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From the Field: Alex Muñoz, Pristine Seas Director for Latin America, Reflects on the team’s expedition to the Patagonian Fjords

The National Geographic Pristine Seas team went on an expedition to the Patagonian Fjords earlier this year from late February through early March. Photo by Steve Spence, National Geographic Pristine Seas

By Alex Muñoz

It’s been a month since our team returned from an expedition to the Patagonian Fjords in Chile. The expedition took place within the boundaries of the Kawésqar National Park, one of the largest parks in the world and the second-largest in Chile. For three weeks, we worked hand in hand with the local Kawésqar and Yagan indigenous communities to better understand this unique area. Our expedition had three goals: 

  • Conduct a comprehensive scientific survey of coastal and deepwater ecosystems of the Kawéskar National Reserve to highlight the global ecological significance of this Patagonian fjord system;
  • Learn from the leadership of the indigenous communities to better understand the cultural and ecological value of the area;
  • Learn how industrial salmon farming is damaging to sensitive ecosystems like those found in the Patagonian Fjords.
Geographical map of the Patagonian Fjords of South America
Patagonian Fjords expedition map by National Geographic Society Staff

For thousands of years, the Patagonian Fjords have been continuously inhabited by indigenous peoples. Our expedition included representatives from each community who led us through the area and imparted their knowledge of its patterns. 

A translucent pink jellyfish floating underwater .
Jellyfish provide ecosystem services by climate regulation through carbon sequestration. Photo by Manu San Félix, National Geographic Pristine Seas.

Throughout the expedition, the team faced tough conditions: strong winds and rain, and often the divers found respite from the cold underwater during their dives. The water temperatures varied from 2 to 11 degrees Celsius, but the dry suits the divers wore kept them (relatively) warm. The most uncomfortable part of their dives were often the rides on an inflatable boat called a zodiac, back to the ship where rain and surf constantly battered their faces and numbed their hands!

Glaciers in the Patagonian Fjords next to the sea.
Glaciers in the Patagonian Fjords are threatened by climate change. Photo by Jon Betz, National Geographic Pristine Seas.

To survey the ecosystem the team utilized several types of technology including:

  • Baited remote underwater video (BRUV)
  • Remotely operated vehicle (ROV)  
  • Drop cameras 

A majority of marine species live up to approximately 100 meters below the surface. To study them, the team’s scuba divers executed almost 200 dives. For areas too deep for divers, the team employed the use of Baited Remote Underwater Videos Systems (BRUVs), Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) and National Geographic DropCams, designed by the National Geographic Society’s Labs team, to survey the deepest parts of the region.

Two divers use lights to survey the dark underwater ecosystem.
Two Pristine Seas expedition scuba divers survey the area. Photo by Manu San Félix, National Geographic Pristine Seas.

As part of the expedition, the team also revisited a selection of some of the stations surveyed by marine ecologist Dr. Paul Dayton back in 1972 to evaluate how giant kelp forest coverage has changed through time under the present climate crisis. Currently, the team is working to analyze the collected scientific data to help inform their work with the local indigenous peoples and their goal to help increase the protection of the marine area. 

A healthy kelp forest with a variety of plant species and a sea star in the Patagonian Fjords.
A healthy kelp forest in the Patagonian Fjords. Photo by Manu San Félix, National Geographic Pristine Seas

Overall, our expedition was a success. While our scientific team is still analyzing its results, we can report that we found sprawling, healthy kelp forests – all the way from the base of the glaciers to the open ocean. These kelp forests, which are in decline around the world, are nurseries for important commercial species like king crab. Moreover, our findings reflected existing traditional and local knowledge – further confirmation that communities like the Kawésqar and Yagan peoples have been leaders in sustainable thinking for thousands of years. 

Since 2008, Pristine Seas has helped create 22 marine protected areas (MPAs) and helped to protect more than 5 million square kilometers of the ocean. The project utilizes a unique mix of science and storytelling to inspire the creation of protected areas where marine life can thrive—while ensuring effective management for years to come.

To learn more about Pristine Seas and their work protecting the last wild places in the ocean visit their page here. For updates from Pristine Seas on social media, follow along on Instagram and Twitter.

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