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Patagonian Corals Expedition 2013: Rainforests of the Ocean

Very different from the first days in the fjord, our final day was punctuated by amazing sunshine and water clarity. Photo by Laura Grange.
Very different from the first days in the fjord, our final day was punctuated by amazing sunshine and water clarity. Photo by Laura Grange.

Cars. Moving fast and slow. Horns blaring at one another as we cruise down the Carretera Austral. Lights, lots of them. The smell of street vendors selling food items. Elevator music playing bad covers at the hotel. The sounds and smells of the end of an expedition, a return to civilization and the beginning the long journey home.

On our final day at the Huinay Scientific Field Station, while our dive gear was drying, we got to explore Comau fjord more by kayak. Photo by Rhian Waller.
On our final day at the Huinay Scientific Field Station, while our dive gear was drying, we got to explore Comau fjord more by kayak. Photo by Rhian Waller.

Wrapping up an expedition is the time to reflect – on the work that we’ve accomplished over the last few weeks, over the data and samples collected, over the results we hope to find and over what more is left to do.

This expedition has been adventurous (perhaps a little too adventurous at times!), and despite some dark days of wet and rain and equipment failure, everything we set out to do we’ve accomplished….and more.

Rhian Waller during a dive in the Comau fjords. Photo by Laura Grange.
Rhian Waller during a dive in the Comau fjords. Photo by Laura Grange.

The goals of this expedition were to collect the final series of samples from a year long monitoring program, to collect the data loggers and to download their precious recordings of temperature, salinity and light; and to take stock of the ecosystems we are working in – how many corals are in these three areas we chose to monitor? How healthy are the corals? What other animals use these ecosystems as home?

A red seastar nestled amongst golden zooanthids, another type of soft coral here in the fjords. Photo by Rhian Waller.
A red seastar nestled amongst golden zooanthids, another type of soft coral here in the fjords. Photo by Rhian Waller.

This area in Patagonia is truly unique, and I feel extremely privileged to have been given the opportunity to do ecological work in this region. The abundance of corals in this area is astounding, yet so few know they’re here, even fewer have ever seen them and even fewer yet truly grasp their importance to our planet.

The hard coral Desmophyllum dianthus pokes out from the fjord wall. Bright tentacles reach out into the water, waiting for food to fall by. Photo by Rhian Waller.
The hard coral Desmophyllum dianthus pokes out from the fjord wall. Bright tentacles reach out into the water, waiting for food to fall by. Photo by Rhian Waller.

Coral ecosystems have been called the ‘rainforests’ of the ocean, and while this is true, they’re actually so much more.

Corals are not just beautiful to look at (and in my humble opinion, these cold-water corals rival the beauty of their tropical counterparts!), they’re also extremely important to the health of our oceans, and ultimately the health of the planet. Coral ecosystems have been called the ‘rainforests’ of the ocean, and while this is true, they’re actually so much more.

These diverse cold-water corals form habitats for multitudes of other species of marine life – from small seastars, worms and bivalves; to larger crabs and fish – and even species that are commercially fished for human consumption. Without the corals that support these species, many fish, molluscs and crustaceans we eat, just wouldn’t be there.

A field of anemones on the fjord walls. Photo by Rhian Waller.
A field of anemones on the fjord walls. Photo by Rhian Waller.

Corals are also important for regulating ocean chemistry. These corals build calcium carbonate skeletons using CO2, pulling it from the seawater they sit in. This CO2 comes from the atmosphere, so these corals are helping to remove and recycle this contributor to global warming.

Many species of coral have also been used in drug development, for treating cancers and other illnesses. Many of the cold-water species have not yet been investigated for their pharmaceutical potential, meaning there might be an untapped wealth of cures living in our deep ocean.

We pass a salmon farm on the way back from our final dive. The large oxygen tanks are required to keep the salmon alive. So many are kept in each pen, they deplete the natural oxygen quickly. Photo by Rhian Waller.
We pass a salmon farm on the way back from our final dive. The large oxygen tanks are required to keep the salmon alive. So many are kept in each pen, they deplete the natural oxygen quickly. Photo by Rhian Waller.

Without corals our oceans would look a lot different, as would our land, and our atmosphere – everything on this planet is interconnected.

Corals are also some of the oldest ecosystems on Earth, yet despite surviving many major changes in climate over the last 240 million years, they are locally very fragile ecosystems. Any major disturbance – either through physical damage such as that from fisheries or collection, or through environmental disturbance such as run off, chemicals and climate change – has the potential to damage local corals, and thus the whole local ecosystem.

In my line of work I see so many areas that are impacted by man’s activities, that every time we see a healthy ecosystem I just have to smile and be happy – as you should too. Without corals our oceans would look a lot different, as would our land, and our atmosphere – everything on this planet is interconnected.

Looking up and looking down. All I can see is amazing cold-water corals. Photo by Rhian Waller.
Looking up and looking down. All I can see is amazing cold-water corals. Photo by Rhian Waller.

The last few days of this expedition we had the opportunity to explore more areas in the Comau fjord. As we swam at 100ft depth amongst literally thousands of coral polyps extending their white, pink and orange tentacles into the current, I had to smile at the sheer abundance of life. From as far up, and as far down, as I could see using my headlight to cut through the darkness, there were healthy corals.

Now we just need to keep them that way.

The sun shone so brightly, and the water was so clear, you could almost believe we were in the tropics on our final days. You would have a shock if you jumped into the water without a drysuit however, the warmest water temperatures we recorded were just 50F. Photo by Rhian Waller.
The sun shone so brightly, and the water was so clear, you could almost believe we were in the tropics on our final days. You would have a shock if you jumped into the water without a drysuit however, the warmest water temperatures we recorded were just 50F. Photo by Rhian Waller.

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