Exploring submarine forests in Patagonia’s fjords

Vreni Häussermann

Discovering new species, never described to science, is just one aspect of the case the intrepid marine biologist Vreni Häussermann puts for the protection of the wild waters of the Patagonian fjords.

Facing down storm, technical failure, isolation, discomfort and danger, Vreni Häussermann – a scientific explorer in the classic tradition – is unveiling a hidden world in one of the Earth’s remotest regions: the dark, chill waters of southern Patagonia.

Eerie submarine forests, unexpected coral reefs and strange gorgonian meadows abound in the depths of the Patagonian fjords, where daylight fades into inky blackness, and which are slowly surrendering their marvels to the 2016 Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate.

For almost a quarter of a century, Häussermann has dived, collected, classified and fought to protect the denizens of the southern deep. In the process, she has unveiled entire new ecosystems as well as species.

For all its formidable landscapes, violent weather and icy waters, Patagonia – edging the southern tip of the South American continent – is proving to be an astonishing hotspot of life on Earth. It is also vast. “The area of Chilean Patagonia actually is really huge. If you measure the coastline, it’s more than 100,000 kilometres long. This is more than going twice around the Earth. So we cannot really cover the whole region in our lifetime,” the German/Chilean biologist explains.

Over the first 20 years of her exploration, Häussermann was confined to the top 30 metres of water accessible to a scuba diver. The Rolex Award enabled her to use a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) to extend her search to depths of 500 metres, possibly even 1,000 metres. With this she has pursued her discoveries into new realms. The yield has been spectacular video, images and books depicting the vividly coloured weird creatures of these cold, dark waters. These underpin her campaign for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to conserve its wonders.

She estimates that some 70 new species have so far been identified, with 100 to 200 more currently undergoing the process of scientific study and classification. Three new anemones have been named after her husband and children. The new species, including deepwater corals and sea anemones, are presented in her book, Marine Benthic Fauna of Chilean Patagonia: an Illustrated Identification Guide.

“For me, Chilean Patagonia is the most beautiful place on Earth when you go diving there and see this beauty and these colours,” Häussermann says.

Yet, even here, on one of the planet’s last wild frontiers, the tread of human activity falls heavily. Fishing, fish farming, pollution, deoxygenation and global warming are wreaking a slow havoc. “Just in 10 years, there was up to 75 per cent decrease in abundance in several of the dominating species,” she points out. “We want to make [the world] aware of what’s going on, what changes are happening through human impacts.”

The moment we start changing something and taking something out, we alter the equilibrium – so it’s really important to understand the consequences of what we’re doing.Vreni Häussermann

“The moment we start changing something and taking something out, we alter the equilibrium – so it’s really important to understand the consequences of what we’re doing. We can only understand the consequences if we understand the ecosystem – and the ecosystem is a compound of many, many species.”

Häussermann began by concentrating on the collection and identification of the Patagonia fjords’s life forms. Gradually, this grew into mapping whole new ecosystems and identifying key pristine areas as scientific references where the effects of human activity can be measured.

“We have found 11 invertebrate species that form different habitats in Patagonia,” she recalls. “These are called marine animal forests because they’re similar to a terrestrial forest. The forest is a three-dimensional structure that some animals create, and other animals can live in, go between, feed on and find protection in. Each of these marine animal forests is effectively a new ecosystem and this is, for example, a coral reef but it can also be a gorgonian meadow.”

The very idea that coral reefs exist in freezing waters and near-darkness overturns popular understanding of marine biology and opens fresh insights into the durability of corals and their ability to survive impacts such as climate change.

Chilean Patagonia is a biodiversity hotspot and definitely needs protection.Vreni Häussermann

To guard these ecosystems into the future, Häussermann has campaigned for almost 20 years to create a network of at least 25 Marine Protected Areas in the Patagonian fjords. Currently, 10 MPAs of different sizes exist of which only two are highly protected and most allow salmon farming.

Häussermann says that models using oceanographic data and the distribution of known species make it possible to decide where to place MPAs. “We show this data, photos and video footage to other scientists, to the general public and to decision makers so they start to understand that Chilean Patagonia is a biodiversity hotspot and definitely needs protection.”

With a recent decline in salmon farming in the fjords and the support of local communities, she is once more hopeful that the Chilean government will agree.

In such ways, Häussermann’s work is part of the Rolex Perpetual Planet Initiative, exploring the Earth’s last wild places, revealing their unseen marvels and striving to safeguard them for the benefit of future generations.

PUBLISHED IN 2016

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