Hidden in the middle of Chilean Patagonia, between the northern and southern ice fields, lies one of the most isolated towns of Chile: Tortel. Roadless, only bridges made of cypress connect each house, all of them surrounded by vegetation that contains every single green tone the retina can capture. This is a destination every traveler wants to visit when driving down “Carretera Austral”, Chile’s southern highway. Even so, Tortel’s wonders are not only found on land.

Surrounded by a unique sea thanks to waters from thawed ice, rain and the ocean, this creates the perfect conditions for Tortel to host ecosystems that are unrivalled across the world, with hundreds of species, including some never documented by science before.

However, salmon fisheries planned to expand between the fjords of this area. It was at this time that Oceana began to plan what would become its first expedition in Chile, and long-lasting work, until it was able to definitively protect the seas of this amazing corner of Patagonia.

Oceana completed five expeditions in Tortel’s interior waters, the first one at the end of winter in 2008. In the beginning a trip was programmed to conduct diving expeditions and assess what was documented in each submersion, but the biggest surprise came when the expedition detected marine fauna with a large presence of sea lions and dolphins, which undeniably suggested the abundance of food in the area. This was when the team decided to repeat the experience.

Oceana’s team returned to the area in the spring of that same year, this time bringing along a Remote Operations Vehicle (ROV) to observe what the water currents contained at a greater depth. The images were not disappointing, as species previously seen only in Antarctica were observed here, such as red hydrocoral. These findings provided insight that Tortel’s interior waters could host unique ecosystems, and for that same reason, were highly vulnerable.

In following expeditions, the research area was expanded, from the interior waters of the fjords out into the open sea, around the islands located south of the Gulf of Penas, and the discoveries were major. The team of scientists found an even greater diversity of corals, sea sponges and prawns.  They also returned to the same area they had visited during the first expedition in winter and were able to observe the seasonal variation, confirming the different behaviors of species in each area.

Film documentation using ROV was shot for the first time very close to the glaciers, at the entrance of the Steffen Estuary. Even though it is an inhospitable environment for filtering species, cold water corals were found there.

The fifth expedition in 2010 completed the cycle of voyages into the waters of Tortel commune, also serving to complete the initial proposal of the Multiple Purpose Marine Coastal Protected Area, considering for the very first time the distribution of Conservation Objects (OdC in Spanish): species, habitats or ecological processes that are important for the conservation of key ecosystems.

The biological richness of this area could be demonstrated by Oceana’s five expeditions, which highlighted the presence of invertebrates and endemic species such as Chilean dolphins, sea sponges and corals which play a very important ecosystemic role and are vulnerable to any type of pollution. With the results of this investigation, a proposal was created with the community and local authorities to protect the marine ecosystem, which was finalized with the creation of a Multiple Purpose Marine Coastal Protected Area of 6,702 km2, enacted in February 2018.


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