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A life working for Patagonian biodiversity

For more than 20 years, the marine biologist has been carrying out her unique work of detecting and preserving new species of coral in the fjords of Chile.

By Françoise Blind Kempinski
Published in January 2021Time to read: 2min 58s

If she had to do it again, Vreni Häussermann would not change a thing. Based in Chile for over 20 years, the scientist remains true to the two loves of her life: first, her husband, a biologist like her, whom she met at university in Germany – their home country – and second, Patagonia. “My husband and I spent a year studying in Chile in 1994-1995 and after diving at Concepción, we decided to explore the whole coast and return for a six-month expedition, from Arica to Punta Arenas, for our degree theses. Once there, we discovered Patagonia for the first time and fell in love with it straight away: it was the most fascinating and at the same time the least known region in Chile…”

Which did not stop Häussermann from completing her PhD in Zoology in 2004 at Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilian-Universität. But from 1997 onwards, Patagonia became the common thread of the couple's life. They were excited by the fjords of the southern region: spaces still largely pristine at that time, whose extraordinary and specific biodiversity they could sense. An endless field of exploration for new scientific discoveries opened up to them. But to succeed in this environment, one must have a taste for extreme weather conditions in which humidity competes with the cold, and not be put off by the prospect of diving in water ranging from 6-12 degrees depending on the season. Günter Försterra and Vreni Häussermann would focus their research on invertebrates and, in particular, the sumptuous cold-sea corals that had previously been growing in complete secrecy – an ambitious and unique project in Patagonia. “This work is necessary to help conserve species,” the researcher says modestly.

This work is necessary to help conserve species.Vreni Häussermann

From the scientific station of Fundación Huinay, not easily accessible (two hours by boat from the village of Hornopiren, Ancud), of which she was appointed the director in 2003, Häussermann and her husband have organised nearly 50 expeditions. “Our goal is to bring back images and photos to show the marine life to people, and samples to identify the many unknown species! In the sponge and gorgonian groups, two-thirds of the species we have collected are new to science,” the biologist explains. To date, their work has made it possible to identify and describe about 100 new species. Their favourites, two kinds of coral and three anemones, have even inherited the family name Gunther, as well as Fiona and Fabian, after the couple’s two children aged 11 and 13.

Between 100 and 200 other species are awaiting description. But “all are important,” Häussermann says, “because in an ecosystem, each species contributes to the overall balance.” Until 2016, Häussermann was restricted by her ability to dive to a maximum depth of 30 metres. Thanks to the Rolex Award, which she won that year, she was able to acquire a submersible robot. Remotely controlled, it has cameras and lights making it able to capture images up to 500 metres away and also to take physical samples.

Half of the coral in the fjords is dead

Because, to finance the expeditions and support her projects, the scientist needs to find funds. Some of these funds are private – such as Rolex – and others public, such as the CONICYT (Comisión Nacional de Investigación Científica y Tecnológica) – the Chilean equivalent of France’s National Centre for Scientific Research – and the ANID (Agencia Nacional de Investigación y Desarrollo), the national research and development agency in Chile. For 18 years, Häussermann’s work has ensured the reputation of the Huinay station, owned by the San Ignacio del Huinay Foundation and funded by the Italian power firm Enel under the scientific sponsorship of the Universidad Católica de Valparaíso. At a rate of three to four months spent each year in the heart of the fjords, their discoveries have been prolific and, in addition to scientific publications, the couple has also published books and documentaries aimed at raising awareness. “If people do not understand the beauty, uniqueness and fragility of Patagonia’s marine life, they will not be concerned about its protection and governments will not be motivated to act,” Häussermann insists.

But, as is the case everywhere, the situation is now very urgent. “For example, we observed dramatic changes in the Comau Fjord between 2003 and 2013, with a 75% decline in the abundance of many common species, and the death of corals along about 15 km of coastline in April 2012. And today, half of the coral in the fjords has died due to the decline in oxygen levels in the sea,” Häussermann says. Who is to blame for such a loss? Of course, the focus is on industrial salmon farms, which have mushroomed in the region and produce large amounts of discharges, including pesticides and antibiotics in particular. These concessions were granted for life for next to nothing 20 years ago, but since then they have been the focus of intense speculation and have experienced exponential growth. Owned in part by Chilean companies and in part by Norwegian and Canadian companies, these firms have no environmental or social scruples. “Industry is the first priority in Chile”, the scientist notes soberly. However, the salmon trade accounts for nearly 5% of the country’s total export volume and generates some US$2.5 billion annually.

It could drive you crazy to observe this continual destruction.Vreni Häussermann

The scientist, whose profession requires her to draw conclusions from well-documented data, notes nonetheless that, “in the absence of non-impacted reference areas, it is difficult to apportion blame between industrial discharges, the effects of global warming, the diffusion of wastewater, maritime traffic and the consequences of fishing.” “It could drive you crazy to observe this continual destruction,” Häussermann acknowledges. But this bad news does not undermine her desire to contribute, at her level, to improving things. That is why she is currently working on seven projects simultaneously. And, she adds, “there are also positive signs, such as the development of eco-tourism in the fjords region, which allows people to discover primaeval forests more than 4,000 years old, lakes, mountains and hot springs, and observe sea lions, dolphins, and more.” Vreni Häussermann has just taken up a teaching position at San Sebastian University in Puerto Montt, where she will teach young eco-tourism students about the marine life of Chilean Patagonia, the threats it faces, and its need for protection.

Mass stranding of whales

Among her other projects, the study of whales with the Blue Marine Foundation will consist of analysing their life and reproduction patterns, collecting samples of their DNA, and analysing the characteristics of the water. These two six-week expeditions will provide a better understanding of the mass strandings in this remote area. In 2015, the researcher and her team discovered 337 whale corpses. Under Häussermann’s direction, PhD and master's students in biology will undertake this work.

Of course, the scientist has not forgotten her studies of cold-water invertebrates – with unlimited prospects for discovery now possible thanks to the Rov robot. The next expedition for the Rolex project will document marine life around Guafo Island and the Gulf of Corcovado, as well as the larval ecology of coral in the Comau Fjord. But, Vreni Häussermann is stubbornly pursuing her main goal: to have the Comau Fjord and other areas classified as protected areas to save the cold-water coral reefs. She is now going to elicit the support of local residents for this purpose. The biologist has now worked tirelessly for over 15 years to convince the Chilean government to create at least 25 real sanctuaries in Patagonia. Today, the region has 10 marine protected areas on paper, but only 2 of them are in fact properly protected – since the others allow aquaculture! Similarly, while 45% of the ocean in Chile is said to be protected, this only represents open-water areas, excluding coastal areas where the major sources of pollution lie. But there are signs of hope. A Ministry of the Environment was established about five years ago, reflecting a change in attitudes in the country.

“Every five minutes, a species disappears,” Häussermann decries, “and each time this increases the instability of the world. The pandemic that we are experiencing is the first truly tangible sign of this destabilisation.” Chilean at heart and now also in nationality, the biologist and her husband are driven by their deep attachment to Patagonia and can envisage no other future than continuing their work to protect the marine treasures of this part of Chile. At 51 years old, Vreni Häussermann is far from having completed her mission, which she carries out with unwavering determination and patience.

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