Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Patagonian Fjords, at the far end of the Americas

Cathedrals of Yosemite granite stretch above our heads, covered by lush temperate rainforests to rival the Amazon. Here in Southern Chile and below these icy waters lie coral gardens rarely seen by human eyes. Eight hours of the droning motor finally carries our small boat beyond the clouding influence of rivers and glaciers, and we slip into the fjord for a dive with high hopes.

What seems like a layer of dust carpets the first few meters of dead mussel shells, the fringes of a nearly vertical ecosystem. Farther down we cross terraces formed by the advance and retreat of glaciers in the recent geologic past. Still deeper a garden awaits, individual flowers spaced across pink coralline paint that grows like wallpaper all across a smooth diagonal stone floor (or is it a wall?). Each flower a coral, or sponge, or waving arms of a sea cucumber in yellow, pink, orange and white. Furtive movements skirt my peripheral vision as harlequin-painted shrimp and slender fish preen before scurrying past.

From above all is hidden by a thick surface layer of accumulated rain. Glaciers greet the ocean with sediment, milky and opaque. Great rivers add their own contributions moss, tree drippings and leavings from the village upstream. A village wary of frigid, powerful currents, where scant few catch a glimpse of the living seafloor.

And so this garden grows in secret, visited rarely by fishermen and frequently by seabirds. Bone-like fans and solitary sea whips arch to face the current. Oversized hermit crabs roam the floor in gaudy purple gloves. Algae spread slowly all the while, drinking dim sunlight as it trickles toward the deep.