National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala is setting off on his first big expedition of the year: to explore the remote islands of Desventuradas, hundreds of miles off the coast of Chile in partnership with Oceana. Follow his adventures throughout the month.
By Alex Muñoz Wilson, Vice President South America, Oceana
26 February 2013
As we are being towed across the surface in the submarine DeepSee in search of an interesting depth, through the 10 centimeter thick acrylic dome, I see Eric pass by in one of the other boats to pick up the dropcams, submerged thousands of meters. A third boat takes a group of Chilean and foreign scientists to the other side of the island to continue registering biological data on the most exposed and difficult side of San Ambrosio. Manu and Eduardo, the underwater camera men, have been underwater for a while now taking photos and videos with great skill and patience. Each one of these actions is prepared for, begins and ends like a fluid choreography from the Argo, the best diving and research platform that we could imagine.
Every day I see the extraordinary display of knowledge, talent, and technology operating simultaneously and I always ask myself, what does this expedition mean for Chile? I leave the question open and we begin the descent.
We immediately descend 300 meters. We look for a rock wall because in its caves and orifices is where a large part of the marine life searches for food and protection from predators. Avi, who is once again piloting the submarine DeepSee and telling us stories as if we were in his living room back home, suddenly feels a presence on one side of the vessel that, in the prevailing darkness at this depth, is just a shadow. “Something is approaching,” he says. Little by little, the figure starts to become visible in our lights but we do not know what it is. As soon as I hear him say, “This is incredible!” I know that this sighting is an exceptional one. A type of jellyfish, but with hard parts, like feet, that can turn and swim in all directions hypnotizes us. None of us have ever seen anything like it. We record it swimming for a half an hour thanks to the submarine’s true dance that Avi pilots to see this beautiful animal from every angle.
Yesterday, while I scuba dived, I enjoyed seeing vidriolas and Jack mackerels so large that they did not seem real. Everything seems to grow to an enormous size in this rarely disturbed place. A cavern appeared to be purposefully adorned with orange corals and yellow sponges. What a privilege it is to be able to feel what it is like to be in an unexplored and intact corner of the sea – and what’s more – in my own country! Who knew that this wonder existed?
When we began the expedition, we had very little information and not even one underwater photo that could serve as a reference. We used a great report written by Captain Vidal Gormaz in 1875 to gain knowledge on what San Ambrosio was like, what species were seen, and how to climb to the peak of the mountain that covers the entire island. In these final days, we now have detailed accounts of 19 dive sites, hundreds of hours of video, and thousands of photos from intertidal pools up to depths of more than 2,300 meters – all completely new.
In a country where it is so difficult to practice science, this expedition is invaluable for Chile. Although we have come a long way lately, we still have only explored so little of our sea! How much did we know about the Desventuradas Islands? Knowing little or nothing about them probably did not affect our daily lives, but now, thanks to this National Geographic-Oceana expedition, we know that we have a natural treasure that we must protect.
This ocean creature that came out of the darkness for a moment so that we could behold its beauty reminds us of how indispensable it is to be, simply to know that it exists. Now, from students in advanced marine science programs to little boys and girls in grade school around the world, it will be known that this remote place in Chile exists; and here in Chile, the authorities will have sufficient information to decide, I hope, how to protect it.