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February 12, 2013

Diving into the Unknown

On Friday Oceana and National Geographic launched an expedition to explore the waters off of the remote Desventuradas Islands more than 500 miles off the coast of Chile. Already the team is sending back fascinating footage. Below is an expedition journal entry from Enric Sala, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. Click here to view all Desventuradas Expedition blog posts on National Geographic’s Explorers Journal.

10 February 2013

Today we did the first scientific dives reported for San Ambrosio Island. We don’t even know if anyone has ever dived here, period. The sea was calm, the water blue and clear, and we could not wait to jump in the water.

It has been almost a year since Alex Muñoz – Executive Director of Oceana Chile – and I started planning this expedition. During this time, we were not able to find a single underwater photo of the Desventuradas Islands. So I felt like I was parachuting in, at night, over unknown territory. I had no idea what I was going to find, but this only made it more exciting. Because these islands are so remote and apparently devoid of local human impacts, we expected to see lots of fish–and hopefully large fish in particular.

The first time diving in a completely new place is like learning a new language in five seconds. We jump in the water, look around, try to identify as many species as possible in the shortest possible time, look for patterns, and build a mental picture of the underwater ecosystem. And so we did at San Ambrosio.

As soon as the bubbles cleared, we could see the bottom at 25 meters depth. There was a rocky wall of dark volcanic rock descending to 25 meters, with thousands of long-spined sea urchins. A closer look revealed that the urchins had eaten all the organisms on the rock, and left it bare, except for some small light patches with encrusting coralline algae and tube-forming snails. Then a shadow zoomed in; it was a curious Juan Fernández sea lion. It swam between us, fast as lightning, with huge eyes like a character in a Japanese cartoon, looking at us surprised. It had probably never seen a human underwater before.

Our eyes followed the sea lion as it swam back to the surface, and then we saw a brown belt between the surface and 10-meters depth. It was kelp, undulating with the swell. And among and over the kelp there were thousands of fish, swimming in and out of the  canopy. As we approached the fish schools, they engulfed us. We were like planets surrounded by countless satellites. All of a sudden, the small fish in the schools swam to safety, because ten large yellowtail jacks swam fast as torpedoes to check us out.

I felt that feeling of fulfillment that one only experiences in wild nature. It is a combination of exhilaration and bliss. It is our first day at San Ambrosio, and we can already tell that this underwater world is wild and healthy. I cannot wait to discover how many more surprises are waiting for us.

This originally journal entry appeared on nationalgeographic.com. Follow the expedition through our South American office  and through National Geographic’s Pristine Seas website.