Deep impact

For almost 25 years, marine biologist Vreni Häussermann has been opening people’s eyes to the wonders of the Chilean Patagonia fjords and using her research to push for greater protection of the marine environment. 

Written by       Photographed by ©Rolex/Ambroise Tézenas

Vreni Häussermann’s fascination with the underwater world started early in life. Even before she could swim properly, the German-born marine biologist remembers snorkelling during her regular family holidays in the Mediterranean.

“I always loved the ocean. I just loved to see what was under the water.”

That fascination didn’t wane and her desire to understand the marine environment has continued through her academic career. In 1997, she went on her first research trip to Patagonian fjords and, despite the weather, fell in love with the place.

Sea anemones (Actinostola chilensis) on the Patagonian seabed. ©Vreni Häussermann & Günter Försterra

“You know this from New Zealand, but you have the mountains and oceans close together. I love both, so for me, fjords are the most beautiful places in the world.”

In 2003, she was named scientific director at the Huinay Scientific Field Station and this remote posting offered her an amazing opportunity.

“It was so exciting. It was like Europe 200 years ago where totally basic things were not discovered. You could find new species or dive in places where no scientists have dived before. I think it’s the dream of a traditional biologist.”

Marine life in the fjords of Patagonia, an
extremely biodiverse area, has been suffering
from climate change and human activities.

Häussermann became happily “stuck” in Chile and her main area of research focused on cold-water corals and sea anemones. She has helped to identify around 70 new species, with many more being studied and classified—three new anemones have even been named after her husband and children. She has also mapped whole underwater ecosystems and identified areas that can be used to measure the effects of human activity.

“When I made this big effort to go to a region where hardly anyone had studied before, I wanted to really use the opportunity to see if I could find something interesting. I feel I’m a person who wants to look at nature as a total. If I see something that looks interesting or weird or wrong, I need to find out what’s happened.”

Vreni Häussermann on an expedition to collect marine life from the fjords.

As an example of that mindset in action, she points to a huge mortality event in 2015/2016 where whales, sardines, jellyfish and molluscs died. To her surprise, no other whale researchers were interested in finding out what caused it, but to her, “it was a necessity”.

Häussermann discovered more than 300 dead whales on her survey of the region and there was a “99% probability” that the deaths were caused by toxic algae blooms.

The ‘red-tide’ toxins accumulate in pelagic crabs, which are the main food source for the whales. And while she says it’s not clear if this algal bloom was due to climate change or contamination, they are becoming more frequent in the area.

“In Patagonia, what we’re seeing is summers that are getting very dry. We have hardly any rain anymore in the summer and as the water temperature at the surface rises, we get more red tides and toxic algal blooms. The algae like lots of sunshine and warm waters and don’t like the fresh water that would come from rain.”

Vreni Häussermann and her team place a
remotely operated vehicle in the water, ready
for exploration.

In 2016, Häussermann became a Rolex Award for Enterprise Laureate. The award is part of Rolex’s Perpetual Planet Initiative, a programme that supports those who “explore our world to study and protect ecosystems”, and the resources provided through that award allowed her to launch expeditions using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV).

“When we dive, we can only go down 20-30 metres. The fjord goes down 1,900 metres so it’s just scratching the surface, really, but the ROV can go down to depths of about 500 metres and see what is happening.”

Patagonia’s fjords, the focus of Vreni
Häussermann’s research, are a biodiversity
hotspot. ©Vreni Häussermann & Günter Försterra

Another benefit of the award was that it helped to raise awareness of her work and change perceptions of the fjords.

“Twenty years ago everyone thought there was nothing underwater in Patagonia. It was seen as just brown and grey and dark. Now I think most people would know there are corals and diverse life there. It’s key to make this known and show people the beauty of the fjords. Because if people don’t know that they are so unique and that the diverse life there is threatened, no one will want to protect it.”

Häussermann hopes her research and advocacy work will lead to the creation of more marine reserves in Patagonia.

“We don’t really know all the effects of climate change in Patagonia so we need to leave more area open for species that might need to move due to changing conditions… We are definitely not doing enough to create fully protected marine reserves.”

The cold-water coral Desmophyllum dianthus
is one of many marine creatures researched by
Vreni Häussermann. ©Vreni Häussermann & Günter Försterra

Nearly half of Chile’s waters have some protection, which is the highest percentage of any country in the world, she says. However, that is slightly misleading, because “the level of protection is not well-defined”.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s ranking system ranges from fully protected marine areas to protected areas that allow “everything except mining”.

In Chile, salmon farming is allowed in many of its protected areas and “we know that is damaging”. There are also huge areas around its offshore islands that exclude the coast where most fishing is done.

“This is a global issue, but the problem is that people and politicians are all thinking about the now. Nobody seems to care about the benefits in 20 years if they can’t fish next week.”

Häussermann and her team are currently advising the Chilean Government on where to put new marine protected areas “so the biggest amount of species can be protected while occupying the least amount of area”.

Vreni Häussermann collects a tiny starfish (Solaster regularis) for analysis at Huinay Scientific Field Station. ©Jeffrey Garriock

She is also part of a scientific panel looking at the next 10-15 years of development in the region. And while the salmon farming industry likes to talk about sustainable production, she believes it has already gone beyond the environmental limits in some areas.

“Since I’ve been here, the fjord is so low on oxygen that the fish can’t survive if they don’t permanently pump oxygen into the water. When there are all these toxic algal blooms they need to put a ring of air bubbles around each cage so it doesn’t get to the fish. It’s quite crazy. If the fish can’t survive, what happens to the rest of the animals?”

Her research has measured the density of species in the fjords’ waters and she is looking for students to compare samples from previous years. It’s labour-intensive work, but the comparisons show that biodiversity is declining.

Vreni Häussermann, just back from a dive, in the wet lab at Huinay Scientific Field Station.

“We’ve tried to explain that we need to be careful, especially with fjords where the water might only change once or twice per year… I think they’re starting to listen and I hope they can change something.”

Another side project of Häussermann’s is to try and link up different researchers from around the world.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, New Zealand scientist Ken Grange surveyed the New Zealand fjords and found a unique habitat. He was the first to bring up the idea of deep water emergence, where species and larvae typically found hundreds of metres below the surface reach up into shallow water. He believed the lack of light from the brown tannin layer at the surface played a role, but in Chile, North America and Norway the same phenomenon can be seen, even though the tannin layer isn’t present.

“We don’t really understand what makes them similar. We’ve tested all the physical factors and none really applied, so it’s an open question and I feel like it would be a great question for a worldwide study group. That would be my big dream. Whenever I talk to someone working in a fjord, I plant this idea and hope that one day we have people in all fjord regions who can find money to do this.”