Underwater filmographer recounts plunge into Chilean depths

National Geographic’s director of photography Manu San Félix caught up with This is Chile after month long expedition to the country’s isolated Islas Desventuradas.

One of the last unpopulated island outcrops on the planet, Chile’s Islas Desventuradas holds a Pandora’s box of secrets for scientists and oceanographers – despite being unknown to most people on the planet. The site’s mysteries are slowly being uncovered thanks to a joint National Geographic and OCEANA team of deep-sea explorers who visited the island this January.

“During the month of the expedition we didn’t see a single ship, airplane, or another person, which gives you the feeling of being completely isolated from the rest of the planet,” the underwater filmmaker and Marine biologist Manu San Félix told This is Chile. Since 2009 San Félix has worked as National Geographic’s Director of Photography.

Located 530 miles (850 kilometers) off of the northern coast of Chile, the Islas Desventuradas include four unique isles: San Ambrosio, Islote González, San Félix, and Roca Catedral. The team spent the majority of their time working in the waters around the San Ambrosio Island.

“San Ambrosia is an almost inaccessible, craggy island with a Martian-like landscape,” San Félix described. “Below the water there is the same relief, but in the depths there is an explosion of life.”

San Félix described one the strangest underwater marvels he’d ever come across: an ocean floor completely coated in sea urchins.

“The ocean floor is absolutely covered for miles…they completely dominate the marine ecosystem,” he said.  “[The sea urchins] fully determine the landscape seeing as this animal is a voracious herbivore that devours seaweed that might otherwise grow along the ocean floor.”

During the month-long expedition, the team lead multiple immersions a day generally in two different teams, one of scientists and the other of cinematographers. Most of the members knew each other from an earlier expedition to Isla de Sala y Gómez in 2011, another desolate Chilean isle.

While San Félix’s goal was to capture footage for a National Geographic documentary, he joined scientists who hoped to study the human impact on these fragile ecosystems and find clues about how to protect them. You can learn about their findings here.

By Gwynne Hogan