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Patagonian Corals Expedition 2013: Peering Into the Darkness

Wearing a borrowed drysuit, I (Rhian Waller) sitting on the bow during the ride over to our dive site. Though the water is a cold 48F right now, the air temperature has been pleasantly in the 50's. Photo by Laura Grange.
Wearing a borrowed drysuit, Rhian Waller sits on the bow during the ride over to our dive site. Though the water is a cold 48F right now, the air temperature has been pleasantly in the high 50′s. Photo by Laura Grange.

Having found a drysuit that fits me well enough not to leak, we’ve moved on fast and furious from the technical issues of day 1. In fact this morning (Saturday 21st) is the first morning we’ve had a few hours to take stock of samples, catch up on dive and expedition logs and look through the plethora of underwater photographs and logger data (salinity, temperature and light).

An anemone perched on a coralline algae encrusted rock. 100ft depth in the Comau fjord. Photo by Rhian Waller.
An anemone perched on a coralline algae encrusted rock. 100ft depth in the Comau fjord. Photo by Rhian Waller.

The morning after my “catastrophic’ drysuit failure, and wearing a borrowed suit that fitted well enough to keep me dry, we headed over to a place called X-Huinay, to check out the massive wall of dead corals we discovered when i was here a year ago. I wanted to revisit this wall – to see if there were any survivors, to show my colleague Laura Grange this massive die off event, to explore a little further north where hydrothermal venting is occurring and to take photos of the walls of dead cup corals.

The sight was still as disturbing to me as discovering it last year – the cause is still unknown, but researchers at the Huinay Scientific Field Station are working to find out why this happened.

Laura Grange checks out the walls of dead corals at 80ft depth in the Comau Fjord. Photo by Rhian Waller
Laura Grange checks out the walls of dead corals at 80ft depth in the Comau Fjord. Photo by Rhian Waller

On Thursday we headed one fjord further south, Renihue fjord, part of Parque Pumalin. Last year we left a data-logger in this fjord, and collected corals from some of the most spectacular coral beds I have ever seen (Read more here). I was eager to go back, not only to get the logger, but to also get the chance of a lifetime to see those huge coral banks again.

Myself (left) and Laura Grange duck into the tiny boat cabin to get our gear together. Our boat captain Roberto unfortunately gets the brunt of the weather! Photo by Gunter Forsterra.
Myself (left) and Laura Grange duck into the tiny boat cabin to get our gear together. Our boat captain Roberto unfortunately gets the brunt of the weather! Photo by Gunter Forsterra.

After an early start, and some technical difficulties, we made it to Renihue and boarded the boat kindly provided by Parque Pumalin. The weather was not on our side, on the journey over the rain began to come down, heavier and heavier as the minutes rolled on. By the time we were on site, we were just as wet as if we were already in the water.

Swimming out to the dive site from the boat in the pouring rain, everything was wet! Photo by Gunter Forsterra.
Swimming out to the dive site from the boat in the pouring rain, everything was wet! Photo by Gunter Forsterra.

The bad news was that the ‘weather’ wasn’t any better underwater. These fjords have a huge freshwater influence, and sometimes this freshwater layer (that sits on top of the salt water) can last for many tens of feet, and is very very dark.

On the two dives we did at Renihue the visibility was very poor, even to 100ft depth! As we dropped down and down, rather than clearing out like it usually did once you were through the freshwater layer, the murk continued getting darker and darker. We switched on our flashlights as well as our headlamps, such was the darkness. A night dive in the middle of the day!

As we dropped to the right depth (100ft), my heart sank a little that the murk did not clear. I  started to doubt we would ever find the logger when Laura signaled emphatically to the left. Peering into the darkness with my flashlight, a bright reflection came back – the data logger!

Though visibility was very poor, my keen eyed dive buddy Laura Grange spotted the marker attached to the logger and we managed a successful recovery. Photo by Laura Grange.
Though visibility was very poor, my keen eyed dive buddy Laura Grange spotted the marker attached to the logger and we managed a successful recovery. Photo by Laura Grange.

A great sense of relief comes over you when you find a piece of equipment you placed in the ocean a full year ago – so many things could have happened to it in your absence. Not only are the loggers expensive, but they contain a years worth of valuable data – what environment have the corals experienced the last year, what has influenced their ecology? Things I want to know!

Still one of the most amazing sights i've ever seen as a marine biologist - deep-sea corals living in a spot where i can reach out and tickle their tentacles. Photo by Rhian Waller.
Still one of the most amazing sights i’ve ever seen as a marine biologist – deep-sea corals living in a spot where i can reach out and tickle their tentacles. Photo by Rhian Waller.

Coming across an overhang of Desmophyllum dianthus corals, in a form not seen elsewhere, still takes my breath away.

 With the logger found, we moved on to find samples on the second dive, and luckily the murk had cleared a little (really little – but every foot of clearer water makes a difference!). Coming across an overhang of Desmophyllum dianthus corals, in a form not seen elsewhere, still takes my breath away. White, orange and pink tentacles, looking almost like feather duster worms, yet these are corals – deep-sea corals at that! Just amazing.

Another amazing sight in Renihue - the sheer numbers of juvenile king crab (or Centolla as they call them here). Photo by Rhian Waller.
Another amazing sight in Renihue – the sheer numbers of juvenile king crab (or Centolla as they call them here). Photo by Rhian Waller.

The dives went fast – there’s not much time when you’re working at 100ft depth. Just 15 minutes you can spend working, before the computer alarms sound and it’s time to come shallower or risk decompression sickness without doing long decompression stops. At such a remote location as this we do everything we can to minimize risk, so stick solely to no-decompression diving.

But even in 15 minutes we managed to – 1) give me time to stare in awe before Laura snapped me out of it and reminded me we had limited time; 2) collect the samples; 3) take photos (through murky water) and 4) spend another 15 minutes coming up slowly, enjoying the amazing fauna (giant sea stars, king crabs, bivalves and snails) on the way to the surface.

Sunset over the Comau fjord from the Huinay Scientific Field Station. Photo by Rhian Waller.
Sunset over the Comau fjord from the Huinay Scientific Field Station. Photo by Rhian Waller.

Even better news for the day was seeing the rain subside, the sun start to shine and news that the weather report says no more rain for the rest of our expedition!

 

NEXT: Read All Patagonian Carals Expedition 2013 Blog Posts