Expedition to Tierra Del Fuego’s Admiralty Sound

From: Alejandro Vila, Marcela Uhart and Daniela Droguett

Black Browed Albatross: Daniela Droguett © Wildlife Conservation Society

Just back from another exhilarating experience at the tip of the world, we are all struggling with “land sickness” while we adjust to a non-moving environment. We are also slowly adapting to city life, which has now replaced our daily views of breathtaking mountains, ancient glaciers, and splendid waterfalls. And we begin to miss our every day companions, the lazy moulting elephant seals, the majestic albatross, the frenzied Magellanic penguins and of course, the eternally roaring winds.

Admiralty Sound: Carlos Silva-Quintas © Wildlife Conservation Society

While we are sad it is over, our recent trip to Admiralty Sound, on the verge of the remote lands of Karukinka, has been very productive. We successfully deployed satellite transmitters on two handsome subadult elephant seal males, one of which we’ve named after our inspiring leader and soon to retire CEO, Dr. Steven Sanderson. We expect that over the next year, elephant seal “Steve” will take us to yet unexplored locations in the southern Chilean fjords, navigating intricate marine labyrinths, highlighting areas critical for the conservation of his species.

"Steve" the Elephant Seal and Crew: Keri-Lee Pashuk

In addition, this year we’ve also confronted severe logistical challenges and managed to equip eight breeding adult black browed albatross with small adapted GPS units. These instruments are normally used to track runners on cross-country races, and are extremely cheap when compared to the more sophisticated tags normally used to study wildlife. We are overjoyed that our daring pilot attempt went extremely well, having recovered seven of these tags (each of which required bold zodiac rides to and off the rocky albatross island). This has allowed us, for the first time ever, to peak into the lives of the Almirantazgo albatross as they tend to their young chicks. While the maps produced with their single-foraging trip locations are just an introduction to the mysteries of their existence in this unusual land-locked colony, they once again confirm the richness and significance of this area for endangered marine species.

Fitting a Black Browed Albatross with a GPS Unit: Carlos Silva-Quintas

Finally, the special bonus of the trip was re-sighting five adult leopard seals, which continue to seem unrealistically out of place as they take long naps on floating icebergs broken off the Parry Sound’s glaciers so far from their expected home in ice-covered Antarctica.

Elephant Seal: Alejandro Vila © Wildlife Conservation Society

Yes, it is true that our return trip home was somewhat complicated by the tough weather so typical of the southern seas. But just as the legend says for those who eat the fruit of the calafate, only a few hours off the boat make us long to be back on board again, sailing towards the wonders of this little visited and isolated marvel that has once again blissfully shared its wonders with us.

Obviously, gigantic efforts as those described above can’t be undertaken without a true synergistic and collaborative approach. Headed by WCS Chile, other WCS Programs and local stakeholders have once again joined forces to take our Patagonia Sea vision way beyond Karukinka’s coasts. Repeatedly, we are deeply indebted to Claudio Campagna for providing the elephant seal satellite tags and for sharing his contacts at UC Santa Cruz to ensure timely downloading of the tracking data, and to Valeria Falabella for developing albatross maps in real time as we recovered the GPS transmitters and struggled with on-board VHF email to send her the data files. We are also particularly thankful to our local partners Javier Arata (Chilean Antarctic Service – INACh) and Ricardo Matus for their support in deploying and recovering the GPS transmitters, and Graham Robertson (Australian Antarctic Division) for generously providing these instruments.

The authors are with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Chile Program.  They recently returned from an expedition to Admiralty Sound where WCS is looking to establish a marine protected area.

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