Diving in a world of marble

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Photo: Sergio MassaroPhoto: Sergio Massaro 

 
By Marcos Ponce
 
Over the years, the “Catedrales de Mármol” (Marble Cathedrals in English) of Lake General Carrera have been transformed into a must stop for those who travel on the Carretera Austral, or southern highway. Whether in motorboats, kayaks or stand-up paddles, there are plenty of tourist postcards of various nationalities of these these strange formations that emerge from the electric and flashing waters of the second-largest lake in South America.
 
But our idea was to change the perspective, and with that in mind we traveled almost 800 kilometers from Esquel, in the Chubut province of Argentina, to dive amid the recesses, cavities and marble tunnels that are just minutes away from Puerto Rio Tranquilo, in the Aysen region of Chilean Patagonia.
 
From the beginning it was like entering a completely unknown world: the information about diving there was practically non-existent. Locals told us they only remember that once a group of divers was hired to provided security services in the waters of the lake for the taping of a commercial of a well-known energy drink. That just raised our enthusiasm even more, we began to see ourselves as sort of pioneers in this endeavor.
 
From our warm, wooden cabin on the banks of Lake General Carrera we let our imagination flow freely as observed the lake in the distance, trying to plan for what we would find the next day in these waters of remarkable clarity, offering a visibility of no less than 20 meters. We already had the authorization of local authorities and we had hired the boat that would take us to the marble cathedrals the next day, so we waited, impatiently, like children, as the hours passed by, with the waters stirring and shining in the horizon.
 
 
Photo: Sergio MassaroPhoto: Sergio Massaro
 
 
Photo: Sergio MassaroPhoto: Sergio Massaro
 

Under the water
A radiant and warm sun woke us up anticipating an excellent day of immersion, with very good light. As we first approached the islets that make up these famous marble cathedrals, the scenery inspired us and soon our view began to get lost in the depths of the lake in search of the beginning of the white marble that emerges, sculpted by the elements, toward the surface. The formation of these caverns is a post-glacial phenomenon, generated by the differential dissolution of marble. However, this patiently carved rock has a long history that dates back to the Upper Paleozoic.
 
Moving from the surface to the weightless aquatic world gave us many surprises, with a landscape seldom seen in our dives in other lakes or the open sea. We reached a maximum depth of 18 meters, where the lake was already beginning to present characteristics of the southern lakes of Patagonia and the marble formations became more and more sporadic. The most spectacular areas were always around 3 to 6 meters deep.
 
Although this place is called the “Marble Cathedrals,” the fact is that the locals differentiate them according to their size as the cathedral, the chapel and the caves. The wind, water and temperatures have acted as artisans over time to mold the limestone rock and mineral formations at will. Underwater it is possible to find textures with small crevices that give the surface a rugged character, as well as areas where the smoothness of the marble is comparable to anything produced by the very best of polishing machines.
 
 
Photo: Sergio MassaroPhoto: Sergio Massaro
 
 
Photo: Sergio MassaroPhoto: Sergio Massaro
 
 
Photo: Sergio MassaroPhoto: Sergio Massaro
 
 
A paradise for lovers of the evolution of the Earth, the marble, with its various shades of white, dominates the scene, almost without counterweight, at times acquiring darker coloration and showing sheets of embedded rock.
 
Given the texture of the material, in such an environment the aquatic vegetation is scarce, only when reaching 15 or 18 meters of depth do we find the usual characteristics of Patagonian lakes that we are accustomed to viewing. From these depths, we begin to notice the presence of silt and other types of rock, and also some species of lake plants.
 
On the second day, and having calmed our initial anxiety, we continued our aquatic exploration in other sectors. The diving was just as pleasurable, reaching a maximum depth of 15 meters. The marble was like a splendid ivory shining in its own light, continuing to attract us like a magnet. We left feeling that this magnificent place had so much more to offer us; under the water and the limestone islets is a hidden world still waiting to be discovered.