Vreni Häussermann remembers the exact moment she fell in love with the
deserted southern fjords of Chilean Patagonia that she now strives to protect. On a research trip in 1997, she and her research partner and later husband, Günter Försterra, happened upon an unusual landscape of stormy seas and snow-capped mountains. For Häussermann, “it was absolutely obvious that this was the most exciting place in the country to study.”
Not everyone would share her eagerness. Chilean Patagonia is challenging terrain to explore: the maze of fjords, channels and islands (the coast stretches 90,000 km, though the distance from north to south as the crow flies is just 1,500 km) is home to tempestuous winds and intense storms. Since the region has been poorly mapped, each expedition is literally a voyage of discovery, allowing Häussermann to find dozens of new species over the years.
Contrary to what Häussermann learned as a biologist – life is most diverse in the tropics, less so closer to the poles – the fjords are a biodiversity hotspot, teeming with spiky neon-orange sea anemones and blood-red corals. The reason for this seeming paradox, she says, is that the fjords contain a vast range of environments, veering from “highly saline to extremely fresh water, from intense sunlight to dark shadows, from protected bays to wave-battered shores”. All this means an
extraordinary variety of species are able to live so closely together.
The fjords Häussermann studies are under threat. Salmon farming, until
recently concentrated in northern Patagonia, is moving south. Fish farming is big business: the industry earns US$2.5 billion from salmon exports every year, representing nearly 5 per cent of the country’s total exports. Farming is generally run unsustainably, releasing vast quantities of waste and chemicals that damage ecosystems and marine species indiscriminately.
This pollution is partly responsible for “destabilizing the ecosystem”, Häussermann says, and is probably contributing to an alarming rise in mass die-offs of animals. In 2015, Häussermann’s team discovered 337 dead whales on an expedition to a remote area. More species are experiencing these mass die-offs, including sardines, jellyfish and mollusks.
Häussermann wants the people of Chile to care about their environment as much as she does. She plans to engage them by developing a blog of her expeditions and to create a travelling exhibition on marine life.
This is the right time to involve communities, says Häussermann, since Chileans are becoming sensitized to these issues. Ecological crises are often an “economic disaster”, and since fish and shellfish die-offs mean fishermen increasingly struggle to earn an income, they have been demonstrating against the destruction of the ocean in a bid for government action. “This is the first broad environmental movement I have ever seen in Chile,” she says.
Until now, her scuba-diving expeditions have been restricted to depths of 30
metres. The Rolex Award will allow Häussermann’s team to use a remote-operated vehicle (a metre-square box equipped with thrusters, cameras and sensors) to depths of 500 metres. By uploading photographs and videos of marine life to Google Earth and YouTube, Häussermann and her team will be able to document a world never before seen by the human eye.
The exhibition and a short film about Chilean Patagonia will be presented at
the fourth International Marine Protected Areas Congress in Chile in 2017, and Häussermann plans to use this opportunity to convince environment authorities to designate some areas of the fjord region as a marine-protected area. In 2006, she submitted a proposal to protect two fjords with unique cold-water coral banks. “Back then this did not receive much resonance, but times have changed,” says Häussermann.
After two decades in Patagonia, Häussermann’s motto is to expect the
unexpected. “I have learned patience here. Things don’t always go to plan, so you always have a plan B.” This philosophy is critical on expeditions, where weather conditions can switch in an instant from calm to stormy, or when equipment can fail unexpectedly. “You cannot take doubles of each piece of equipment, nor can you have anything repaired,” she explains. That is why the repair skills of her husband are invaluable. “I would not be able to repair a compressor if it failed, but he knows the right tricks to fix things and can come up with creative solutions.”
Häussermann and Försterra have two children, aged six and nine. On average they spend one week a month at the isolated Huinay Scientific Field Station, where she carries out her research. Their children are schooled at home. “For them, it’s totally normal to spend most of their day climbing, fishing, hiking, swimming and kayaking. This is their life in Patagonia.”
Published in 2016