Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas – Day 144 of 165

We would soon settle this important point. The Nautilus traveled swiftly. Soon we had cleared the Antarctic Circle plus the promontory of Cape Horn. We were abreast of the tip of South America by March 31 at seven o’clock in the evening.

By then all our past sufferings were forgotten. The memory of that imprisonment under the ice faded from our minds. We had thoughts only of the future. Captain Nemo no longer appeared, neither in the lounge nor on the platform. The positions reported each day on the world map were put there by the chief officer, and they enabled me to determine the Nautilus’s exact heading. Now then, that evening it became obvious, much to my satisfaction, that we were returning north by the Atlantic route.

I shared the results of my observations with the Canadian and Conseil.

“That’s good news,” the Canadian replied, “but where’s the Nautilus going?”

“I’m unable to say, Ned.”

“After the South Pole, does our captain want to tackle the North Pole, then go back to the Pacific by the notorious Northwest Passage?”

“I wouldn’t double dare him,” Conseil replied.

“Oh well,” the Canadian said, “we’ll give him the slip long before then.”

“In any event,” Conseil added, “he’s a superman, that Captain Nemo, and we’ll never regret having known him.”

“Especially once we’ve left him,” Ned Land shot back.

The next day, April 1, when the Nautilus rose to the surface of the waves a few minutes before noon, we raised land to the west. It was Tierra del Fuego, the Land of Fire, a name given it by early navigators after they saw numerous curls of smoke rising from the natives’ huts. This Land of Fire forms a huge cluster of islands over thirty leagues long and eighty leagues wide, extending between latitude 53° and 56° south, and between longitude 67° 50′ and 77° 15′ west. Its coastline looked flat, but high mountains rose in the distance. I even thought I glimpsed Mt. Sarmiento, whose elevation is 2,070 meters above sea level: a pyramid–shaped block of shale with a very sharp summit, which, depending on whether it’s clear or veiled in vapor, “predicts fair weather or foul,” as Ned Land told me.

“A first–class barometer, my friend.”

“Yes, sir, a natural barometer that didn’t let me down when I navigated the narrows of the Strait of Magellan.”

Just then its peak appeared before us, standing out distinctly against the background of the skies. This forecast fair weather. And so it proved.

Going back under the waters, the Nautilus drew near the coast, cruising along it for only a few miles. Through the lounge windows I could see long creepers and gigantic fucus plants, bulb–bearing seaweed of which the open sea at the pole had revealed a few specimens; with their smooth, viscous filaments, they measured as much as 300 meters long; genuine cables more than an inch thick and very tough, they’re often used as mooring lines for ships. Another weed, known by the name velp and boasting four–foot leaves, was crammed into the coral concretions and carpeted the ocean floor. It served as both nest and nourishment for myriads of crustaceans and mollusks, for crabs and cuttlefish. Here seals and otters could indulge in a sumptuous meal, mixing meat from fish with vegetables from the sea, like the English with their Irish stews.

The Nautilus passed over these lush, luxuriant depths with tremendous speed. Near evening it approached the Falkland Islands, whose rugged summits I recognized the next day. The sea was of moderate depth. So not without good reason, I assumed that these two islands, plus the many islets surrounding them, used to be part of the Magellan coastline. The Falkland Islands were probably discovered by the famous navigator John Davis, who gave them the name Davis Southern Islands. Later Sir Richard Hawkins called them the Maidenland, after the Blessed Virgin. Subsequently, at the beginning of the 18th century, they were named the Malouines by fishermen from Saint–Malo in Brittany, then finally dubbed the Falklands by the English, to whom they belong today.

In these waterways our nets brought up fine samples of algae, in particular certain fucus plants whose roots were laden with the world’s best mussels. Geese and duck alighted by the dozens on the platform and soon took their places in the ship’s pantry. As for fish, I specifically observed some bony fish belonging to the goby genus, especially some gudgeon two decimeters long, sprinkled with whitish and yellow spots.

I likewise marveled at the numerous medusas, including the most beautiful of their breed, the compass jellyfish, unique to the Falkland seas. Some of these jellyfish were shaped like very smooth, semispheric parasols with russet stripes and fringes of twelve neat festoons. Others looked like upside–down baskets from which wide leaves and long red twigs were gracefully trailing. They swam with quiverings of their four leaflike arms, letting the opulent tresses of their tentacles dangle in the drift. I wanted to preserve a few specimens of these delicate zoophytes, but they were merely clouds, shadows, illusions, melting and evaporating outside their native element.

When the last tips of the Falkland Islands had disappeared below the horizon, the Nautilus submerged to a depth between twenty and twenty–five meters and went along the South American coast. Captain Nemo didn’t put in an appearance.

We didn’t leave these Patagonian waterways until April 3, sometimes cruising under the ocean, sometimes on its surface. The Nautilus passed the wide estuary formed by the mouth of the Rio de la Plata, and on April 4 we lay abreast of Uruguay, albeit fifty miles out. Keeping to its northerly heading, it followed the long windings of South America. By then we had fared 16,000 leagues since coming on board in the seas of Japan.

Near eleven o’clock in the morning, we cut the Tropic of Capricorn on the 37th meridian, passing well out from Cape Frio. Much to Ned Land’s displeasure, Captain Nemo had no liking for the neighborhood of Brazil’s populous shores, because he shot by with dizzying speed. Not even the swiftest fish or birds could keep up with us, and the natural curiosities in these seas completely eluded our observation.

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