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Cape Horn

At Sea: January to February 2017
Country: Chile

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The Place

Few, if any, routes in the history of navigation have been as feared and attractive—or have claimed so many lives, riches, and ships—as the passage around Cape Horn. Located on the southernmost point of South America, the cape was previously part of the clipper routes that transported much of the world's trade, marking a gateway between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Today, Cape Horn and the surrounding Magallanes region are home to a wild ocean ecosystem that includes abundant marine mammals and seabirds and the world’s southernmost kelp forest. In the Bárbara Channel, one of three channels connecting the Strait of Magellan and the Pacific Ocean, South American sea lions swim like torpedoes. And on the Diego Ramírez Islands, the southernmost inhabited outpost in the Americas, a variety of birds—including the black-browed albatross and rockhopper penguin—congregate at important nesting grounds.

Map by National Geographic Society Staff

The Mission

Every day of this two-week expedition brought a new experience to the Pristine Seas team’s seasoned marine biologists, who had seldom seen such a productive marine environment.

Working in collaboration with the Waitt Foundation, the team traveled from Punta Arenas through the Francisco Coloane Marine Park, the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, Cape Horn, and the Diego Ramírez Islands. Their goal: to study and film the marine ecosystems in the region’s fjords and remote islands.

To achieve a comprehensive survey of the environment, the team made scuba dives to depths of up to 30 meters, used remote underwater video and open-water cameras, and deployed deep-sea drop cams to depths of over 2,000 meters. Among the wildlife they observed were humpback whales, sea lions, rockhopper penguins, albatrosses, false king crabs, and kelp forests populated by sea stars, sponges, and other marine invertebrates.

In our dives [in the Magallanes region]…we have encountered more unique and healthy marine ecosystems than we could have imagined.

Enric Sala
Pristine Seas

The Result

Scientific data, film, and images gathered during the expedition were used to highlight the unique kelp forests and marine ecosystems of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago and Cape Horn and to make recommendations to the government of Chile for their conservation and sustainable use. In October 2017 at the Our Ocean Conference in Malta, the Government of Chile announced the creation of a marine park that will protect 140,000 square kilometers of Chile’s southern waters, starting in the legendary Cape Horn, protecting the Diego Ramirez Islands and extending south to the 200 miles of Chile’s economic zone pointing toward Antarctica. This marine park will protect Chile’s southernmost kelp forests and some of the last remaining intact Subantarctic ecosystems.