National Geographic

Desventuradas Expedition


February 2013 - Re-posted Blogs from NatGeo and Oceana
© copyright by Undersea Hunter Group
© copyright by Undersea Hunter Group

Enric Sala National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence
Alex Muñoz Oceana South Vice President

New Species is Named: El Chilito
February 26 2013
© copyright by Avi Klapfer
© copyright by Avi Klapfer
© copyright by Avi Klapfer
The Importance of Being Here By Alex Muñoz
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.

February 26 2013
© copyright by Manu San Felix
© copyright by Manu San Felix
Where Giant Lobsters Roam by Enric Sala
The Juan Fernández lobster (Jasus frontalis) is the only species targeted by a specific fishery at the Desventuradas Islands. Fishermen from Juan Fernández travel more than 500 nautical miles to fish them during a short season. Adult Juan Fernández lobsters are typically deep – generally between 60 and 150 meters – while their juvenile are at scuba diving depths. With our submarine DeepSee we observed many adult lobsters deep, but we could not believe how large they were. So we did some deep rebreather dives to try to see some from up close – and still, it was hard to believe how huge those monster lobsters were. These photos show a lobster we filmed and measured. Yours truly is behind it in one of the photos. It was 54 cm (21 inches) from head to tail, without the spines, and almost 7 kg (15 pounds). These are the largest lobsters I’ve seen in my life. Everywhere else, lobsters are much smaller, mainly because they are fished intensely. The Desventuradas are remote and only lightly fished, and still harbor what appears to be one of the healthiest lobster populations in the Pacific.

February 25 2013
© copyright by Enric Sala
© copyright by Enric Sala
A Surprise Stowaway by Enric Sala
Our underwater cinematographer, Manu San Félix, has spent a lot of time under the sea: 7,000 dives in 32 years! Yet he has not seen everything; neither have I. Nature always have ways to surprise us. We were filming juvenile Juan Fernández lobsters (Jasus frontalis) – just three inches long – in their natural habitat, under the canopy of Eisenia kelps at San Ambrosio Island. All of a sudden, one little lobster jumped and landed on Manu’s mask. She seemed pretty comfortable there, so I had plenty of time to take a photograph. After a minute, the lobster jumped back under the kelp, and disappeared. Kelps provide an essential habitat for juvenile lobsters and many species of fishes. They are an underwater forest that helps make this place rich.

February 20 2013
© copyright by Enric Sala
The Sea Urchin and the Plastic Razor by Enric Sala
Sea urchins are everywhere on the sheltered side of San Ambrosio Island. There are brown long-spine sea urchins, brown short-spine sea urchins, black long-spine sea urchins, white sea urchins, and flat sea urchins – also called sand dollars – which bury themselves on the sand.

Long-spine sea urchins protect themselves through their spine canopy. But sea urchins with shorter spines also try the old trick of camouflage. They typically put little rocks or pieces of algae on top of their bodies, to blend with the bottom.

Yesterday we went diving at a little cove near a fishing camp (fishermen from Juan Fernández come here seasonally to catch lobsters). Unfortunately, some fishermen are too happy throwing their trash in the sea. A sea urchin took advantage of a plastic disposable razor it found on the bottom, to try to blend among the human debris. Even in a remote island like San Ambrosio, we cannot escape from humans. The good news is that humans are here only seasonally, and this underwater world is still full of life.

February 20 2013
© copyright by Oceana
© copyright by Oceana
© copyright by Oceana
Pura vida! (Pure life!) by Alex Muñoz
After more than a week of expedition, this place continues to surprise us. Yosy discovered a coordinate on the map very close to San Félix that corresponds to a seamount whose peak is only 10 meters deep. This means it is the perfect place to go to with our divers and submarine DeepSee.

We leave early in Argo to look for the seamount. After a few hours, the echo sounder detects 10 meters! Yosy had been right! The group of scientists and cameramen quickly get into the water.

Enric, Avi and I are the fortunate ones that will go in the DeepSee to a completely unknown place. As we start to descend, Avi, our pilot, says, “This is the exact definition of exploration!” And wow, was he right. As my colleagues and I are very excited, before we know it, we have reached 130 meters. Thousands of fish, from brecas to Jack mackerel, sharks to vidriolas surround us.

In a matter of minutes, Avi brings us to 250 meters. A wall full of corals and gorgonians (or sea fans) get our attention for quite a while. With incredible precision, Avi maneuvers the submarine’s high definition camera and records each species that crosses our path.

We continue descending… 300, 340, 365 meters deep! Although there are less fish, between 320 and 340 meters, a large quantity of different types of lobsters appear, smaller than those of Juan Fernández that one normally sees in shallower waters.

Enric focuses his view on a timid but beautiful orange and green fish. It is easily frightened with the lights and it hides in a hole of an imposing rock in the seamount. “This is a new species,” he says to us. Avi turns off the motors and the lights and we are completely in the dark. The excitement of being at this depth with no lights or sound is incredible, but at the same time, the peace that you feel is unparalleled. With a small red flashlight we see this beautiful fish dare to leave its hiding place. After a good while trying, three of them appear and we are able to record them! With this video in hand, we continue our travels of the deep.

We start to ascend slowly by a wall different to that of the descent and the marine life springs from all sides. We see a precious nudibranch, with an intense orange color, at 300 meters. A little bit above this, in one of the most beautiful scenes of the trip, a crab on a terrace holds in its two claws what could be a crystal sponge.

Later, more and more corals start to appear with clouds of juvenile fishes living among them. All the articles that I have read about the importance of seamounts and how they are areas of reproduction and nourishment and how the populations of small fish support the life of the largest fish are made clearly evident in this image. As we arrive at the surface, after being so excited, I hadn’t even realized we had been submerged for five and a half hours!

During the immersion, I cannot help but think that just a few days ago, the new law in Chile that protects all seamounts from bottom trawling took affect. Four years ago, Oceana began a strong campaign that culminated in the banning of this type of fishing in vulnerable marine ecosystems, including the immediate and preventative closure of all seamounts, 118 total in Chilean waters, which covers a surface of almost 150,000 km2.

During this time, how many times did they say to us that there was nothing in the seamounts, that the Chilean sea contains almost only sand and that bottom trawling would not have any impact on the sea floor? Now I have seen with my own eyes what a seamount really is without the impact of bottom trawling – using the typical phrase of our Costa Rican friends that make up Argo’s crew – I can say that in the seamounts, there is “Pura Vida!” (pure life).

February 19 2013
© copyright by Enric Sala
© copyright by Enric Sala
© copyright by Enric Sala
The Cutest Predator by Enric Sala
When we think of predators, our minds often picture large animals with sharp teeth and scary faces, animals that have evolved just to kill humans. Our collective memory makes us fearful of the night, and almost everyone has been startled by unknown noises in a dark forest. This fear has been engraved in our collective unconscious like carvings in a rock. When it comes to the ocean, many people still fear sharks (despite repeated evidence that sharks are the ones who should be scared of us) or deep alien creatures that hide in the darkness to attack unexpectedly.

The top predator at the Desventuradas is not the typical reef shark, or a grouper with a huge mouth able to swallow a diver. It is not a fearsome animal that kills at night either. The largest predator here is the Juan Fernández sea lion (Arctocephalus philippi), the cutest carnivore we have found in any of our Pristine Seas Expeditions to date. They spend much of the day hanging out on rocky platforms near the water. When we approach them, it’s like someone brought free candy to a school. The sea lions raise their heads, get indeed very excited, and drag their fat bellies from rock to rock until they jump in the water.

Underwater, the sea lions become torpedoes of enormous grace and elegance. Their eyes are large as a Japanese cartoon character’s, and their looks pierce us as they swim very fast between us divers. After playing with our bubbles and checking us out very closely, they just hang out, their backsides on the surface and their heads hanging down like bats.

The Juan Fernández sea lion lives only in the Desventuradas Islands and the Juan Fernández archipelago (800 km south of the Desventuradas). It was very abundant before European whalers and hunters started to exterminate them. In the Juan Fernández archipelago between three and five million were killed for their skins and their oil between the 17th and the 19th centuries. In 1880, the scientific community of the time thought them extinct. Fortunately, a few individuals survived and were able to start replenishing their population. In 1970, about a hundred years after they had been seen for what was thought the last time, two juvenile sea lions were observed at San Ambrosio. In 1975, 300 individuals were observed.

We have seen only five sea lions at San Ambrosio. The strong winds have restricted our work to the northern side of the island. Also, the Chilean Navy did not allow us to dive around San Félix Island, where there is a military base. Therefore we cannot determine whether there are still hundreds of sea lions in the archipelago. That is a shame, for not many scientific parties ever make it here. I only hope that the sea lions are coming back, and that the restricted access will keep them safe.

February 16 2013
© copyright by Enric Sala
Fish Bigger Than We Are By Jenn Caselle -Research Biologist, Marine Science Institute

Today the science team did a survey dive at the farthest western tip of Isla San Ambrosio. We had been waiting for days for the weather to clear and the large ocean swell to die down enough for us to access this exposed and rugged rock sitting just removed from the main island.

Despite enduring rough conditions, we decided it wasn’t going to get much better any time soon so we prepared our equipment and our science gear with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.

Exposed points on oceanic islands like this are known for the abundance of large animals. Water currents move strongly past these areas, bringing planktonic food for the small fishes that in turn become the food for the larger fishes. We expected this to be the case here at San Ambrosio but as we entered the water and fought the currents ripping over to the reef, alternately being pulled down to the depths and then shot back up, we wondered whether this was a good idea after all!

Very large Juan Fernandez Jacks (known to our Chilean colleagues as Jurel) darted through the clouds of smaller brightly colored fish, hoping for a meal in the confusion while also hoping not to become the meal for the even bigger amberjacks cruising nearby. At one point, fifteen yellowtail jacks swam past me. Even the smallest of the group dwarfed me in size and weight.

How the Ocean Could Be

Our science team has worked in a lot of places, in many oceans and between us we have observed untold numbers of reefs with myriad sea life. Yet it’s only when we come to pristine places, like the Islas Desventuradas, that we are reminded of how it used to be before humans. It’s only when I see fish bigger than me that I realize this is how it could be again.

Fishing pressure around the world has not only removed massive numbers of fish, but has had the effect of “shrinking” those that are left. As the largest individuals are fished out, the ones left behind tend to grow faster, mature younger and die earlier. Over long time periods, this means that these fishes will adapt to the missing giants among them and tend to stay smaller in size. For most of us, these little, young fish are who we see on our local reefs and this, unfortunately, has become the new normal. Our team has been lucky enough, by diving in places with no or very little fishing, to see just how large some of these fishes can get, when allowed to feed and grow naturally.

As I continued my survey in what we later affectionately labeled the “washing machine” of the western point of Isla San Ambrosia, I felt a resurgence of hope that once again our reefs and oceans will be filled with “fish bigger than me.”

February 15 2013
© copyright by Eduardo Sorensen/Oceana
© copyright by Alex Muñoz/Oceana
The Thrill of the Dive by Alex Muñoz Executive Director of Oceana
From the moment we set sail from Antofagasta it was clear that there was no time to lose. There were several briefs on safety measures inside the ship, the use of the submarine and diving, in addition to numerous conversations among almost 20 people, each one an expert in his or her field. Everyone wants to share their knowledge and experience and at the same time, is willing to learn from others.

After two and a half days of journey we arrived in San Ambrosio Island on a Sunday. The water is deep blue, similar to Juan Fernández. The island is a mountain with steep cliffs with no visible place from where to climb to the top.

As soon as we arrived, Enric and the other divers began to prepare the first plunges. You could see both anxiety and happiness in their faces. It is the feeling of being in a place where none of us had been before. Actually very few people have been here, period. The first boat leaves for the island with the divers and an impressive stock of underwater cameras.

At the same time, Eric begins to fit the high-definition drop cameras inside a large crystal bubble to record at thousand-meter depths. One of them was successfully used in the Marianas trench, 11,000 meters below the sea surface.

Finally, a long-awaited moment comes: the DeepSee submarine is about to touch Chilean waters for the first time. Able to descend to 450 meters crewed with three people and with a 360° view, it is the perfect tool to explore the ocean depths with human eyes.

I was the first one to go down in the submarine along with Claudio, observer from the Chilean navy. Argo’s crew, exceptional as always, prepared the Deepsee and asked us to go in carefully. They shut the 10cm-thick acrylic dome and the exciting dive began.

At first we saw only the blue waters and how the sunlight easily reaches great depths. In only a few minutes we touched the ocean floor and began to move horizontally. We saw marine life almost immediately. First there were sharks, then huge lobsters and after a few minutes, hundreds of fish came to look at us. Claudio wondered: Who’s in the aquarium now? And truly, fish were looking at us as if we were in a human aquarium. The pilot turned off the lights to help them feel at ease and literally, a cloud of fish surrounded us. They even hit the dome, which, at that point, was only an invisible barrier. It seemed that nothing separated us from life underwater.

The beginning of this expedition couldn’t have been more intense. How many times in life can you say that you’ve been to an oceanic island almost unknown to the rest of the world and, on the same day, go below the ocean surface 130 meters in a submarine, all of it for the first time?

February 14 2013
© copyright by Alan Friedlander
Valentine’s Day at the Unfortunate Islands by Alan Friedlander
In spite of the names of these islands (Desventuradas is Spanish for “Unfortunate”), the trip in general and today in particular have been filled with good fortune.

The science team has been hard at work surveying the marine life around the islands and we have been astounded by the abundance of fishes, kelps, urchins and the spectacular underwater scenery here. While the numbers of different fish species is not very high, the sheer number of individuals is overwhelming. Sometimes the walls of brightly colored fish make it nearly impossible to see your hand in front of your face. Red and white stripes, pink and orange blotches, purple spots and polka dots all grace the fish at the Unfortunate Islands.

Today was a special day. While diving at one of the many points along the jagged coastline, we were “fortunate” enough to see a rare and spectacular open water fish – the ocean sunfish or mola mola. This strange looking creature is one of the most advanced of all the fishes but looks like it was designed by committee. Imagine a disk with its back cut off and two ‘wings’ crudely attached! At once awkward and graceful, the sunfish feeds mainly on jellyfish and rarely comes close to the coast. Seeing it up close and watching it watch me was an unforgettable experience.

As if the day couldn’t get any better, our next dive was a great big love-fest, very befitting of Valentine’s Day. We were escorted throughout the entire dive by three very friendly sea lions. This species of sea lion is found only on these islands and nearby Robinson Crusoe Island. Sea wolves or ‘lobos’ in Spanish, they wanted to play, but underwater we are no match for their grace and besides, we had work to do – or at least that was our excuse!

As we continue to focus on collecting the survey data we cannot forget how special this place is and how fortunate we are to be here, at the beautiful and pristine Unfortunate Islands. Who knows what’s in store for us tomorrow.
Aloha – Alan

February 13 2013
Wild Underwater World of San Ambrosio
First Humans to Dive San Ambrosio? by Enric Sala
Today we did the first scientific dives reported for San Ambrosio Island. We don’t even know if anyone has ever dived here, period. The sea was calm, the water blue and clear, and we could not wait to jump in the water.

It has been almost a year since Alex Muñoz – Executive Director of Oceana Chile – and I started planning this expedition. During this time, we were not able to find a single underwater photo of the Desventuradas Islands. So I felt like I was parachuting in, at night, over unknown territory. I had no idea what I was going to find, but this only made it more exciting. Because these islands are so remote and apparently devoid of local human impacts, we expected to see lots of fish–and hopefully large fish in particular.

The first time diving in a completely new place is like learning a new language in five seconds. We jump in the water, look around, try to identify as many species as possible in the shortest possible time, look for patterns, and build a mental picture of the underwater ecosystem. And so we did at San Ambrosio.

As soon as the bubbles cleared, we could see the bottom at 25 meters depth. There was a rocky wall of dark volcanic rock descending to 25 meters, with thousands of long-spined sea urchins. A closer look revealed that the urchins had eaten all the organisms on the rock, and left it bare, except for some small light patches with encrusting coralline algae and tube-forming snails. Then a shadow zoomed in; it was a curious Juan Fernández sea lion. It swam between us, fast as lightning, with huge eyes like a character in a Japanese cartoon, looking at us surprised. It had probably never seen a human underwater before.

Our eyes followed the sea lion as it swam back to the surface, and then we saw a brown belt between the surface and 10-meters depth. It was kelp, undulating with the swell. And among and over the kelp there were thousands of fish, swimming in and out of the canopy. As we approached the fish schools, they engulfed us. We were like planets surrounded by countless satellites. All of a sudden, the small fish in the schools swam to safety, because ten large yellowtail jacks swam fast as torpedoes to check us out.

I felt that feeling of fulfillment that one only experiences in wild nature. It is a combination of exhilaration and bliss. It is our first day at San Ambrosio, and we can already tell that this underwater world is wild and healthy. I cannot wait to discover how many more surprises are waiting for us.

February 11 2013
© copyright by Manu San Félix
© copyright by Enric Sala
This Is Why We Are So Excited - Enric Sala
We have been at sea for almost two days, sailing on a straight line to the Desventuradas Islands. Yesterday we saw two whales, dolphins, storm petrels, petrels, and a masked booby, which pooped in mid air and hit me and my camera, as I was watching its flawless flight with admiration. Within the immensity of the Pacific Ocean, the probability of being hit by a bird is, when you round it up, zero. Everyone laughed and said “this is good luck!” And good luck we must have, because the seas have been flat, the sky blue, and the sailing smooth.

These two days at sea we have been assembling the cameras and the diving gear, checking the guides to the fish and invertebrates of the region, and making plans for our first day of work underwater. It pays off to have long lists of tasks before the expeditions, and detailed inventories of expedition gear, from our diving rebreathers to pencils. All are essential to the success of our expedition, and missing one could jeopardize our entire mission. Even the humble pencils are key; without them we could not be writing underwater and collecting data on the diversity and abundance of fishes, for example.

Tomorrow morning we’ll arrive to the Desventuradas. We don’t know what we’re going to find. This is why we’re going. This is why we are so excited.

February 7 2013
© copyright by Undersea Hunter Group
© copyright by Undersea Hunter Group
© copyright by Undersea Hunter Group
© copyright by Undersea Hunter Group
Desventuradas Expedition Prepares for Launch by Enric Sala
Antofagasta. I laugh when I hear our American expedition team members pronounce the name of the city where we are. The city itself is tough, on a narrow coastal strip between the cold Pacific Ocean and the arid mountains. The steep, ochre slopes do not have any plants. It’s one of the driest places on Earth. Our taxi driver who took us from the airport to our boat said “It has not rained here in 10 years.”

Antofagasta is the port of departure of our current Pristine Seas expeditions. Our team of scientists and filmmakers, together with our partner Oceana Chile, are going to spend the next three weeks exploring the Desventuradas Islands (‘unfortunate’ in English), two small rocky specks 400 km off the coast of Chile. Why are we going? Because they might be one of the last pristine places left in the South American seas. We know more about the geology of the Moon than about the underwater world of the Desventuradas. We are fortunate that the Chilean Navy has authorized us to explore, survey, and film this mysterious world.

We will explore the Desventuradas underwater using state-of-the-art technology: close-circuit rebreathers that recycle the oxygen and allow us to dive without making bubbles, drop-cams to film the deep sea thousands of meters deep, and the DeepSee submarine, with an acrylic sphere that allows 360-degree vision to 400 meters depth. It’s going to be pure exploration and, we hope, discovery.

We cannot wait to sail off, but as usual, three of our bags have been lost by the airline, and we still need to procure some of the essentials for the expedition (such as dark chocolate) before departure. We’ve learned to be patient…

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