In April and May 2018, divers and scientists from Huinay Scientific Field Station (HSFS) sailed to Canal Martinez and Canal Messier in Southern Patagonia where they carried out dozens of transect dives in depths ranging from 0m to 499m and discovered deep-sea sharks, chimaeras, coral banks and colourful sea fans.

Separated in two parts, the fourth expedition (HF37) of the year was the longest and most anticipated expedition of 2018 lasting for almost six weeks. The first part was dedicated to collect material for two long-term marine research projects that investigate how environmental components (or abiotic factors) affect the benthic community in three very unrelated fjord regions of Chilean Patagonia (see project here), and how the melting of glaciers affect coastal ecosystems (see project here) The second part of the expedition was carried out with the purpose of discovering new species in the Patagonian fjords and raising awareness about the beautiful wonders of Chilean Patagonia through SCUBA diving and deep sea exploration with a remote operated vehicle (ROV) (see project here).

Fig. 1. The team of Huinay sails through pristine parts of Chilean Patagonia on the sailboat Saoirse to reach the Martinez channel. Photos: Mette Schiønning

Part I:

Transect Dives

In order to reach the destination of the expedition, the group from Huinay teamed up with Keri Pashuk and Greg Landreth, owners of the sailboat Saoirse and long-term collaborators of the station. After days of travelling in the pristine and breath-taking fjords of Patagonia and meeting the captains of Saoirse in Puerto Eden, the SCUBA dive team finally reached Canal Martinez, where the first part of the expedition would take place (Fig. 1). D uring that following week, the dive team conducted more than 10 hours of transects in 0-20 m depth, covered what is equivalent to a 3 km horizontal stretch and collected more than 1000 transect photographs. which will be analysed by scientists from the Institute of Marine Sciences at Austral University of Chile  during the austral winter/spring 2018.

Stranded Teams in Isolated Patagonia

After completing the transect SCUBA dives, it was time to sail back to Puerto Eden to collect the remaining and newly arriving Huinay team, however, this was easier said than done. As the dive team laid anchor in Connor’s Cove to rest for the night, the propeller got stuck. In spite of great effort, underwater investigations of the propeller and intense pulling for several days, the propeller did not move a single inch. Meanwhile, things were not looking brighter for the arriving Huinay team either.

Defying all wind, weather and waves, the second group finally arrived at Connor’s Cove in the evening, after having spent two wet and cold days in rough sea on an artisanal fishing vessel while towing Noctiluca, the station’s research vessel equipped to operate the ROV. It was a series of unfortunate events, including a ferry collision with a rock resulting in team having to return to harbour, and wait for a replacement boat to Puerto Eden.

Part II:

ROV Dives and Underwater Footages 

Pleased to be reunited, the group set out the following day to embark the second part of the expedition: to explore the unexplored Canal Messier – the deepest channel in the world outside of Antarctica. But shortly after, while attempting to launch the ROV, the group was facing new challenges. A large amount of electrical discharges was emitted from a 100 kg heavy cable reel that was connected to the ROV, which consequently prohibited the team from continuing their research. Therefore, the team saw no other option but to return to Connor’s Cove in order to solve the problem. Working days and nights without completely solving the technical issue, including disassembling the reel with 600 m of cable, disconnecting all the cables to the ROV and making numerous satellite phone calls to a technician of the manufacturer, the team was once more prepared to test the underwater robot (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. The Huinay team is working day and night to solve the technical issues. Photos: Mette Schiønning.

Equipped with rubber gloves, puffy survival suits and life jackets, the team successfully launched the ROV down to 250 m in the deepest part of Canal Messier, where they recorded interesting gorgonians, a group of soft corals also known as sea fans (Fig. 3). But as the team got ready to sample their interesting findings with the ROV’s manipulator arm in the deep, the thrusters failed and the team lost control of the robot. Forced to abort the ROV dive, the team found themselves back in the cove with malfunctioning thrusters.

At this point, considering the idea of discontinuing the expedition hardly mattered, as the ferry that was going to bring the team back to Puerto Montt had been delayed by a week.

So while the technical team had to deal with an additional issue, Vreni Häussermann and a scientific research assistant went SCUBA diving in the nearby vicinity to collect sea anemones for genetic studies and to take underwater footages of the picturesque marine environment in Canal Messier (Fig. 4).

Fig. 3. The team is preparing for a new ROV launch. Photos: Mette Schiønning

Fig. 4.  Hydrocorals (Errina antarctica) are often used as substratum by basket stars (Gorgonocephalus chilensis). Sea anemones (Metridium senile lobatum) are dominating in most shallow areas. Photos: Vreni Häussermann.

With a highly compromised ROV, the scientific team eventually managed to carry out two more ROV dives in Canal Messier, including a 499 m dive where they discovered deep-sea sharks, the closely related chimaera, precious coral banks and colourful sea fans. Although, the expedition did not proceed as expected, the Huinay team did not leave empty handed. They still managed to cover a large area through SCUBA diving and launched the ROV on a few locations that have never been explored before.

ith a highly compromised ROV, the scientific team eventually managed to carry out two more ROV dives in Canal Messier, including a 499 m dive where they discovered deep-sea sharks, the closely related chimaera, precious coral banks and colourful sea fans. Although, the expedition did not proceed as expected, the Huinay team did not leave empty handed. They still managed to cover a large area through SCUBA diving and launched the ROV on a few locations that have never been explored before.

Fig. 5. The Huinay team is closely monitoring the marine life and the bathymetry in the deep parts of Canal Messier. Photos: Mette Schiønning.

Take-Home Message from Vreni Häussermann: 

“The take-home message from this trip is unquestionably regardless of how well prepared you are for any expedition, Patagonia is and remains extremely challenging for scientific research. Its harsh climate, the limited days of decent weather, the intricate fjords and the travel time needed to get from a to b. These are only a fraction of all the factors that have to be taken into account in order to conduct marine research in Patagonia. However, this is also what makes this region so special. It is one of the last untouched areas on earth which reveals an incredible biodiversity and a multitude of animals in a pristine environment, which is important to protect so it can be explored and enjoyed by future generations to come.” 

The entire team from Huinay would like to express their sincere gratitude for the all the support received from Greg, Keri and Aliro from Puerto Eden and their great readiness and professionalism.