Search on

Climate solutions

What lies beneath

Vreni Häussermann has made it her mission to catalogue and conserve the extraordinary wildlife found in Chile’s deep fjords.

This article reports on the impact of Rolex’s Perpetual Planet initiative, which supports outstanding individuals and organizations that are implementing novel solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. The initiative includes the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, a program that for over four decades has recognized changemakers from around the world, including Vreni Häussermann, who is featured in this story.
Published in April 2021Time to read: 4min 9s

You would never know from peering at the frigid, murky water from the surface, but the fjords of Chilean Patagonia are teeming with life. Carved from the land by ancient glaciers, the deep ocean inlets are home to the type of vibrant and diverse natural wonders most often found in the tropics – spiky neon-orange sea anemones, blood-red corals and crabs the size of human hands. It’s an unexpected bounty that has been documented thanks in large part to the perseverance of a marine biologist named Vreni Häussermann. A faculty member at the University of San Sebastian and the former director of the Huinay Scientific Field Station, the German-Chilean scientist has spent countless days diving in the fjords looking for species. Yet in all that time, one discovery still stands out: the day she first came upon Patagonia itself.

It was the 1990s and Häussermann was still a student. While studying marine biology in a graduate program in Munich, she traveled with her boyfriend (now husband) to Chile. The young couple had come up with a creative way to fulfill their thesis requirements – embarking together on a six-month field research study. With little more than scuba equipment and camping gear packed into a sedan, the duo set off to explore the Chilean coastline. Every 200 kilometers or so, they’d stop to plunge into the sea to check out the marine wildlife. Eventually they made it to Patagonia.

“We fell in love with the region at once. It was so obvious that there are so many more species, so much more color,” Häussermann said. “There was so little known about the marine life in the fjords of Patagonia. We were so excited, and we decided that’s the place where we want to work.”

A few years later in 2003, the marine biologist made good on that dream, returning in an official research capacity. Since then, Häussermann has been guided by a fundamental pursuit: to better understand marine organisms in this remote region of the world, and protect them from the consequences of human activity. These efforts were amplified in 2016, when she was honored as a Laureate of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, which are designed to support pioneering individuals who are working to find solutions to major environmental challenges. The award has enabled Häussermann, to double down on her decades-long commitment to preserve a pristine biodiversity hotspot.

How to protect Patagonia

Häussermann is something of a hoarder. Over the years, she and her team have collected tens of thousands of specimens during dives. In all, they’ve identified more than one hundred new species. She admits that she has scores of creatures in jars still awaiting classification, culled from regions so uncharted that any available maps tend to be highly unreliable. “There’s so much diversity,” Häussermann noted. “What you find in the different parts of Patagonia can be quite distinct.”
Yet in discovering this biological bounty, Häussermann has been motivated to direct some of her efforts towards conservation. Even though the area appears relatively untouched by humans, the impact of people is evident. Climate change is a significant concern. She notes that red tides – toxic algae blooms that are becoming more frequent and severe due to global warming – have been a problem in the region. In one devastating incident, hundreds of whales were killed by the deadly toxins accumulated in microalgae. “In the last 20 to 30 years, red tides have become stronger and stronger,” Häussermann said. “It’s clearly one of the problems that we are facing that is manmade.”

Human enterprise is another stress on the area’s natural habitats. One particular problem is salmon farming, which introduces an unnatural amount of fertilizer, fish feces and other contaminants into the water. These foreign substances reduce the survival of some sea life, like corals or certain crabs, while allowing other elements to flourish, disrupting the natural balance of the local ecosystem. A large salmon farm can produce as much wastewater as a city of 50,000 people,” she said. “Then a number of these farms can feed into a single fjord. It’s like having a huge city put its wastewater in the fjord without any cleaning.”

Häussermann has been working to address these challenges in a number of ways. She has attempted to raise awareness about the consequences of climate change in the region, and her team’s research has been used to identify the best places to designate as marine protected areas. She has also begun engaging directly with local communities on the issue of salmon farming. Her message is echoed by many indigenous groups. “There’s significant indigenous opposition to salmon farming and it’s growing,” said Häussermann. “I think that’s good because the indigenous have a lot of power – more power than if just a scientist says that this is damaging.”

Portrait of an environmental pioneer

Meet the conservationist helping to protect the marine life of Chilean Patagonia.

Using robots to reach the ocean deep

In 2016, Häussermann was named a Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate, giving a boost to her already significant scientific endeavors. By that time, the marine biologist and her team had conducted research in much of Patagonia. Yet there was one part of the region that remained unexplored: the deepest reaches of its fjords. “As scientists, we usually only dive down to 30 meters, yet fjords are really deep – the deepest is around 1,300 meters,” Häussermann said. “It was obvious that SCUBA diving is just scratching the surface.”

With Rolex’s support, she acquired a remote-operated underwater vehicle, equipped with a camera and a manipulator arm for collecting samples. The vehicle can travel much deeper than humans, helping the team understand new habitats.

Yet the impact of the award is about more than just research support. “What’s really important from the Rolex project is help with raising awareness,” said Häussermann. “It’s key that people read about it, see pictures, get information, because that is the first way to understand that there’s something to protect.”

She believes that if people can bear witness to the incredible biodiversity of the remote region, they’ll fall in love it, just like she did decades ago. It’s that connection – even if it happens from afar – that will inspire individuals to take action.

“If nobody knows about it, nobody is protecting it,” she said. “We have to make dramatic changes to save the planet for future generations.”

These stories highlight Rolex's commitment to support research on environmental issues and join forces with individuals and organizations aiming to find solutions to protect the environment. This content was produced independently from The Washington Post Newsroom.

Partnership Series

Climate solutions