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.
Motu Motiro Hiva is a volcanic island with many “submerged rocky reefs” in its surroundings which produce great waves. Diving in this area requires advanced experience, as waves and currents can be very strong and unpredictable.
Sharks were seen during each immersion at the island. Diving with sharks requires special attention, since the team must be prepared to recognize its habits and behavior, to not disturb them in their own habitat. In the picture, a shark specimen swims among divers.
The scientific team installs a satellite tag on a shark to monitor its movements. While members of the team hold the shark, Dr. Enric Sala measures it to see if it has the right size to be tagged. Behind them, one of the cameramen records the moment that will be part of the documentary “Lost Sharks of Easter Island”.
Its strong yellow color makes this fish stand out from the rest, making it easily distinguishable to divers. It inhabits areas in a depth range between 2 and 100 meters, mainly in coastal areas of rock and coral reefs.
This beautiful and colorful Triggerfish swims along in search of food among deep sea coral reefs where it usually lives. It measures up to 30 centimeters long and can be found at a depth of 100 meters.
Several expedition tasks were performed on board a Zodiac RIB. In the picture, Dr. Matthias Gorny of Oceana prepares the Remote Operation Vehicle (ROV) for a deep dive, with the help of Uri Paté, member of the Navy and the Rapa Nui community.
Ocean floors of Motu Motiro Hiva Island and Salas & Gomez Island are majorly dominated by corals which host a large amount of living species such as invertebrates that inhabit its structures.
In the Deep blue sea, a shark swims in front of the team’s cameras. Most of the sharks seen during the expedition were small. The high commercial value their fins have in Asian countries has become a serious threat for them. This species in particular is categorized as nearly threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
This tiny fish can measure up to seven centimeters long. It can be seen in coral reefs and rocky substrate areas where it feeds on algae and zooplankton. The intense blue color of its body draws divers’ attention.
This expedition was possible thanks to the cooperation of the Chilean Navy, that provided OPV Comandante Toro. This patrol vessel measuring 80.6 meters long and 13 meters wide was the center of operations during the entire expedition, allowing the team to simultaneously perform multiple activities.
This fish is endemic to Rapa Nui and Motu Motiro Hiva; it can be seen in tidepools at a depth of over 100 meters. During expeditions, divers were able to document them on many occasions, while the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) was able to amplify its bathymetric distribution range to a depth of down to 110 meters.
Sharks are top predators; their presence indicates a healthy ecosystem because they control the abundance of species at a lesser trophic level. Scientists found a great number of them in this area.
A small school of pacific chub fish swim in the moving waters of Motu Motiro Hiva. This species intensely controls the island’s algae, which is why it’s essential for the ecological balance of corals. A large number of them were seen during the expedition.
Zodiac RIB’s are a key element to move quickly to the diving points. In the picture, a team of scientists returns to the ship after a dive.
Once the expedition is completed, all its participants take a picture on deck. Shown here is the crew of OPV “Comandante Toro” and SHOA staff, from the Chilean Navy, joined by the teams of National Geographic Pristine Seas, Oceana, Conaf Rapa Nui, faculty from Universidad Católica del Norte and University of Hawaii, and members of the Rapa Nui community.