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Patagonian Fjords: Finding Corals and Surprises

Follow along as NG Grantee Rhian Waller explores the surprisingly diverse corals that dwell deep in the fjords of the southern tip of South America, and discover what they can tell us about the rest of the ocean as well We’ve been at the Huinay Scientific Field Station for 3 days and 4 nights, and...

Follow along as NG Grantee Rhian Waller explores the surprisingly diverse corals that dwell deep in the fjords of the southern tip of South America, and discover what they can tell us about the rest of the ocean as well

We’ve been at the Huinay Scientific Field Station for 3 days and 4 nights, and it’s all gone by like a whirlwind. Like all expeditions there have been high points, low points and a fair few “standby to standby” moments.

Looking out over the Comau fjord from the Huinay Scientific Field Station. Photo by Rhian Waller.

We arrived here in the evening on the 8th having driven from Puerto Montt and caught a small boat belonging to the station in Hornopiren, and immediately set to unpacking gear and getting ready for a full day of diving. It’s winter here in Chile, but so far it’s been a mild one in Huinay; last week temperatures even hiked into the 50’s. Though this area doesn’t get a lot of snow, one thing they do get (and in buckets) is rain – over 6m a year average. This trip was planned in the winter months, to take advantage of clearer winter waters, though just at the end of the wet season in the hopes of missing big downpours. But one thing you quickly learn when you plan expeditions: you can never predict the weather.

Chris looks out over the fjords, with mountains over 1000m high, dropping straight into the fjords at over 500m deep. Photo by Rhian Waller.

Our first day here saw a quick check-out dive from the station’s dock, followed by an exploratory dive at a site close to the station where corals have been reported. This is a site that lies right in the wake of a salmon farm (of which there are many in the Northern fjords region). The idea behind taking samples at this location would be to compare them to a “pristine” site that we plan to sample in a few days at Renihue Fjord, a site within the protected Pumalin Park. That way I can compare how reproduction differs between locations (and is potentially affected by the salmon farms), and oceanographic sensors we’re deploying will tell us how the environment changes over the course of a year.

Our dive site at Liliguapi. If these walls don't make you feel small, nothing will. Photo by Rhian Waller.

Unfortunately our first two dive sites (close to the station) did not have high numbers of live corals. These dives yielded both excitement and sadness for me, as it was my first time seeing the elusive coral Desmophyllum dianthus by SCUBA, even the one or two alive made me stop and stare. Yet observing walls where hundreds of corals once lived (even up until last year), yet now there are only skeletons, leaves me both saddened and perplexed at their fate.

First signs of coral life in the fjords of Chile. These Primnoella whip corals are abundant in places on the fjord walls. Photo by Rhian Waller.

This of course also puts back thoughts of collecting near the station, and so yesterday afternoon and this morning we ventured 2hrs away to an island called Liliguape. The rains were in force and along with the winds meant very cold transits by open boats to the dive site. It was almost a relief to get into the water, where the temperatures hover around 50F and the water is so calm and quiet once you reach 20ft and below. With the rain, the freshwater lens was thick, nearly touching 40ft before you got out of the dense brown layer, and creating complete darkness below. With our headlamps on we continued down to 70-80ft, where out of the darkness large boulders appeared, sticking right out of the fjord wall, with nothing but blackness to the deep-sea below.

Sea urchins sit atop coralline algae, grazing on the abundant food sources in these nutrient rich fjords. Photo by Rhian Waller.

And here they were, dense mats of corals under-hanging the boulder, all with their tentacles out – whites, oranges, reds and pinks.  Hundreds of them – on this boulder and that boulder – with stretches of pink coralline algae in between. Matching my dreams. Even with science to be done, there was time for a few moments of pure awe at these deep-sea creatures, living shallow enough for me to reach out my hand and touch their tentacles. How many years have I yearned to do that? Lets just say a long long time.

Walls of live Desmophyllum, a creature i've only ever seen alive as clumps of 3 or 4 in the deep ocean. Photo by Rhian Waller.

Why are they here, how did they get here and how do they persist here? These are now the questions on my mind. One site fully sampled and logger deployed for the year, now on with the science. Tomorrow we head to Pumalin Park, to dive in places where just a handful of people have gone before in the hopes of finding more walls of Desmophyllum.

Rhian Waller diving amongst walls of Desmophyllum, taking a moment to just observe. Photo by Chris Rigaud.


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Meet the Author

Rhian Waller
Dr. Rhian Waller is a professor of Marine Sciences at the Darling Marine Center (University of Maine, USA) and specializes in the ecology of deep-sea and cold-water organisms, particularly corals. Rhian has led or participated in over 40 international research and exploration cruises and expeditions to some of the most remote parts of the planet, and has published over 30 scientific papers and book chapters in her 9 year career. She is passionate about educating the next generation of scientists, and conserving our little known deep-sea and polar ecosystems to be studied and enjoyed in the future.