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Patagonian Corals Expedition 2013: Getting Ready to Go South!

Deepwater emergence - seeing deep-sea corals up close and personal for the first time was an emotional experience for me, here at 100ft depth in the Comau Fjord.
Deepwater emergence – seeing deep-sea corals up close and personal for the first time was an emotional experience for me, here at 100ft depth in the Comau Fjord. Photo by Chris Rigaud.

Around this time last year my dive buddy and I were returning from the first Patagonian fjords expedition. I was returning home with an amazing sense of achievement and a big smile across my face. Despite some less than ideal weather, we had dived in two fjords in the Northern Patagonian fjord region (Comau and Renihue), searching for deepwater emerged corals. This area of the world is unique and just one of a handful of regions where conditions are ripe for deep-sea animals to live shallow, shallow enough to SCUBA dive around. Living laboratories is what we call them.

To work in the deep-sea is time consuming, expensive and rarely do you get an ‘optimal’ situation to get ‘optimal’ samples for the questions you ask. These living laboratories give us deep-sea biologists the access we crave – year round observations and samples – something almost impossible in most deep-sea habitats. Though I work in one other fjord system where we see deepwater emergence – Alaska – the Patagonian fjords hold a special place in my heart because they contain a species that I’ve worked on, and chased after, for my entire career – the stony cup coral Desmophyllum dianthus.

Desmophyllum dianthus - By Cairns S, Kitahara M (2012) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Desmophyllum dianthus – By Cairns S, Kitahara M (2012) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
 This cup coral forms important habitat in the deep ocean, forming structures that act as home and areas for feeding and reproduction for a variety of other animals. My research looks at how these animals maintain populations – how they reproduce and disperse in the inhospitable deep-sea.

But always, samples have been limited – one here, one there. That is until vast stands of these corals were discovered in the Patagonian Fjords – not at its usual depth range of over 1000m, but at just 30m – that’s 100ft depth! Jumping at a chance of a lifetime, last year I led a National Geographic Global Exploration and National Science Foundation funded research expedition to the region. We located many populations of this coral throughout the Comau and Renihue fjords, some healthy and some not.

In three locations I dropped sensor packages, which have (hopefully!) collected important data on salinity, temperature and light over this last year; and collected the first samples of this coral for reproductive analysis. Every three months since then my colleagues in Chile at the Huinay Scientific Field Station have collected samples from these three locations – helping to fill in the puzzle pieces of how these corals live and thrive in the harsh cold ocean conditions.

I'm looking forward to seeing the fields of corals once more - like tubeworms coming out of the fjords walls, like nothing i've ever seen before. Photo by R. Waller.
I’m looking forward to seeing the fields of corals once more – like tubeworms coming out of the fjords walls, like nothing i’ve ever seen before. Photo by R. Waller.

In less than a week myself and my colleague Dr. Laura Grange are headed back to the Patagonian fjords, ready to dive back into winter and cold fjord waters. Bags are being packed, scientific equipment is being checked off the list and scuba gear is being rapidly dried from weeks of preparatory diving, ready to be packed into the ever growing mound of duffel bags we somehow have to get from here to over 10,000 miles south.

Follow along here at the Explorers Journal as we visit our coral sample sites, collect loggers and data and explore more of the fjords for new populations of corals.

NEXT: Read All Patagonian Carals Expedition 2013 Blog Posts