At The End of The World


Thetis Bay, near the very tip of Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, is about as far south as one can go in the Americas. Few people ever do. On a chilly, overcast day in February 2018, we launched a Zodiac craft from our ship, the Hanse Explorer, and maneuvered it through Thetis toward the shore, careful to avoid the thick blankets of kelp and the sandbanks emerging at low tide. I was there leading a National Geographic Pristine Seas expedition, in collaboration with the Argentine government, the regional government of Tierra del Fuego, and the Forum for the Conservation of the Patagonian Sea. I’ve seen firsthand the dramatic changes in other parts of our oceans caused by overfishing and climate change, the most conspicuous being the bleaching and death of coral reefs and the shrinking of Arctic sea ice during summer. Nearer to shore, the weather is so brutal most of the year that few go through the effort to dive at Thetis Bay and Isla de los Estados, but having arrived in relative calm, we were able to dive around the island for two weeks. To our astonishment, the oceanographic conditions appeared to have remained similar here for the past half century: Climate change had made no permanent mark yet. This seemed a wonderful gift, and I felt a burst of joy. We were amazed as well by the abundance of life. Every square inch of the bottom was occupied by a living organism: white and yellow sponges, pink encrusting algae, lollipop-like sea squirts. Giant kelps bent to the seafloor from the weight of the mussels growing on them. Blue starfish gorged on the mussels, along with snails and hermit crabs. False southern king crabs…two layers of them covered the bottom while many more climbed the giant kelps and parachuted down on their fellow crustaceans—and on our heads. It was as if we were part of a Japanese science fiction film. Crabzilla! After the expedition we changed from wet suit to business suit to lobby Argentine government officials for ocean protection. Alex Muñoz, Pristine Seas director for Latin America, presented the results of our expedition to the government, in support of a plan to create the Yaganes marine park. After some tense negotiations, the House voted on December 5. I was astonished. The bill passed on a vote of 196 to zero—as resounding an affirmation for conservation as I’ve ever witnessed in any country. Forty years ago Chile and Argentina had come to the brink of war over disputed territorial rights south of Tierra del Fuego. Now the presidents of the two countries would like to declare the area a marine peace park—possibly the largest contiguous transboundary protected oceanic area. Claudio told me on the phone, “Thanks to the leadership of two governments, the integrity of the great ecosystem of the sea at the end of the world will be maintained for years to come.”

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