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Satellite image of the Strait of Magellan.

Strait of Magellan, in Tierra del Fuego

The Strait of Magellan (also called the Straits of Magellan or the Magellanic Strait) comprises a navigable sea route immediately south of mainland South America and north of Tierra del Fuego . The waterway is the most important natural passage between the Pacific and the Atlanticmarker oceans, but it is considered a difficult route to navigate because of the unpredictable winds and currents and the narrowness of the passage.


Ferdinand Magellan (the original name, in Portuguese, Fernão de Magalhães), a Portuguese sailor in service to the Spanish King, became the first European to navigate the strait in 1520, during his global circumnavigation voyage. Because Magellan's ships entered it on November 1, All Saints' Day, it was originally named Estrecho de Todos los Santos (Strait of All Saints). Later the Spanish king changed the name to Estrecho de Magallanes in honor of Magellan. Since its discovery the Spanish Empire and the Kingdom of Chile saw it as its southern boundary. The first Spanish colonization attempt was led by Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa who founded Nombre de Jesús and Rey Don Felipemarker on its northern shores. The cities suffered severe food shortages, and years afterwards in 1587 the English navigator Sir Thomas Cavendish landed at the site of Rey Don Felipe and found only ruins of the settlement. He renamed the place Port Faminemarker. Other early explorers included Francis Drake. The strait was first carefully explored and thoroughly charted by Phillip Parker King, who commanded the British survey vessel HMS Adventure, and in company with HMS Beagle, spent five years surveying the complex coasts around the strait. The result was presented at a meeting of the Royal Geographical Societymarker in 1831.

Incorporation into Chile

Chilemarker took possession of the channel on May 23, 1843. Chilean president Bulnes ordered the expedition after speaking with the Chilean libertador Bernardo O'Higgins who feared an occupation by Great Britain or France. The first Chilean settlement was Fuerte Bulnesmarker situated in a forested zone on the north side of the strait. Fuerte Bulnes was later abandoned and the city of Punta Arenasmarker was founded in 1848 further north where the Magellanic forest met the Patagonian plains. In front of Punta Arenas, on the other shore of the strait in Tierra del Fuegomarker the village of Porvenirmarker emerged during a gold rush in the late 1800s.

Until the Panama Canalmarker opened in 1914, the Strait of Magellan was the main route for steam ships traveling from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. It was often considered the only safe way to move between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, as the Drake Passagemarker, separating Cape Hornmarker (the southern tip of South America) from Antarctica, is notoriously turbulent, unpredictable, and frequented by icebergs and sea ice. In the Strait, protected by Tierra del Fuegomarker to the south and the bulk of South America to the north, ships crossed with relative ease. Nonetheless, in part because of strong winds and currents in the Strait, sailing ships such as the clippers generally preferred the Drake Passage, as they had more room to maneuver.


The strait is approximately 570 km long and about 2 km wide at its narrowest point (Carlos III Island, west of Cape Frowardmarker). The northwestern portion of the strait is connected with other sheltered waterways via the Smyth Channel. This area is similar to the Inside Passage of Alaska. Southward from Cape Froward, the principal shipping route follows the Magdalena Channel.

The eastern opening is a wide bay on the border of Chilemarker and Argentinamarker between Punta Dúngenessmarker on the mainland and Cabo del Espíritu Santo on Tierra del Fuego, the border defined in the Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1984 between Chile and Argentina. Immediately west are located Primera Angostura and Segunda Angostura, narrows formed by two terminal moraines of different ages. The Primera Angostura is the closest approach of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego to the mainland of South America. Here also lies Magdalena Islandmarker, part of Los Pingüinos Natural Monumentmarker. The strait's southern boundary here follows first the shoreline of the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, then the northern end of the Canal Whiteside and the shoreline of Dawson Islandmarker.

The western part of the strait stretches northwest from the northern end of Magdalena Channel to the strait's Pacific entrance. This portion of the strait is flanked on the south by Capitán Aracena Islandmarker, Clarence Island, Santa Inés Islandmarker, Desolación Islandmarker and other smaller islands, and on the north by Brunswick Peninsula, Riesco Islandmarker, Muñoz Gamero Peninsula and other minor islands. Two narrow channels connect the strait with Seno Otway and Seno Skyring. Francisco Coloane Coastal and Marine Protected Area, a sanctuary for Humpback Whales, is located in this area. This part of the strait lies on the elongated Magallanes-Fagnano Fault, which marks a plate boundary between the South American Plate and the Scotia Plate. This fault continues southward under the Almirantazgo Fjord and then below the Fagnano Lakemarker.

Navigation status

Article 35 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea states that "Nothing in this Part affects: …(c) the legal regime in straits in which passage is regulated in whole or in part by long-standing international conventions in force specifically relating to such straits". Article V of the 1881 Boundary Treaty established a legal regime for the Strait of Magellan, and in a diplomatic letter to major shipping nations in 1873 Chile had already promised freedom of navigation through and neutralization in the strait.

See also


  1. The Straits of Magellan and Oceanographical Setting Chile
  2. See Michael A. Morris, "The Strait of Magellan",Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1988, ISBN 0-7923-0181-1, page 68 and 104
  3. See also Chilean note to the UN Law of Sea], Declaración formulada al momento de la ratificación. page 9.


image:Strait_of_magellan_dawn.jpg|The Strait of Magellan at dawnimage:Strait_of_magellan_decline.jpg|The Strait of Magellan at sunsetimage:Strait_of_Magellan.jpeg|A map of the Strait of Magellanimage:StraitOfMagellan.jpg|A true-color Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) satellite image, the entire Strait is visibleImage:Baselines chile.png|Chilean Basislines in the Strait of Magellan according to decree 416 14 June 1977

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