Pristine Seas Expedition

Juan Fernández Archipelago

At Sea: March 2017
Country: Chile

The Place

Our scientific understanding of the Juan Fernández islands, among the few oceanic islands belonging to Chile, is extremely limited. The archipelago lies about 600 kilometers west of Valparaíso and consists of three islands: Robinson Crusoe, Santa Clara, and Alejandro Selkirk. They are recognized as a distinct ecoregion and are home to a high percentage of rare and endemic plants and animals, including the Juan Fernández fur seal and two petrel species: Stejneger’s petrel and the Juan Fernández petrel, which are both vulnerable to human impact due to their small breeding ranges.

Despite being close to the South American continent, the islands’ marine flora and fauna more closely resemble those found in the central and South Pacific due to the biogeographic barrier created by the Humboldt Current, which passes powerfully between the islands and the mainland.

In collaboration with the Waitt Foundation, Pristine Seas launched a two-week scientific expedition to the Juan Fernández archipelago to study and film its deep-sea and open-ocean ecosystems, traveling from Santiago to Alejandro Selkirk, Robinson Crusoe, and Santa Clara islands.

At Alejandro Selkirk—the least explored of the islands—the team conducted the first comprehensive baseline survey of the surrounding waters. And at Robinson Crusoe and Santa Clara, they used remote cameras to capture footage of the islands’ deep-sea and open-ocean environments.

Surveying the fish around Robinson Crusoe made chief scientist Alan Friedlander dizzy. “This is the most unique fish fauna on Earth,” he says, “with nearly all the species we see known only from these islands.” While at Robinson Crusoe, the team also observed dozens of endemic Juan Fernández fur seal pups swimming in the shallows of the Bahía del Padre. The species represents a true comeback story: Following its discovery in the 1500s, it was heavily hunted for its pelt, blubber, and meat and was thought extinct until a small group was rediscovered in 1965. Today, due to protections and an abundance of available food, its adult population is estimated to be around 16,000.

Diving at Alejandro Selkirk, team members observed a rocky landscape covered with thousands of urchins, as well as a school of hundreds of yellowtail jacks and moray eels in such large numbers that they saw frequent territorial disputes between them.

The Result

Scientific data gathered during the expedition was used to highlight the endemic flora and fauna of the Juan Fernández islands, and Pristine Seas, the Waitt Foundation, and Oceana Chile worked together with the local community of Juan Fernández to define the most effective way to protect these incredible marine ecosystems. In May 2017, the community of Juan Fernández proposed that Chilean President Michelle Bachelet designate this marine area protected to safeguard this unique ecosystem and help rebuild important depleted fisheries in the South Pacific while ensuring the future of the Juan Fernández community’s sustainable lobster fishery. In October 2017 at the Our Ocean Conference in Malta, the Government of Chile announced the creation of a marine park in Juan Fernández, which will be the largest in the American continent at 485,000 square kilometers.

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