Despite having one of the richest marine ecosystems in the country, La Higuera coast has been in constant risk. During the first decade of the year 2000, three carbon fueled thermoelectric power plants intended to be installed in the commune, very close to the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve. In the midst of this imminent danger, in 2009 Oceana began a series of four expeditions to permanently protect the area by preparing a proposal to designate it as a Multiple Purpose Protected Marine Coastal Area.
Before Oceana began its expeditions, extensive knowledge was already available regarding the diversity of marine flora and fauna present in the waters of the Choros-Damas and Chañaral Islands, thanks to the scientific work carried out by institutions such as Universidad Católica del Norte. A group of eight small islands is located in this area of Chile, that create a natural lab for research on different types of whales, dolphins and sea birds; among them, the famous Humboldt Penguin, whose largest population in the world can be found in this area.
To complement the scientific information, Oceana organized an initial underwater expedition to document this archipelago’s biodiversity with high resolution images at a depth that ranged between 20 and 140 meters. A very diverse fauna of corals, sea sponges and fish were recorded, and Gorgonia corals were discovered at a depth of over 100 meters.
The first expedition using Oceana Chile’s remote operated vehicle (ROV) was carried out in 2012. At the time, it was the only equipment of its kind in Chile, able to register high resolution images up to 600 meters below. For the first time, several Gorgonia specimens –a type of coral–, were documented, as well as fragile marine sponges; strong evidence that helped to refute the trawling industry´s claims stating that the area’s ocean floor was covered in mud or sand and only inhabited by prawns and crabs.
These findings allowed Oceana to set out on an expedition in 2014 to compare trawled areas with untrawled areas, proving that where trawling had not taken place in the last five years showed no signs of recovery. This discovery served as input material for a proposal to gradually end bottom trawl fishing and was announced by authorities in 2017.
In upcoming expeditions, between the observations made by documentalist divers in shallow waters and film shootings using the ROV at 400 meters deep, several findings were made such as the outstanding first documentation of black coral in the coastal waters of continental Chile. In the area of Bajo El Toro, at a depth of 15 to 20 meters, vast macroalgae forests were documented hosting a large diversity of rock fish.
These discoveries were an addition to the extensive scientific knowledge collected on the area confirming the existence of 187 macro benthic species; 68 fish species, many of which were very close to the coast; 122 types of birds and 21 types of marine mammals, among them the only bottle nosed dolphin colony existing in Chile, as well as other endangered species such as the chungungo and diving petrel.
The abundance of life is due to an oceanographic phenomenon known as upwelling. It allows deep, cold waters, rich in nutrients to fertilize surface waters, allowing phytoplankton to flourish. These microorganisms are the starting point of the food chain of the world’s marine ecosystems, transforming La Higuera coast into one of the most productive areas of the entire Humboldt current, which runs along Chile and Peru.
Despite the evidence collected during Oceana’s expeditions and the scientific studies produced by the academy, permanent protection of this ecosystem has still not been established. It is currently being threatened by industrial mining projects such as CAP Minería’s Puerto Cruz Grande and Andes Iron´s Dominga project.
The individuals of this species build their nests on the archipelago’s islands, where they live in large, well organized colonies, are monogamous and both parents care for their eggs. They are almost 60 centimeters tall and weigh 5 kilos; even though they’re not very fast on land, under water they’re very quick swimmers. The image shows a juvenile penguin posing for the camera.
Large red stains can be seen in the water throughout the Humboldt Archipelago. It’s krill, tiny crustaceans that are one of the foundations of the area’s trophic networks, serving as a food source for fish, penguins, sea lions and especially whales.
Measuring up to 27 meters, it is the second largest animal on the planet, after the blue whale. It is categorized as a vulnerable species according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In the summer, these large cetaceans visit the Humboldt Archipelago every day to feed. Up to 14 types of cetaceans can be seen in this area.
Near the archipelago’s sea lion colonies, groups of sea lions quickly move up and down under the sea; the most curious ones playfully approach divers.
A small fish lays over Chilean abalone eggs. This is a signature species of the Humboldt Archipelago since several artisanal fishermen organizations work this resource.
Also known as the marine cat, this otter is extremely agile and slippery. Even though it’s an endangered species, it can be seen in the archipelago’s islands, where they build their dens. A characteristic coastal location is named after this marine otter, known as chungungo in Chile.
This decapod, a ten-legged crustacean, is very common in Chile’s central coast. When the larvae reach the ocean floor, they can immediately move, and choose the safest habitat for themselves. When small, they are very susceptible to be preyed on, which is why it is believed they choose areas that provide greater protection. Thus, they live among brown algae, which provides safe refuge and a food source.
A large shoal of adult “castañetas”surprise divers while they capture images in the area.
On the vessel’s deck, the crew, which is used to working on marine research, swiftly maneuver the ROV cable, as well as its entry and exit from the water. This work requires a lot of coordination with the vessel’s captain and the ROV pilot, since a bad movement can get the cable entangled in the propeller.
This beautiful decapod crustacean can be found hiding in the cracks of rocks of the ocean floor. Its interesting color can be appreciated in the image.
The underwater landscape of islands Choros y Dama is very colorful and diverse. In the picture, one of the divers uses a flashlight to illuminate a great rock where many species live attached to it. In the forefront is a sponge (Axinella sp.) typical of the rocky coasts of northern Chile.
A fish widely distributed between Chile and Peru, it can be commonly seen among rocks or algae where it can quickly take refuge. The specimen in the picture hides inside an empty shell, sticking its head out from time to time.
This charismatic dolphin is the area’s signature species, since the world’s only population lives here. These dolphins have complex social systems and display cooperative behavior. They can be seen throughout the year in groups near the archipelago’s islands, performing acrobatic jumps for visiting ships.
In the middle of a colony, a robust-headed great alpha male is surrounded by females of his harem who have recently given birth. In the background, a black vulture (Coragyps atratus foetens) waits to eat the newborn pups’ placenta.
This marine bird is typical of the Humboldt Current; it can travel long distances to feed off fish such as anchovies, “pejerrey” or “mote”. Large numbers can be found on the archipelago’s islands.
Its grey color, yellow beak with a red orangish base, and the red of its legs make it easily distinguishable from other cormorants. They look for rocks to build their nests and are usually seen in couples. The red-legged cormorant is an excellent diver, catching its meals in shallow waters.
Vessel “Stella Maris II” is based in Coquimbo, in the School of Marine Sciences of Universidad Católica del Norte (UCN). Oceana usually works in collaboration with universities and faculty related to the expedition zone. The Humboldt Archipelago has been researched for years by academics of this university.
Caleta Hornos is the town closest to the islets. While the expedition is being conducted, artisanal fishermen take advantage of good weather to go to work.
This tern is distributed throughout the coastal islands of Peru and Chile. It nests in cracks and cavities and can be frequently seen in rocky areas. It mainly feeds on anchovies and other small fish.
This species, distributed in Chile and Peru, can be seen occupying the empty space left by barnacles such as the giant barnacle, or picoroco. Its color camouflages perfectly with its surroundings.
Shot at a depth of 240 meters, this image shows the high species diversity present in the ocean floor, such as sponges that look like tennis balls and a variety of hydrocorals and , both grow slowly. Bottom trawling is still allowed in this area to catch squat lobsters. The image contradicts the arguments of fishermen saying there’s only sand on these ocean floors, and therefore no other animals live here besides crustaceans.
This crab is an important fishing resource in the Coquimbo Region. This specimen was filmed near the shallow El Toro, at a depth of 120 meters.
This Cunningham’s triplefin trombollito was shot at 70 meters in between coralline algae and sponges. It’s a good example that shows the importance of using an ROV to better learn towards which depths coastal fishes are distributed.
This octocoral is a less common species in this area of Chile. The image shows a specimen at a depth of 70 meters, near the island of Chungungo.
This is the first record of a black coral in the shallow waters of Chile’s coast (left side of the image, below the yellow gorgonian coral). Black corals were found near the coast, but only in very deep waters, hundreds of meters below. It’s not surprising that the image was recorded with a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) due to the depth. This species generally lives in between rocks, which makes it impossible to collect samples with a dredge or small trawler, mechanisms used by marine biologists to obtain biological samples, and also to deep to dive. This specimen was found at the shallow el Toro, near Punta de Choros.