Marine life in the Chilean fjords of Patagonia, an extremely biodiverse area, has been suffering from climate change and human activities.
Marine life in the Chilean fjords of Patagonia, an extremely biodiverse area, has been suffering from climate change and human activities.
Image: Supplied/Rolex/Jeremias Thomas

The Rolex Perpetual Planet initiative was launched in 2019, with the aim of supporting a vibrant and active network of individuals and organisations using science to understand and preserve the Earth’s sensitive ecosystems on land and in the water. 

One of these individuals is Vreni Häussermann, who is at the forefront of the effects of global climate change as she pilots submersibles through the ancient Chilean fjords of Patagonia on a voyage of discovery. 

Marine biologist Vreni Häussermann received a Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2016 to advance her project to discover and protect the unique marine life of the Chilean fjords of Patagonia.
Marine biologist Vreni Häussermann received a Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2016 to advance her project to discover and protect the unique marine life of the Chilean fjords of Patagonia.
Image: Supplied/Rolex/Jeremias Thomas

Vreni Häussermann is a marine biologist by training who is diving to the unexplored depths of the Chilean fjords of Patagonia to better understand the biodiversity of this unique part of the sea.

Häussermann is an explorer in the true sense of the word: she is revealing uncharted, otherworldly ecosystems and sharing them with the world, so that we can all understand what’s at stake should the current trend of climate change and damage caused by human activity continue.

“There are many secrets hidden down there. It’s our responsibility to explore what’s down in the ocean and to show people what we find,” she says.

There are many secrets hidden down there. It’s our responsibility to explore what’s down in the ocean and to show people what we find
Vreni Häussermann, marine biologist

What she’s seeing is like a snapshot of Earth’s ancient history. There are species of undersea animals here that have called these reefs home for millennia, and corals that exist nowhere else in the world.

This 2016 Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate’s undertaking is a stark reminder that we’ve only explored 15% of the world’s oceans, and that we know more about outer space than we do about the vibrant, ever-changing mass of water covering 71% of the globe. 

The results of Häussermann’s work are astonishing. Marine Benthic Fauna of Chilean Patagonia, the first comprehensive field guide covering sea species of this region, took 10 years to complete, involved experts from 25 different countries, and unearthed 70 species that are entirely new to science.

When you think about it, it’s not surprising that this part of the Chilean coast has yielded such an abundance of life. It’s more than 100,000km long, and it was only with the new equipment that she was able to develop with the support of her Rolex Award for Enterprise that she was able to extend her explorations to depths never before reached by humans. 

Vreni Häussermann collects a tiny starfish (Solaster regularis) for analysis at Huinay Scientific Field Station.
Vreni Häussermann collects a tiny starfish (Solaster regularis) for analysis at Huinay Scientific Field Station.
Image: Supplied/Jeffrey Garriock

Sadly, during her 25 years of living and working here, Häussermann has witnessed first-hand the devastating effects of pollution from local salmon farms and climate change on the once-pristine fjords.

Animals and plants, finely acclimated to living here over thousands of years, are dying off at a rapid rate. Every species is interconnected, and if one succumbs to climate change, a chain reaction can be set off that affects hundreds of others. This is the sad tale of how ecosystems collapse. 

We saw a big coral mortality. Ninety-nine percent of the corals died off, and they haven’t recovered. We’re losing species that we aren’t even aware of yet
Marine biologist Vreni Häussermann on the effects of pollution and climate change on the Chilean fjords of Patagonia 

“We saw a big coral mortality. Ninety-nine percent of the corals died off, and they haven’t recovered. We’re losing species that we aren’t even aware of yet. We have to understand the ecosystems and describe the biodiversity so that we can start to protect it,” she says.

Far from being discouraged, Häussermann has used this information as fuel in her fight to get the Chilean government to create and maintain marine protected areas in the seas off the Patagonian coast. There are currently 10 in existence, but many of them still harbour toxic salmon farms.

Häussermann is still hopeful, however. More fish farms are closing down due to pressure from local communities that are beginning to understand the importance of the fjords thanks to the work of this undersea warrior.

Navigate to Rolex.org to discover more and to watch the Rolex 'Heroes of the Oceans' documentary. #PerpetualPlanet #RolexAwards

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