Mapping the End of the World

As a lover of all thing “map,” I’m a huge fan of the blog called Strange Maps. These cartographic curiosities, by Frank Jacobs, are super cool! Each day Frank offers up a specimen from his collection of real, fictional, and what-if maps.

Here’s an especially interesting “strange map” of Antarctica. It’s a map of the Nazi Germany exploration of Antarctica (which they were seeking to colonize). The Germans called it Neuschwabenland, which means New Swabia. Check it out:














Nazi ambitions aside, I was constantly referring the navigational charts aboard my Antarctica expedition ship. This geographic curiosity prompted me to consult Wikipedia once I returned to land to satisfy my need to know exact geographical boundaries and names. Here’s what I learned about the southern-most region of our world:

Land Masses

Patagonia: Patagonia refers to the region at the southern end of South America and is shared by both Chile and Argentina. Magellan christened the land “Patagonia” (meaning “giant”) after the Tehuelches, the area’s native people. The Tehuelches, who had an average height of 5’11, were indeed giants compared to the average Spaniard (who, at the time, stood at only 5’1’ tall).

Tierra del Fuego: Translated as “Land of Fire,” Tierra del Fuego is part of Patagonia and comprises South America’s southern archipelago. Officially, Tierra del Fuego refers to the region south of the Strait of Magellan – an area containing more than 18,500 square miles, which is also divided between Chile and Argentina. These days, the area’s native people, the Selk’nam and Yaghans, are very few in number.

Cape Horn: Cape Horn is the point at the very tip of Tierra del Fuego, on the tiny island of Hornos. In 1616, the Dutch were the first to navigate “the Horn.” Named after the city of Hoorn in the Netherlands, the Horn is the northern boundary for the Drake Passage.

Water Ways

The Straits of Magellan to the north, the Beagle Channel in the middle, and the open-ocean Drake Passage in the south comprise the 3 navigable passages around the tip of South America, connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Strait of Magellan: Named after famous Ferdinand Magellan, the first European to circumnavigate the globe in 1520, the strait divides mainland South America with Tierra del Fuego. The waterway forms a natural sea route between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Beagle Channel: The Beagle Channel is about 150 miles long and separates the main island of Tierra del Fuego, called Isla Grande, and the islands in the extreme southern tip of South America. The channel forms part of the eastern border between Chile and Argentina.

Since both the Beagle Channel and the Straits of Magellan are narrow waterways, only small ships can safely navigate them. This leaves the more treacherous Drake Passage as the only option for commercial sailing vessels.

Drake Passage: The Drake Passage, named after Sir Francis Drake, is considered the most dangerous sailing route in the world. One of the reasons it’s so hazardous is that winds are channeled between the narrow passage between the Cape and the Antarctic Peninsula creating a wind tunnel and strong waves.

Strong currents and the dreaded icebergs also make the Drake extremely difficult to navigate. In fact, lore has it that if you’ve survived sailing the Drake, you’ve earned the right to put your feet on the table. Duly noted!

Southern-Most Islands

More than just bits and pieces lying around the Southern Ocean, all these island groups have open territorial disputes, giving them strategic importance.

Falkland Islands: Known to Argentineans as Islas Malvinas, the Falklands are situated about 300+ miles off the eastern Patagonian coast. Two large islands, East and West Falkland, and 776 smaller islands, comprise the island chain.

Officially a British Overseas Territory, the two countries went to war in 1982. The conflict lasted 74 days, with 649 Argentine military deaths and 255 British military casualties. Three Falkland Islanders died during the conflict.

South Shetland Islands: Considered part of Antarctica, this island group is located about 75 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula. The islands are claimed by Britain, Chile, and Argentina, but under the Antarctic Treaty, none of the governments are actively pursuing their claims. There are 16 research stations of various nationalities dotted throughout the islands.

South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (SGSSI): Another British Oversea Territory, the SGSSI are a remote island chain in the southern Atlantic Ocean. South Georgia is the largest island of the group at 104 miles long and 23 miles wide at its thickest part. Argentina also claims sovereignty of the islands and occupied them briefly during the Falkland’s War.

Geography Nut

Whew! That was a fair bit of learning, but I think it will help situate the White Continent in your mind as we plunge down into Antarctica’s depths….or did you really just want a video of a snowball fight?

What to read more about far-away geography? Check out:


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This entry was posted on Sunday, December 9th, 2012 and is filed under South America.

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