by Nathalie Cabrol
More underwater exploration of the lake today. Gordon and I leave from “Launch Point” and head towards the southwest shore. At the beginning, the landscape is very similar to that explored in previous days. We see long macrophytes grouped in a forest that runs in a belt along the shore, and then the shelf plunges into the deep of the lake. As we are approaching “Base Camp Landing”, things suddenly change. The macrophytes become longer and denser, but also more fishes are present. Generally, the water is deeper close to the beach. I spend some time passing through the algae. It is floating with the current. The wind has picked up on the surface and the algae seem to be dancing in a well-choreographed ballet. Many are covered with sediment but when exposed, they range from a bright to a dark green. They offer a strong contrast with the dark blue of the depth. I make my way through them, pushing them aside as I advance. Gordon is not too far. I take advantage of him fixing his camera on the shore for an instant to wander in a deeper part of the lake. This time, I do not have the same feeling of being lost in the twilight zone. I can still see huge granite boulders at the bottom. Time to head back towards Gordon, and I do well. I surface and he is looking for me. We proceed.
The shore is turning south again. To my amazement, I see a channel, not a natural channel, a man-made one. The rocks that were used to build it are now covered in algae but it is obviously artificial. It was part of the pipe system to release the waters of Laguna Negra into those of Lo Encañado during overspill times. That has not happened for a long time. We enter the channel. It is maybe 5-10 m wide. It is hard to say from our perspective. It is deep, probably 10 m, and quite long (50 m?). We proceed with caution. The center is filled with very long and dense macrophytes. Algae are also growing from the side. The last thing I want is to get my fins entangled while I am free diving. So, extra caution…
I opt to swim on the left side of the channel, which is clear of natural obstacles. And this is when I see it. Huge… Since we have been here, we only have observed trout of moderate size. The fish that just popped up in front of me, maybe two meters below me, is enormous. It is not a trout. It is about 50 cm long but the width of its back is what strikes me most. It has a very thick back. This fish could easily weigh 10 kilos. It is dark to dark blue, with some lighter patterns on its back, possibly including light pink. It is not a salmon either, its head is round. He is keeping an eye on me. He looks as astonished by my presence as I am by his. Strange encounter in a very foreign environment. I hand-signal the position of the fish to Gordon who joins me on the left side. The arrival of another strange creature in a yellow dry suit is too much for the fish, which disappears among the algae. Gordon does not have time to capture it with the camera.
We advance in this long channel. A wall of macrophytes now makes an impassable obstacle. I surface to get an idea of the extent of the obstacle. It goes to the end of the channel, about 15 meters away. We will have to stop here. Interestingly enough, there is also a small tunnel down below us. That’s probably part of the piping. I bet this is where the big fish hides. That would make a terrific habitat. Since I am just free diving, I will not go down there to check it out. Besides, I am starting to feel the cold that surrounds me. We have been in the water about one hour and half now. Time to retreat.
We go back down the same way we came. The color of the water fades from sky blue to deep blue depending on depth. This channel is amazing. It is very much like walking in a hallway. I am not clear as to why the dense forest of macrophytes grows only in the center.
Cold. I am moving forward. What was just a feeling a few moments ago has turned into a distraction and is now a deep feeling of discomfort. I need to get out. My hands are getting a bit numb. My core temperature is affected. So, I bail out as soon as we get out of the channel. That’s probably the sharpest right turn I have ever made to shore. I still need to find a good spot to land on that shelf. I am wearing a GoPro camera and I do not want to damage it against the rock. Jeff (Moersch), who arrived yesterday and loaned me the camera, would not be too happy.
I am on land now, shivering a little. Gordon surfaces soon after. We take a moment to remove masks and fins and initiate the return to camp. Well, it is only a kilometer away (…) through huge rocks that we carefully navigate in our diving boots. Actually, they are gripping pretty well. I forgot to mention that I am still wearing my lead belt. It is only 3 kg of lead, so not much of a hassle to carry around. I do not need much more in this lake. The 4-kg belt sent me by the bottom a bit too fast two days ago. Adjustments were needed.
We walk through the magnificent flowers now on white gravel. Their colors are amazing: bright purple, yellow, blue, pink. Birds and lizards everywhere…Yesterday, a fox came within 50 meters of camp. It did not look too afraid. He most likely smelled the trout Hernan was cooking. I am pretty sure I heard him the night before roaming into camp as well.
We are at camp now. Cristian unstraps my GoPro, somebody else takes the lead belt away. It seems that I have an army of ants around me. When they are done, I barely have my diving suit still on. I am still fairly cold so I go change. I will wear my down jacket for an hour to get some warmth back, which is very strange in a 20C afternoon. Finally, I will end up sleeping part of the afternoon to get back some of the energy I spent. Considering what we saw and documented today during this dive, it was well worth the trouble.