On a research trip in 1997, Vreni Häussermann and her research partner, Günter Försterra, happened upon an unusual landscape of stormy seas and snow-capped mountains. Five years later and now married, they decided to make Chilean Patagonia their home. As the director of the Huinay Scientific Field Station, Häussermann has spent the past 15 years studying the area’s rich biodiversity, exploring the seas that teem with spiky neon-orange sea anemones and blood-red corals.
Until now, her scuba-diving expeditions have been restricted to depths of 30 metres. Her 2016 Rolex Award for Enterprise will allow Häussermann’s team to use a remote-operated vehicle (a metre-square box equipped with thrusters, cameras and sensors) to explore depths of up to 500 metres. Uploading the photographs and videos of marine life to Google Earth and YouTube, Häussermann and her team will be able to document a world never-before seen by the human eye.
In 2005, my husband and I began putting together an inventory of Chilean and Patagonian marine life. We had no way of identifying the species we found when diving because no information existed. Patagonia has 90,000km of coastline – which would circle the world twice – so it’s quite a lot of work for two people. We are scuba diving and can only descend to a depth of 30 metres. The deepest fjord is 3,300 metres, so we are only scratching the surface of the research that needs to be done.
When you take on an expedition in Patagonia, you expose yourself to extreme conditions in an exceptionally remote part of the world. You can only take a fraction of the equipment needed to repair or replace broken kit, so we need to be incredibly flexible in our preparation – we’re getting used to finding solutions for every weather change or broken part. Sometimes it can take up to five days’ travel by boat to get to the area you want to explore, and when you’re there you can’t buy replacement equipment or get help from anyone.
Of course, there’s a human challenge in our work. There is a strong economic pressure on the area and salmon fishing is an important source of income. We try to work with the fishermen but they are focused on trying to get the maximum out of the ocean and not concerned with planning for the future. When we arrived in 2003 and tried to tell them about the need for a protected area they laughed. Their view was that the ocean is endless and anything they take out will be replaced. Three years later they had a big breakdown in mussel and fish harvests – they came back to us and asked to start talking about the protected area.
As scientists, we are concentrating on doing the research to deliver the facts. The Hunaiy field station is like our third child – we’ve invested all our time and energy into it because it has always been our dream to support the research in this area. It provides information that is essential in order to make decisions on the sustainable use of the area, and I don’t think anybody else is going to do the work. The biggest challenge is to convince people of the need to preserve something for later.
In conversation with Pip Harrison
2016 marked the 40th anniversary of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, which seek to encourage new ventures and recognise those who explore beyond boundaries. Vreni Häussermann was one of 2016’s five Rolex Laureates.