This coastal location in Chile’s northern area, in the Tarapacá Region, is currently a small fishing town that left the saltpeter riches behind yet hides other treasures. It is home to one of the richest and most varied marine ecosystems of northern Chile, which Oceana decided to research.
The expedition in Pisagua began precisely with the purpose to protect the spawning areas of one of Chile’s most caught fish, the anchovy. This is the area where fish release their eggs and is crucial for this resource to remain healthy. The ecosystem’s main characteristic and what makes it so important for the anchovy, are the vast macroalgae forests that grow on rock surfaces along the area’s entire coast serving as a safe shelter for young fish that need to protect themselves from their predators. Chilean jack mackerels and a large diversity of rock fish species typically seen in Chile’s coast, are also protected.
Before Oceana’s expeditions, there wasn’t much resource material available on this area. There were only a few references from past research conducted by Universidad Arturo Prat, already revealing that Pisagua could be considered a priority conservation area. In addition, there was a large colony of sea lions in Punta Pichalo, near Pisagua, where many sea birds and even Humboldt penguins could be found. In fact, the high concentration of birds in the area can be demonstrated by the guano accumulated along the coast. This material was highly exploited in the past and promoted the construction of docks to facilitate its sale.
For local authorities, other crucial sites to be preserved were Río Loa, Punta Patache, Punta Pichalo and Chipana. However, there wasn’t enough information about these ecosystems either, except for whale sightings, and the presence of sea lions and sea birds. So, in 2017, Oceana and researchers from Universidad Arturo Prat started out on the first expedition to the area to begin collecting scientific information. For one week, life on the ocean floor revealed itself; the ROV Camera gathered footage 550 meters deep, while a drop cam registered images at 700 meters. The expedition was divided into key points: Rio Loa’s estuary, Punta Chipana and Punta Pichalo. Of all the explored areas, Punta Pichalo in Pisagua, was characterized as having the largest diversity of species.
Pisagua’s bay is known for its high productivity and marine diversity. The abundance of phytoplankton and crustaceans such as krill and prawns create the perfect conditions where larger organisms such as fish, mammals and sea birds can proliferate. Macroalgae forests also protect the growth of coastal fish and important resources like anchovies and jack mackerels.
There’s a high concentration of nutrients consumed by other species in upwelling areas; the leftovers are distributed through currents and descend to the ocean floor. As they reach the bottom, thee cover the floor oxygen is lost, creating the perfect atmosphere for bacteria such as Thioploca to process this waste. According to experts, this true nutrient recycling process is the reason why Chile and Peru’s coasts are among the most productive in the world, a condition that can be found throughout our country, from Arica to Concepción. Doctor Ariel Gallardo, renowned professor at Universidad de Concepción discovered these bacteria and coincidentally, his first research was conducted on a scientific cruise in Punta Pichalo during the 60’s.
The fields of bacteria in the depths of Pisagua make this a unique area of Northern Chile. This is a resilient ecosystem that was able to recover itself after the El Niño phenomenon wreaked havoc in the coasts of Peru and Chile in 1984.
With this information on the table, Oceana organized a second expedition in 2018. This time the objective was to not only conduct research at the deepest level, but to also investigate the coastal shallow waters. A group of documentary divers produced visual records while researchers of Arturo Prat University collected live species such as fish, crustaceans and snails that can currently be seen at the Ocean Museum aquarium in Iquique.
After both expeditions and large amounts of samples at their disposal, Oceana, the local community, regional government and Universidad Arturo Prat are working hard on a proposal that aims to protect the Pisagua area through a Multiple Purpose Marine Coastal Protected Area (AMCP-MU in Spanish), allowing this ecosystem to continue to be a focal point of biodiversity and abundant marine life.
The size of Punta Pichalo can be seen from above; this is one of the areas of Chile’s Norte Grande that is most exposed to the sea. Below, on the bay, lies the historic town of Pisagua, settled at the shoreline.
A large forest of kelp constitutes a fundamental habitat for several species of fish and marine invertebrates. Finding them in such good condition is very significant, considering the high amount of fishing pressure inflicted on this species.
Several types of anemones could be seen during diving expeditions in Pisagua. In this case, this red specimen stands out, contrasting with the sea’s green-bluish color.
Aboard the “Stella Maris II”, Dr. Matthias Gorny, Science Director at Oceana Chile, prepares the Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV). Life existing in the deep waters of this area could be explored and recorded thanks to this equipment.
This wonderful animal has a large oval head that harbors several organs; however, its mouth is located beneath its eight arms. The image shows an octopus whose eyes are perfectly camouflaged with the color of its skin.
The area of Punta Pichalo is home to a sea lion colony where the common sea lion and the South American fur seal coexist, which is possible because of the abundance of food. The image shows several females leaning out to see the vessel.
Forests of algae are a fundamental ecosystem for many species, providing food and habitat. The picture shows how various species coexist in a very small space, from fish such as the bilagai and damselfish, to sunflower sea stars, sea urchins and snails.
This small decapod lives in symbiosis with the orange anemone, whose tentacles protect this species. Its shell measures up to 20 millimeters long and it can be found throughout the coasts of Chile and Peru.
This small anemone is very common in the coasts of Chile; it stings and varies in color. It can be found in rocky areas at a depth of about 28 meters. It’s very abundant in the waters of Pisagua.
This great rock fish is typical of the coastal waters of the Chilean shoreline. Due to underwater hunting, this species is already hard to find, expect in Pisagua. Several male and female specimens were observed, the latter are smaller and reddish while males are black and have a yellow spot on their side.
During the expedition we were able to see a few Humboldt Penguin couples among the sea lion colonies of Punta Pichalo. However, the surprise was greater when several more couples were seen swimming in the water while the ship navigated.
One of the great surprises found in Pisagua were the large schools of Chilean jack mackerel. Many specimens were observed during diving expeditions.
The image shows the base or disc of Chilean kelp, a subtidal species, meaning it is not left uncovered during low tide. Many species live and feed in this disc, such as snails and this orange actinia.
Crew members of the “Stella Maris II” open a grab. This heavy tool is thrown overboard, free falling into the sea; once it lands on the ocean floor it automatically closes keeping a sample of the ocean bottom’s surface sediment in its shovel.
A curious sea lion swims in front of the camera. Although their movements on land are rough, under water they are daring swimmers. Despite their intimidating aspect and large size, they are curious and friendly with divers, as long as their space is not invaded, or their pups are not disturbed.
This is one of the signature fish of Chile’s northern shore, associated to areas with algae at a depth of up to 20 meters. Even though it’s harder to find in other areas, large numbers of this species could be seen during almost all of the expedition’s dives.
This beautiful bird is one of the most abundant in the area. They group together in large families, perched on entire rocks. Their primary food source are anchovies and other small fish they find in the Humboldt current.
At the end of the expedition, a picture portrays the cooperation and good atmosphere experienced during those days. In the image, representatives of Universidad Arturo Prat, Pisagua Sumergido, Environment SEREMI of the Tarapaca Region, Stella Maris II and Oceana Chile.