that when I’m reading it seems like I can even feel the wind in the Island. Your photos are stunning, Congratulations. 🐍 did you take a photo of the frogs?

  • Brittany Clark

    Congratulations on the Trichoceridae find! Beautiful image of the wetland, I’ve heard rumors that the Ministry of the Environment in Chile is planning on integrating wetland monitoring research into their wetland inventories – if they haven’t already. Data on historical changes between wetland quantity and ‘quality’ are sorely needed. Safe travels!

  • Ulysses Diaz

    What an incredible expedition. You captured a powerful description of a world within world’s. Love being able to read about your experiences through your lenses and those of insects. Safe travels and much success locating the mysteries of the Patagonia.

  • Nicole

    I love the setting of this story! The pictures help emphasize the amazing details you tell! I could only imagine how it looks in person. The carnivorous plant and the bones that you found were one of my favorite parts! I can’t wait to hear more about the insects you continue to look for in such magical places! Do you know if the glaciers melting is normal for the time of year or has climate change influenced this?:)

    • Isaí Madriz

      Hi Nicole,

      Thank you for writing. During summers there is always a healthy flow of glacial melts, but down here (just as in the rest of the world) the glaciers are melting at an accelerated rate. You can see the changes from year to year with your own eyes! This will have significant impact in the biodiversity of the area, as most (if not all) of the waterways in this region, are linked to glaciers. There is very little information about most of the biodiversity in this region and time is running out to learn from these wonderful creatures.

  • Dave

    Your drone footage of the leopard seal on the ice is incredible – can you post more? The imagery of the glacier pouring into the ocean is powerful and impressive.

    • Isaí Madriz

      Hi Dave,

      Thanks for your comment. The following is a link to another shot of the Leopard Seal. I hope you like it.

  • Nelly Venecia

    Dr. Isai Madriz, your rich language and details of the expedition take my imagination to this remote place. It transports me to nature and captivates my senses. I feel cold, I feel motionless, I feel surrounded by beauty… I feel that I am experiencing in real life these experiences. Your stories are captivating, interesting and powerful. You description of a difficult subjet is transformed into a tale of the inmense power of nature.

  • Alex Mykris

    Another great post Isai! The image of the sun dew plant is gorgeous, do you ever find evidence of insects you’re looking for around carnivorous plants like that?

    • Isaí Madriz

      Thank you for your comment Alex. There are a few specialist flies that inhabit carnivorous plants in other parts of the world, although I have yet to find evidence of an insect in this region that utilizes carnivorous plants to its advantage. What I did find though, were the remains of interesting insects trapped on this plant’s secretions.

  • Jessica Tolerba

    Another wonderfully written piece. Thank you! It shows students how writing can be beautiful and descriptive as well as scientific. I hope you find that insect again. Your journey is amazing! You and Kristina are doing good work. Thanks for sharing!

  • Rob

    Excellent account of your travels! Beauty pictures too!!

  • Juan J. Magana

    Good read, Isai! Saludos!

  • Mariana

    My name is Stefen, I am 7 years old and I think you have the coolest job!
    I want to go on cool adventures like you!
    I like the big whale skeletons you found.

    • Isaí Madriz

      Hi Stephen,

      You can go on great adventures and find cool stuff too. If you go out looking for insects you will be amazed at what you can find in your own backyard!
      Keep being an adventurer at heart and maybe one day I will be the one reading your stories in this blog!

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