A marine lake in Santo Domingo, the Chilean Patagonia

Even in the age of high technology, the Earth still yields up its secrets with great hazard. Rolex Laureate Vreni Häussermann is overcoming numerous obstacles to reveal the hidden life of Patagonia’s fjords.

In 2018, Vreni Häussermann and her colleagues have battled storm, maritime setbacks and robot malfunctions in her quest to reveal the wonders of unknown life in the unexplored deepwater fjords of Patagonia – and share them with the world.

In her first expedition of the year, in February, she led divers and scientists from Huinay Research Station, Chile, on an exploration of Pitipalena Fjord in Anihue, Central Patagonia. Here their underwater ROV (remotely operated vehicle – an unmanned robot submarine) made the surprising discovery of a large coral bank, thriving in the chill, dark and almost pristine waters. “We were extremely thrilled to make such a discovery in not-too-deep water. Further research is needed to discover if there are more of these wonders out there.”

Vreni Häussermann and a colleague, with their ROV

After extensive sonar, ROV and scuba investigation of the surrounding fjords, the expeditioners discovered the first marine lake in Chilean Patagonia, Santo Domingo, linked by only a narrow channel to the ocean. In its cold, crystal water, the team discovered a breathtaking wealth of spectacular and gorgeously-hued animals – sea cucumbers, jellyfish, anemones, sponges – some possibly new to science. “It is going to be exciting to see if any new species have evolved within the lake,” she says.

Ecologist and explorer Häussermann has been diving the fjords of Patagonia, describing and publishing their wonders, for more than 20 years – but for a long time her exploration was circumscribed by the 30-metre depth an unassisted human diver can reach. In 2016 her Rolex Award provided fresh funding towards the development of the ROV, which has extended the boundaries of her quest into waters as deep as 500 metres, and to sights never before beheld by human eye.

Her second expedition for 2018 was a mixture of disaster and triumph. After rough weather, the propeller on the research vessel seized, a ferry bringing members of the team collided with a rock, and the robot malfunctioned, releasing powerful electrical discharges that endangered the scientists working on deck. Then, when this problem had been fixed, its thrusters failed.

Despite these setbacks, the expedition managed to achieve three ROV dives and six SCUBA dives to obtain visual material for public outreach. “Since we think that the biggest problem right now is the lack of knowledge of the public and decision-makers about the unique and diverse marine life of Chilean Patagonia, we decided to focus on this aspect,” she explains.

Yellow, deep-water sponge, inhabited by crabs

“At one of the sites we observed several specimens of a very exciting, huge, yellow, deep-water sponge, in which crabs were living. We found these in 30-metre depths and thus only had few minutes to look at them. We made a short movie and left them for sampling when we come back in 2019.”

The area Häussermann explored in her second expedition in 2018 is still pristine, but elsewhere in remote Patagonia the impact of human activity is building – often with catastrophic consequences for the corals, whales and sea life – as fish farms multiply in the sheltered waters of the fjords and agricultural runoff from the land increases. Häussermann and her team are recording its deadly effects at the same time as they reveal and report previously undiscovered forms of life – life that may be lost almost as soon as it is found.

Time is short: “We saw a large ferry pulling salmon farm cages down south. Salmon farming has been growing exponentially in Northern Patagonia and has recently started moving southward into Central and Southern Patagonia which is a big threat for the marine life of these regions,” she says. “The ecosystems in Central Patagonia include many fragile species and we know too little about them to be able to say how much sedimentation or nutrients they can support.”

In previous trips Häussermann has observed several inexplicable mass deaths of Sei whales in the fjords and she fears that future climate changes and El Nino events may bring more.

As part of her work, she campaigns for proper Marine Protected Area status for the fjord region. However recent Chilean declarations have focussed elsewhere, and she fears the prospects for protecting this uniquely precious environment in its pristine condition are fast running out. In the Northern Patagonian fjords, most heavily impacted by agriculture and fish farms, she has already observed distressing evidence of coral and fish deaths and widening nutrient pollution. She fears the chances of achieving a major Marine Park in Northern Patagonia are diminishing.

Despite her struggles with nature, machinery and rampant development, Häussermann remains undaunted and quietly overjoyed by the new forms of life she is revealing. “My last expedition was the hardest in the 20 years I have worked in Chilean Patagonia, since so many things went wrong and we had to deal with many boat and equipment failures. If all expeditions were like this, I would probably not have done so many. But I am looking positively into the future and believe that only a certain amount of bad luck can touch me. We have learned from our difficulties and will return to the same places next year to finish what we have started.”

Learn more about Vreni Häussermann

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