Yet even in 2007 the authors of a survey of glaciological studies felt compelled to point out a "serious gap in the observation of South American glaciers." It's safe to say that the interior regions of most of the protected areas along the fjords of Chilean Patagonia—Bernardo O'Higgins National Park, Katalalixar National Reserve, Las Guaitecas National Reserve, Laguna San Rafael National Park—are still utterly unknown. The forests are impassable, the footing knee-deep in moss and other low plants growing on a dense weave of branches and roots. They conform all too well to the experience of one observer who said in 1904, "The general wetness of these half-submerged islands quite surpasses all ordinary experience."
Change is invading by water. A few small cruise ships from Puerto Natales now make a run to the faces of several glaciers, where they gather ice for cocktails from small bergs drifting in the shadow of ice cliffs. The Navimag ferry churns its way from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt—a four-day, one-way trip—stopping to exchange propane, produce, and a few passengers in Puerto Edén. The Chilean Navy patrols these waters. CONAF—the Chilean version of the U.S. Forest Service—has assumed responsibility for protecting as well as exploiting the region.
Over the past century the indigenous inhabitants have dwindled. The rookery of seals that early explorers found at the entrance to Eyre Fjord, where Pío XI terminates, is long gone. The whales of many species that frequented these fjords now barely make up a biological quorum. A red tide plagues the mussels that once sustained the fishing economy. The Alacaluf Indians, who once hunted and fished here, have dwindled to a handful of disconsolate souls in Puerto Edén, a place whose only Edenic quality is its distance from the rest of the world.
Distance is no protection these days. After Norway, Chile is the world's largest producer of farmed salmon, which are grown in podlike cages anchored offshore in Las Guaitecas National Reserve near the Northern Ice Field. (What is legally preserved in Guaitecas and other parks is the land, not the water.) The Norwegian companies that began salmon farming in Chile came here because the fjords were unspoiled. That is no longer the case. Like nearly every form of concentrated animal agriculture, salmon aquaculture creates an excess of waste. Here salmon farms deaden the water, creating anoxic conditions, and have led to the spread of a lethal salmon virus called infectious salmon anemia. The solution of the salmon-farming companies has simply been to move south into clean waters. Already the companies have taken out new leases on stretches of water throughout the southern fjords.