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Salas y Gómez and Easter Island

At Sea: February 2010 to March 2011
Country: Chile

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The Place

Chile’s Salas y Gómez, or Motu Motiro Hiva, is a dark, rugged rise of volcanic basalt in the vast Pacific Ocean, its low shores flooded with tide pools. Located more than 320 kilometers off the coast of Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, this tiny, uninhabited isle is the only obstacle that the sea encounters for hundreds of kilometers in any direction.

Swimming below the waves that break against the island is an abundance of marine life, including large predators such as sharks, amberjacks, and trevally. Crystal-clear waters showcase vibrant, healthy corals, and the lobsters are some of the largest ever seen.


The Mission

In February 2010, National Geographic partnered with the Waitt Foundation and Oceana to conduct a preliminary survey of Salas y Gómez. In October 2010, then Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced the creation of Motu Motiro Hiva Marine Park, a 150,000-square-kilometer no-take marine reserve surrounding the islands. In February and March of the following year, National Geographic again partnered with Oceana, as well as the Chilean Navy, to survey and document the new reserve and to compare its marine ecosystem with that of environmentally similar Easter Island, where unprotected waters have been depleted of sharks and other large fish.

To carry out the survey, a team of 18 scientists and filmmakers spent six days diving beneath the swells and studying their surroundings. From boats on the surface, they satellite-tagged Galapagos sharks for long-term tracking and sent drop cams and an ROV to record the ocean depths. Theirs was the first expedition to use scuba diving and remote imaging in a systematic survey of the area.

The Result

Despite these waters’ protected status, the team saw evidence of recent fishing and even spotted—and intercepted—an illegal fishing boat that had dropped its lines not far from their own ship, underscoring the importance of enforcement within the reserve. And though fish numbers were about three times higher than the team’s divers had observed off Easter Island in the preceding weeks, the sharks were smaller than expected.

Pristine Seas founder Enric Sala and fellow scientists released a report that highlighted the differences they observed between pristine Salas y Gómez and unprotected Easter Island. Among their findings: 73 percent of the individual fish around Salas y Gómez are endemic, and 44 percent of the seabed contains live corals that serve as habitat for several species of fish and invertebrates. In addition, large predators such as sharks, horse mackerel, and amberjacks were found to account for 43 percent of the island’s reef fish.

The findings clearly illustrated the power of establishing a marine protected area, as well as the importance of enforcing those protections.

150,000 square-km reserve
73% of fish species are endemic
44% of seabed is live corals

The Highlights

The team is a man down after a toe meets 40 kilos of dive weights. Salas y Gómez reveals its secrets—and raises some questions. The Chilean Navy marks time with empanadas. An illegal fishing boat gets brazen. An upside-down shark is easier to tag. Not everyone returns unscathed after an exploratory party goes ashore. Magical dives and rainbows are pure bliss near an island that’s finally mapped correctly. It’s an uncommon mission—and prize assignment—for the Comandante Toro’s lucky crew.