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Oceana Magazine Summer/Fall 2013: Discovering Desventuradas

By Emily Fisher

More than 500 miles off the coast of Chile, across from the parched Atacama Desert, the Desventuradas Islands breach the Pacific Ocean. The Desventuradas – which translates to “the unfortunate islands” – are visited by only a handful of lobster fishermen and Chilean Naval officers every year. The seas around them have remained unexplored, until now.

In February, Oceana and National Geographic launched a joint expedition to the Desventuradas, which is comprised of the islands of San Félix and San Ambrosio. With a team of all-star scientists and the use of cutting-edge technology, the expedition was the first to explore whatis considered one of the last potentially pristine marine environments left in South America.

“Thanks to this expedition, the Desventuradas Islands went from being the least known corner of Chile to one of the most studied,” said Alex Munoz, executive director of Oceana in Chile. “This new scientific information will allow us to determine their ecological value as well as the best way to protect this incredible ecosystem.”

It took nearly a year to plan the expedition, and during that time, the team had very little background information to work with. They had a report from 1875 about the island of San Ambrosio, but they couldn’t find a single underwater photo of the Desventuradas – they had no idea what they were going to find. “I felt like I was parachuting in, at night, over unknown territory,” National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala wrote on the expedition blog.

The team completed over 280 dives, resulting in more than 80 hours of video, and 12,000 photos – all completely new to science. Outfitted with a state-of-the-art three person submarine, called DeepSee, which is capable of reaching depths of almost 1,500 feet and has a 360-degree view, the team of explorers sent back stunning imagery. The team also used National Geographic’s drop cameras that allowed them to document life more than two-and-a-half miles deep; some of these cameras were used on an expedition tothe Marianas Trench, the deepest place in the ocean. Sala and the expedition’s cinematographer, Manu San Félix, used rebreathers, which let them dive for double the amount of time possible with regular tanks of nitrox.

The team found undulating kelp forests, brightly colored corals, a rare ocean sunfish and one especially bizarre jellyfish that nobody on the team could identify. Enormous amberjacks and yellowtail jacks dwarfed the crew members in size and weight.

Of the most encouraging sights – and the largest predators found – were friendly Juan Fernández sea lions, which live only in the Desventuradas Islands and the Juan Fernández archipelago. The once-abundant sea lions were hunted by Europeans and Americans; in the Juan Fernández archipelago between 3 and 5 million were killed for their skins and their oil between the 17th and the 19th centuries. By the end of the 19th century, the scientific community thought them extinct. Fortunately, a few individuals survived and were able to start replenishing their population. The expedition crew only saw a handful of sea lions.

Lobsters big and small were also among the highlights of the expedition. The team found massive specimens – some of the largest lobsters they found clocked in at nearly two feet long and 15 pounds – the largest lobsters that Sala, a seasoned explorer, had seen in his life. “Everywhere else, lobsters are much smaller, mainly because they are fished intensely,” he wrote. “The Desventuradas are remote and only lightly fished, and still harbor what appears to be one of the healthiest lobster populations in the Pacific.”

“Because of the lack of fishing activity, lobsters, amberjacks and other fishes live longer and get consequently immense,” explains Carlos Gaymer, team memberand marine biologist from the Universidad Católica del Norte in Chile. “This area proved to be a nursery for several important fishing resources, which calls for protection before it’s too late.”

In addition to beautiful photos and video, the expedition will result ina comprehensive scientific report on the marine life and habitat of the Desventuradas; the report will be key for Oceana and National Geographic to define the best way to protect this unique place. These two organizations have followed this path of expedition to policy change many times with great success.

In 2010 and 2011, Oceana and National Geographic journeyed to Salas y Gómez and Easter Island, also off of Chile’s coast, to document the richness of that important ecosystem, which includes some of the country’s seamounts. These expeditions and the subsequent campaign around it resulted in the designation of the fourth-largest fully protected no-take zone on the world around Salas y Gómez. Moreover, last year the Chilean Congress voted to stop bottom trawling on all 118 of Chile’s seamounts and to overhaul its fisheries with one of the most progressive and scientific management systems in the world, all thanks to Oceana’s tireless advocacy work.

Munoz has been leading the charge to protect Chile’s waters. Nearing the end of the expedition, he said, “Now, from students inadvanced 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.”