An underwater photo released by NGO Mission Blue shows a diver inspecting a kelp forest in Chiloé, a coastal region in southern Chile about 1,400 km south of Santiago, on April 10, 2023.
Chilean Patagonia hides the largest and best preserved algae forests under the sea, which is one of the most carbon sequestering ecosystems in the world, along with the Amazon.
In early April, the American NGO Mission Blue traveled to the coastal region of southern Chile, about 1,400 km south of Santiago, on a reconnaissance expedition to “Underwater Patagonia”.
Twelve scientists, videographers and photographers descended to a depth of 30 meters to collect information on the nearly unexplored ecosystem.
“When they tell you Patagonia, one imagines hills, big rocks, winds, but few people know what’s under the water,” says Maximiliano Bello, a Chilean expert on maritime policy and expeditions.
Down there, as if it were wind, the waves stir the large stems and leaves of giant algae that can measure up to 20 meters across. They are surrounded by infinite marine species of many colors: turquoise, yellow, purple or pink.
This algae (Macrocystis pyrifera), known as huiro, is one of the fastest growing species in the world. They grow 30 times faster than land plants.
Cold water corals are also visible at a distance of 10 or 15 meters from the surface, which are found only at a depth of 2,000 meters in other areas of the planet.
The team sailed for nine days through hundreds of islands, fjords and channels, starting and arriving on the American continent at the city of Puerto Montt.
The expedition was to be led by Sylvia Earle, a renowned American oceanographer who at the age of 87 still dives into the depths of the ocean. However, shortly before leaving for Chile, the Earl fell ill.
– Reveal to the rescue –
Half of the world’s kelp forests have disappeared due to human activity and climate change. The most emblematic case, says Bello, is that of California, where 97% of them were lost.
“We want to show what can be lost if we don’t protect it,” he explains.
“We know that Patagonia has the largest continuous kelp forest in the best condition in the world” and that it “may have even greater carbon sequestration power than the Amazon,” says this expert.
Like land plants, giant kelp photosynthesize. They use energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide into organic compounds and release oxygen. They also have the characteristic of retaining carbon between their tissues.
These vast forests maintain the structure of the shores, regulate the pH of the water and provide shelter, spawning and food for invertebrates and fish.
“They are the real nurseries of many species, such as jurelles, sardines, chungungos and hyalines (saltwater and freshwater otters), locos (abalones, tolinas or chunks), hedgehogs and octopuses,” Bello says.
In Chile, you can find the Huairo Forest, one of the last inhabited areas on the planet, from Arica on the northern border to Cape Horn.
They are present along the Pacific coast in North America, as well as along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts in South America, as well as in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and subantarctic islands.
– A non-cosmetic hazard –
Underwater Patagonia has minimal environmental protection. Gabriel Boric’s government has pledged to increase conservation efforts for these ecosystems in Chile, which is home to a third of the world’s underwater giant kelp forests, according to the NGO OceanWise.
One of the main threats is the exploitation of alginate, a key ingredient in cosmetics, which is extracted illegally from algae, mainly on the country’s northern coast.
“If we don’t protect ourselves from this threat before it reaches Patagonia, if we don’t stop what’s happening in the north, we could be one of the few north to be able to end climate change.” Will lose.” Bello warns.