February 2010. A vessel called Plan B that was especially brought in from the United States was anchored in Rapa Nui, ready to begin the first scientific expedition of Oceana and National Geographic to Salas and Gómez Island, located more than 3,000 kilometers from Chile’s mainland and 415 kilometers from Rapa Nui. The purpose was to explore the island’s ecosystems, of which there was very little information available, and to obtain the first high resolution images of the ocean floor that was presumed to possess rich biological life.

But the great earthquake and tsunami that hit Chile on February 27, 2010, changed the original course of the plan: the expedition was suspended. However, Dr. Matthias Gorny, Science Director of Oceana, Dr. Carlos Gaymer, marine biology professor at Universidad Católica del Norte, and Michel Garcia, Rapa Nui local diver decided to take the vessel and initiate an adventurous preliminary expedition to the area, with unexpected results.

During this trip, sampling sites were specified for the expedition that was to be conducted the following year, species native to Rapa Nui such as the tipi tipi fish were sighted, as well as a great number of sharks and deep-water corals. It was also possible to document the presence of algae at a depth of more than 100 meters, when they had always been seen closer to the surface.

The preliminary expedition was so successful that Oceana and National Geographic submitted a proposal to create a marine park. The proposal was backed by impressive images that were quickly published in different media platforms. This gave a surprising drive for authorities at the time to set forth the creation of the Motu Motiro Hiva marine park, which was announced in October 2010 and extends 150.000 square kilometers around the island.

Even though the marine park was accomplished, there was yet more to be explored. In February 2011 a second expedition took place joined by the Chilean Navy and the Rapa Nui community, represented by Uri Pate. The purpose was to prepare an inventory of existing species in the newly created marine park and monitor its conservation status, for which state-of-the-art technology was used. Three sphere-shaped crystal drop cams were launched for the first time, which filmed at a depth of 1,600 meters, documenting rare fish and deep-sea sharks, as well as the first images of sea mounts located between Salas & Gómez Island and Rapa Nui.

Documentation obtained through diving expeditions and films shot using the remote operation vehicle (ROV), created over 100 hours of film material and 5,000 high resolution, underwater photographs. On this occasion, and for the first time, they used a method that systematically counted flora and fauna during diving expeditions. This method was replicated in all future expeditions of Chile’s marine ecosystems, allowing to compare the condition of each of the explored areas.

While researching the ocean floor, the team was able to disembark on the island, a territory that was uninhabited by humans, where a large number of sea birds could be seen and not one of them reacted fearfully to the presence of people, which called the scientists’ attention. This proved that the birds didn’t perceive humans as a threat since they had never been in contact with them before.

Last, the expedition ship accidentally found a seamount that was incorrectly located on the official map, demonstrating the lack of knowledge that still exists regarding this area’s ocean floor.

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Associated documents

Salas & Gomez Island Expedition. February – March 2011. Science report (in Spanish)