In 2012, Pristine Seas, a National Geographic project that aims to find the oceans’ last remote pristine locations, approached Oceana in search of an ally to explore the marine ecosystems of San Felix and San Ambrosio: the Desventuradas Islands. An expedition that, once completed, surprised the world with the discovery of abundant life on the ocean floors and unique fauna that showed no signs of human impact. The expedition ended with the creation of what would later become the largest marine park of the South Pacific Ocean.
The crew, comprised of scientists and documentalists, embarked on the Argo, a ship brought in from Costa Rica that was especially adapted for diving. Sailing from Antofagasta, the team took off on an 850-kilometer journey. Two days later they sighted the islands, both uninhabited, and the only signs of human life are the Chilean navy base in San Félix and a small shelter built by Robinson Crusoe’s lobster fishermen who travel to the San Felix to fish.
During the next two weeks, researchers would discover intact marine ecosystems. With the help of DeepSee Hunter, a submarine that provides 360-degree vision, they were able to go down 406 meters deep and observe a landscape full of life: waving algae forests, abundant fish populations including giant tuna, yellowtail amberjacks, and deep sea sharks, as well as fragile deep sea corals.
Scientific divers were surprised, not only by the enormous size of lobsters, measuring over a meter in length and weighing almost eight kilos, but also because of the large number of young jack mackerels suggesting this was an important area for the recovery of this overexploited species. The collected data allowed to conclude that 72% of the fish species observed were endemic of the eco-region formed by the Desventuradas Islands and the Juan Fernández Archipelago, becoming one of the places with the highest percentage of endemism in the world.
With all the information collected, Oceana and Pristine Seas presented a proposal to the government in office to protect the area’s great biodiversity, threatened by illegal fishing and trawling. It was materialized in 2015 with the creation of a large marine park of 300,035 square kilometers, which became the largest of the South Pacific Ocean. With the collected audiovisual material, National Geographic produced the documentary “Journey to Chile’s Wild Islands”.
To continue researching these ecosystems, especially seamounts, in 2016 Oceana’s team was invited to participate in an expedition that was part of the second Oceanic Islands Marine Research Cruise (CIMAR 22 in Spanish), a program that aims to produce scientific-marine knowledge in areas considered to have strategic value. On this occasion, a multidisciplinary team of scientists from different Chilean universities explored the peaks of seven seamounts and other sites that had not been visited during the expedition in 2013.
By combining the collection of biological samples and film recordings using Oceana’s remote operations vehicle (ROV), numerous new species for science were identified. The numerous presence of sharks and lobsters was confirmed and, most importantly, it was confirmed that each seamount had its own fauna and diversity, one more reason that backed the creation of this extensive marine park for the world.
The expedition was conducted aboard the Undersea Hunter’s ARGO, a vessel 39 meters long and 8 meters wide that became the center of operations for over three weeks of work. While one team of scientists carries out the first study on the state of the ecosystem, another team films a documentary. In the picture, Neil Gelinas, documentary director.
A large yellowtail amberjack swims in front of an underwater cameraman. Most of the specimens seen during the expedition were noted for their large size.
One of the most innovative elements of the expedition was the use of DeepSea, a modern submarine that is able to descend to a depth of 450 meters, allowing scientists to study the ecosystem at deeper levels. The image shows pilot Felipe Chacón, the expedition’s co-leader Alex Múñoz and documentalist Lucas Zañartu, preparing to descend.
During immersions at Desventuradas Islands, one of the fish that can be seen is the “pampanito”, always in large schools. Fish biomass at Desventuradas is greater than that of other Chilean islands on the Pacific.
The DeepSea submarine rises to the surface, after spending hours exploring the depths of the ocean. In the background, the rocky formations and cliffs of San Ambrosio island, a place that is very difficult to reach.
This peculiar fish inhabits a range of 30 meters deep and measures up to 13 centimeters. It camouflages among rocks and attracts other fish with an appendage in its mouth to hunt and feed.
This beautiful fish owes its name to its likeness with the fruit. This species is endemic to Desventuradas Islands and surrounding seamounts where it can be frequently found at a depth range of 0 and 250 meters.
Large-sized lobsters could be found during the immersion at Desventuradas Islands, measuring 55 centimeters long and weighing up to 8 kilos. In this area, they can be found at depths of up to 138 meters.
This eel fish is commonly seen in the waters of Desventuradas Islands; it is a skillful hunter, hiding in the rocks to catch small fish. The image shows its sharp teeth.
The abundance of these large fish was one of most pleasant surprises for scientists, because it indicates the existence of healthy ecosystems. This species are carnivores that feed on squid, fish and crustaceans.
This type of lobster is endemic to Juan Fernández and Desventuradas Islands. None of its feet have claws and it has a flat shell. It mainly feeds on small mollusks.
A thick acrylic dome surrounds the DeepSea submarine, providing a panoramic view. The contrast of the waves crashing against the acrylic produces a fantastic visual sensation.
Mostly nocturnal, during the day octopuses stay hidden among rocks and crevices, camouflaged thanks to their ability to change their skin color. They usually use their 8 arms to move or propel for a quick getaway.
60% of the ocean floor at San Ambrosio is covered in kelp, a species that had not been described before for Chile, nor this region. These forests are also a fundamental habitat for several types of fish and invertebtrates.
This small “gobido” is endemic to the Desventuradas Islands where it can be found at a depth range between 0 and 10 meters.
This beautiful fish, that measure between 10 to 15 centimeters, can be found among stone corals, feeding on plankton of small invertebrates of the ocean floor.
This seabird grows to be large and robust, measuring up to 92 centimeters long and 152 centimeters with extended wings. This species is not observed in Chilean coasts, only on the oceanic islands of the Pacific. In the picture, a juvenile specimen approaches a boat.
In the sonar control room aboard the Cabo de Hornos, a research vessel that belongs to the Chilean Navy, different monitors in face off the pilot of the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), showing live footage being recorded. To the left, a scientist writes down every species that passes by, while on the right, the ship’s commander carefully supervises the complex maneuver between his vessel and the ROV.
A giant stingray half a meter wide was filmed near San Felix island at a depth of more than 200 meters.
This is a common fish of the Desventuradas Islands and Juan Fernandez Archipelago. Its presence indicates the proximity of corals, its natural habitat.
A sole is seen at a depth of 125 meters, near the island of San Ambrosio. The two red dots of the laser pointers mark a distance of 12 centimeters, which indicates a total length of about half a meter.