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.
A beautiful aerial view of dusk at Caleta Tortel. The Baker River estuary can be seen to the right; to the left, at the foot of the hill lies the town famous for its walkways. Patagonian fjords can be seen in the back, between the tall hills. Today, all this area is protected by a Multiple Purpose Coastal Marine Protected Area (AMCP-MU in Spanish).
Residents of Caleta Tortel built their town aiming to find harmony with their natural surroundings. This is why, people walk on wooden walkways instead of streets and boats are the most common means of transport in this town.
Abundant species in this area where it can be commonly found at a depth that ranges between 18 to 300 meters. This coral is characterized by its color that varies from red to orange, except for its white tips. It grows slowly and is very sensitive to the impact of activities such as aquaculture. In addition, it serves as a bioengineer, meaning it creates habitats for other species. In Chile, it’s distributed from the southern area of Chiloé Island to Tierra del Fuego and sub Antarctic islands; it can even be found in the Atlantic.
The first expeditions in Tortel used local boats such as “Río Videau”, seen in the picture. It’s captain, Abel Becerra, is an expert on the area’s fjords and channels.
Hermit crabs are known for living in empty snail shells, because unlike other crabs, their stomachs are soft and need to be covered to be protected. This species in particular, lives on hard substrates, in shallow waters and up to 400 meters. It is distributed from Chiloé island down to Cape Horn in the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean, up to Uruguay.
This marine snail can measure up to 5 centimeters long; females are much larger than males. Its thick shell coils around five times, it lives underwater up to 80 meters deep, in rocky bottoms, cracks and shellfish banks, feeding off mussels and clams. In Chile, its distribution ranges from Chiloé island down to Cape Horn.
This picture taken in the 2009 expedition shows safety diver Fernando Loyola emerging from an audiovisual and photographic documentation dive. Behind him, in the vessel is Cristian Gutiérrez, Oceana campaigner, who is waiting to help the divers with their equipment.
This tubular-bodied species has tentacles that it uses to feed and defend itself. Up to 500 individuals can be found per square meter, which are recognized for having the same color because they are able to clone each other. The live on rocky substrates and attach onto rocks and shells. This is the most common anemone between the Gulf of Penas and Magallanes.
This is a solitary coral that doesn’t build reefs but is able to form extensive groups on rocky walls. It has a calcium carbonate skeleton that gives it the appearance of stiffness. It lives in deep water with a depth range between 35 and 2,460 meters. In Chile, it is distributed in regions Los Lagos, Aysén, Magallanes, and Robinson Crusoe Island.
Contrary to what its name suggests, this species is an ophiuroid, which unlike starfish, do not have arms joined to each other. To feed, it forms a basket, unrolling its branched arms to take advantage of the water current and capture small species. In Chile, it’s distribution ranges from Valparaíso to sub Antarctic waters of Patagonia, with a depth range of a shallow few meters down to 900 meters.
Caleta Tortel is a cove located between the northern and southern ice fields. The combination of glacier water, the estuary of large rivers such as Baker and the sea, form a unique ecosystem. Glacier Montt seen in the picture, is located near Caleta Tortel and is part of the southern ice field.
The black southern cod is a typical fish of Patagonia commonly found on rocky substrates and near seaweed forests. It’s an opportunistic feeder, according to the availability of prey. There are 11 species of notothens that belong to the Patagonotothen genus, and are widely distributed between Chiloé and Cape Horn.
This starfish is an opportunist; moreover, where there is pollution from salmon farms, in the beginning it’s very abundant… its color is a vibrant purple, orangish to yellowish. It preys on different invertebrates including
Dr. Matthias Gorny is in charge of piloting the Remote Operation Vehicle (ROV). This technology has been used since the first expeditions in Caleta Tortel, to capture images from the depths of the fjords. The ROV’s compact size allows it to be used on small boats and can dive down to a depth of 600 meters.