Chilean Patagonia

Patagonia, revered as one of the planet’s wildest areas, faces an uncertain future. Scientist Vreni Häussermann, a 20-year veteran of the region, discusses Chilean Patagonia’s turbulent present and how a Rolex grant could help her reshape the area’s maritime future.

Words and photographs by Vreni Häussermann and Günter Försterra

“Green hell” was how Darwin described Chilean Patagonia when he reached the temperate rainforests of South America’s far southwest aboard his famed ship, the Beagle. Nowadays, in a world of vanishing primary forests and polluted rivers, Patagonia’s labyrinth of islands, channels and fjords is one of the last true wildernesses on Earth. Darwin would still be overwhelmed.  

The word Patagon, meaning ‘big foot’, was given by the Portuguese mariner Magellan for the natives of the region during an expedition in 1520. He believed them to be giants. The natives turned out to be no such thing and instead became the first (easy) victims of European colonisation. The landscape, on the other hand, is a different matter altogether – Patagonia’s nature is gigantic and, to a large extent, remains undefeated until today. 

Describing Patagonia requires superlatives. Chile’s southern inland icefield is one of the largest ice bodies outside the arctic regions; San Rafael, one of its draining glaciers, calves into the sea closer to the equator than any other glacier. Few people are aware that Chile contains the world’s largest fjord region (with respect to coastline) and has a sponge-like system of archipelagos enclosing countless channels and bays – more than 80,000km of shoreline which, stretched out, would reach twice around the globe. Much of this coastline is so remote that very few humans have ever seen it. A yearly rainfall of up to nine metres and extreme winds produce an unpredictable and extremely unstable climate, sometimes showing all four seasons in one day. Tides ranging up to 12 metres produce dangerous currents in poorly charted channels. These conditions have preserved the coastal waters of the western parts of Patagonia from major human impacts for a very long time. 

The inaccessibility and desertedness of some parts of this region were dramatically revealed in April 2015 when scientists stumbled across a mass mortality event that would have otherwise gone completely unnoticed. The carcasses of 360 sei whales were discovered by a group of scientists during an expedition to the remote Golfo de Penas. The whales had died from a massive red tide event, a phenomenon becoming ever more devastating and frequent as a result of climate change and marine pollution. 

In 2001, the Huinay Foundation opened a scientific field station on the shores of one of the Northern Patagonian Fjords. The station was tasked with studying the biodiversity of the Chilean Patagonia. Vreni Häussermann, Günter Försterra and their team were the first to dive in many of the remote fjords and channels in the region. Over the ensuing years they have unravelled fascinating truths from a largely unknown, beautiful and highly biodiverse marine environment. Although Rapoport’s Rule states that species diversity is supposed to decline towards the poles, species numbers in Patagonia’s fjords and channels are at least four times higher than along comparable sections of the coast north of the region. With reason the Chilean Patagonian sea was recently named a biodiversity hotspot and declared a ‘Hope Spot’ by the Mission Blue Foundation, an initiative created and promoted by legendary oceanographer, Sylvia Earle. 

Patagonia is home to numerous species of marine birds and mammals, many of which are endangered, and no other nation counts more whale species in its territorial waters than Chile. The fauna on the bottom of the sea is also spectacular – lush, eye-catching and colourful. Of all the species Vreni and her team found, 10% were new to science – an amazing figure given then team were focusing on the most conspicuous, most abundant and easiest to sample species. In some groups such as sponges, sea fans, sea whips and soft and hard corals up to two thirds of the collected species had not been described before. Describing new species is an arduous and time-consuming process, so ‘only’ about 100 of these new species have made it into scientific literature so far. Vreni and her team have even revealed entire new marine communities, such as special cold-water coral reefs – and all this within recreational diving limits. 

Prior to the Huinay team starting its work, it was believed the Chilean fjord region consisted of just one large marine habitat. Scientists have since identified at least 13 different biogeographic subunits with significantly different communities and species. This extensive, complex and ancient paradise is now under threat from industry. Since the mid 1980s, the high-impact aquaculture industry has grown rapidly and now produces approximately one million tonnes of salmonids every year. Annual exports of the fish in 2017 were valued at US$4.65 billion, almost 7% of Chile’s total exports. In 2018, 3,002 aquaculture concessions were registered for Chilean Patagonia, most of them concentrated in the northern fjord region. In recent years the industry has started to move southward and is now targeting previously pristine areas of Central and Southern Patagonia. This has created a gold-rush like situation with devastating consequences: trash is piling up on beaches; organic waste from the farms is changing food chains and species composition; dead zones covered with anaerobic bacteria now characterize the seabed beneath the cages. 

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This feature appears in ISSUE 3: Changing winds of Oceanographic Magazine

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