Marine conservation seen from the collective work between scientific and local communities

Chile is an oceanographic power in Latin America, says British scientist Susannah Buchan, who together with the first female park ranger of the Atacama region, Marinella Maldonado, discuss the joint work they have carried out in the Chañaral de Aceituno cove, one of the most relevant for whale watching, the epicenter of multiple scientific explorations and initiatives to enhance the biocultural and indigenous knowledge of the area.

The legacy of the Chango people and their navigation practices on rafts made with sea lion skin; whale watching; Dolphins and Humboldt penguins have nourished the local identity of the Chañaral de Aceituno cove in the Atacama region. In this place, located southwest of Freirina – a town made visible by the media in 2012 after an arduous socio-environmental conflict – the British oceanographer Susannah Buchan and the park ranger Marinella Maldonado met , who after meeting at a seminar on marine biodiversity in 2016 began to exchange knowledge that would lead them to publish relevant findings and work to strengthen the link between the community and scientists in the area.

While Buchan had specialized in the study of whale bioacoustics, being the author of research that demonstrated, among other discoveries, that blue whales ( Balaenoptera musculus ) had a unique dialect ; Marinella had become the first park ranger in Atacama after taking charge of the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve , leading environmental education initiatives with children and articulating sustainable tourism routes. Today, almost a decade after joining their efforts, they reflect on how the perception and knowledge of residents and visitors about the value of marine biodiversity has changed.

 Fundación Mar Adentro (FMA): In Chile, there are various oceanographic zones. What characteristics does the Chañaral de Aceituno cove have in scientific and socio-environmental terms?

 Susannah Buchan: We have four oceanographic provinces in Chile: Humboldt, Cape Horn, Oceanic Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. The cove is located in Humboldt, one of the most iconic places due to the recognized current of the same name, where animals such as krill, whales and chungungos are seen, as well as kelp forests. This is a natural laboratory where we can study relevant processes and is part of the North Central Ocean Node of Natural Laboratories [1] of the National Agency for Research and Development of Chile ( ANID ). To the south of the cove, in addition, there is a focus of upwelling in front of Punta Lengua de Vaca in Tongoy [1]where marine resources are trapped in this archipelago, with Chañaral Island – in front of the cove – being the largest. Additionally, there is a deep and steep underwater canyon. We are facing nutritious waters that are closer to the coast, which makes this a special sector for krill, food for the whales sighted.

FMA: Before continuing with Marinella’s perspective, how many years ago would you say that there has been a focus of scientific interest in this place which, let us remember, makes up a multiple-use coastal marine protected area [2](MCPA-MU)?

SB: First, it is important to note that Chile is a power in Latin America in terms of oceanography. Historically, an investigative point of view from the physical and fisheries sphere has prevailed, while in recent years this has focused more on climate change and carbon flow processes. Marine biologists have come to study cetaceans too, from Center for Advanced Studies in Arid Zones (CEAZA) together with other scientists to explore dolphins. Over time, we have been adding efforts and the topics have expanded to animal genetics, distribution and registration of species, and in my case, the study of whales.

FMA: Please tell us, Marinella, how have you observed the value of the biodiversity of the cove in socio-environmental terms, in dialogue with what Susannah comments?

Marinella Maldonado: I started in conservation because of my interest in dolphins, when 30 years ago I met Patricio Ortiz , a tour guide and fisherman who took scientists to Chañaral Island, in the years when it was most difficult to get to. Since then, more information on the territory began to be managed on a socio-ecological scale. In this exchange of routes between tourist guides, fishermen and boat operators and, thanks to the generosity of scientists in returning the knowledge generated to the people, a virtuous relationship developed. The fishermen shared their knowledge, the inhabitants of the surrounding areas became interested in learning about ecological phenomena to contribute with our experience, without being oceanographers or marine biologists, but we knew, for example, why a whale beached or what happened when krill was scarce. .

Thus, in addition, interest began to arise from local economies, where today the sighting of marine fauna is one of the main activities. I started working in conservation in 2004, when Chañaral had not yet been declared a marine protected area. I studied tourism and began to intend to explore the territory with a perspective of educating boys and girls, giving talks to get to know the place in pursuit of the appreciation and care of nature. Today, several of those children are captains, sailors and local tour guides.

As a park ranger, I remember that in the early 2000s there was no talk of citizen science nor was information systematized. In 2014, this concept appeared with the community and people began to provide information about the species they saw, although without GPS, but maps were created through collaborative work. Today, we are working with SMART [3]technology since January. There has been a process of assessing the place, disseminating information and education. People’s attitude is still one of care, there is interest in knowing the biological meaning of the presence of species and in mobilizing for protection.

 FMA: What links have been established between scientific research, community knowledge and ancestral knowledge of the coastal people of the Changos?

SB: One of the main links, which we have sought to strengthen with Marinella, is that we have worked to promote the professionalization of the species sighting registry in line with citizen science, through contributions from the community. The inhabitants of the environment are a valuable source of information because they remain in circulation every day. So, it has become common for various people to stop by the Conaf office and report their interactions. Likewise, thanks to the collaboration between scientists and the community, a work emerged, of which we are co-authors, that describes the existence of an underwater canyon that traps krill, which is complemented with citizen data on the record of different species of whales. That is, we have used that information in indexed journals of academic importance.

MM: At the same time, on behalf of Conaf, we are linked to the theme of indigenous peoples through meetings with Chango descendants, who are interested in remaining on the island [of Chañaral] where their ancestors lived. They have provided data and stories about the biocultural memory of their ancestors. For this reason, there is a museum room [4]that has a replica of a sea lion leather raft – the original is in La Serena – in that sense, local heritage has been promoted with talks, visits to the island with a restorative look. of the history of the monkeys after their invisibility.

SB: The historical relationship with the island is important, since all life revolves around it. The rafts were used to cross, and currently this is where tourist activity is concentrated. People are always attentive to this place, if an unknown fishing boat is seen, everyone is watching and warning, both monkeys and locals. There is something tangible and practical, too, that has to do with the cooperation of operations at sea to watch and tag whales. For example, let’s go with Patrick Ortiz –tour guide and fisherman–and other operators to install equipment and the community is always willing to support us.

The first time we installed a hydrophone we had no resources, but the entire town got us cement and cables. Another example is that the same seminars where scientists are invited to present are often held in the cabins of local people or someone prepares a cocktail. There is a lot of generosity, it is pleasant to work like that. Additionally, we have the responsibility of passing on what we learn to communities that are also part of our work teams. We do three-week explorations, but here people sail from spring to fall, they see much more.

FMA: You have sought to unite to promote the development of responsible ecotourism in a place characterized by whale watching, seaweed harvesting and fishing. How to achieve a balance between supporting local economies, the conservation of marine protected areas and the raising awareness about the ecosystem benefits of the ocean?

MM: Before being a protected area, extraction on the island was regulated [5], the need to think about ways of livelihood has always been generated and that is where special interest tourism has been strengthened. At the beginning, there were few people who began to invest in repairing boats, improving their engines and looking for opportunities with support from Fosis or Sercotec . Thanks to this perspective of sustainable tourism, this cove has achieved a balance, despite the complexities that arise with the extraction of algae, since there are large underwater forests here, but even so they are extraction quotas distributed through unions in the region of Atacama. Likewise, there is gastronomy, land tourism, the presence of scientists and seminars that also generate movement and income.

SB: The seminars have established a base of interest in scientific knowledge in a place where mass tourism does not reach. This condition of being a habitat for marine fauna and not white sand beaches attracts a type of people who are looking for precisely that. The community has also been establishing a basis for collaboration with NGOs and scientists, and specific decisions have been made, such as limiting the quotas for tour operators in the reserve. At the same time, there is information on cetacean tourism socialized in the cove, with explanatory infographics. It is important to remember that tourists must make silent communication with the whales and this is explained on the tours . Marinella has also created geological or paleontological routes that have developed interest beyond whales.

MM: It is also relevant to note that, although I was afraid of the possible increase in waste resulting from tourism, this has been controlled thanks to the transmission of information from people about the value of care. Many beach cleanups have been done including boys and girls in environmental education. Susannah has also shown them the hydrophones to hear the whales generating enthusiasm. There is a circularity in the growth trajectory of this place, which went from being called dolphin island 30 years ago to being a special place for feeding large cetaceans, that is, it is being transformed.


FMA: What role do new technologies play in marine conservation and what transdisciplinary potential do they enable in terms of the intersection of scientific work with the installation of eco-sustainable routes and the care of protected areas managed by Conaf?

SB: On the scientific side, we have two instruments in the water: a four-channel echo sounder to measure krill, and also a hydrophone. This allows us to understand the interactions of the whales. We mark them with a device and follow them for 24 hours to know what they eat, how they vocalize, and the depth to which they dive. We have also installed cameras. Now we will start making animations that we will transfer to the community, to tell what happens in the sea with that animal and what the dynamics of the canyon are like. We will deliver this information to the reserve’s work table, to the Ministry of the Environment and to the table of the Undersecretariat of Fisheries ( Subpesca ).

MM: Years ago, when people saw whales, they would stay as far away as possible due to their size and today, they seek to see them. With technologies such as SMART – adopted in Chile in 2022 – we are part of a pilot marine observation plan for boaters and sea tour operators to record their sightings. This has also allowed practical students to systematize information to add to tourist stories, especially in explanations about whales and the Humboldt penguin, which suffered a severe blow from the bird flu and people were very attentive. Technology has added value to the work done on the ground.

FMA: Although you have answered aspects of the following question…I would like you to mention some conclusions about how the communities have been related to the scientific discoveries, conservation and ecotourism that they have led, respectively.

SB: An example is that when I get on a tour I see in the operator’s speech that they are no longer limited to naming the species, but rather they distinguish concepts such as upwelling, information about the canyon, krill and other species that are not just whales. . At this point, I think that almost the entire community here are oceanographers.

MM: I have also heard how they no longer refer to the penguin as a faithful species only, but that the operators are more concerned with making scientific observations, being more precise with the information. There is a mix between biodiversity, culture and heritage of the territory.

FMA: Oceans Day will soon be commemorated, a day that seeks to highlight the value of marine socio-ecosystems for the health of the planet. From your work areas, how would you describe the current moment regarding the protection of the sea in Chile inserted in a global context?

SB: The news is not very good for the planet in general. The ocean is always lagging behind the land due to climate change and fishing, particularly, as well as maritime traffic. We are eating more and more marine species, resources that are not enough, along with high rates of transportation routes. Chile has taken iconic steps that serve as an example, particularly the creation of protected areas. In the last ten years there have been positive statements such as the protection of the Humboldt Archipelago, but now comes the issue of management of the area. My call this day is to raise awareness about the need for economic resources for good management, and since Chile met the goal of having 30% of protected maritime surfaces, now it is time to work for resources and effective supervision.

MM: My call, personally, is for more people from the coast to join conservation, so that we have the massive will to value the place we cohabit and keep it protected. We must cooperate, clean and exercise commitments with the territories, and in particular, that the maritime community be valued, since Chile is surrounded by a sea that gives us life and sustenance.

About the interviewees:

Dr. Susannah Buchan is a British oceanographer based in Chile. He completed his undergraduate studies in oceanography at the National Oceanographic Center at the University of Southampton, United Kingdom; then obtained a Master’s degree from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland; and finally her Doctorate in Oceanography from the University of Concepción (Udec), Chile. Today, she is a visiting professor at Udec, principal researcher at the COPAS COASTAL Center; and researcher at the Center for Advanced Studies in Arid Zones (CEAZA). His research focuses on the ecology and acoustics of whales in order to provide excellent scientific information for the development of conservation and management strategies for large cetaceans and their habitats. He has published about 20 scientific articles on this topic, and currently leads and participates in multiple research projects funded by national and international organizations. She is a member of the Technical Group on Marine Mammals of the Undersecretariat of Fisheries and Aquaculture of Chile, a member of the Operational Committee on Underwater Noise of the Ministry of the Environment of Chile, and recently scientific advisor to the Patagonia Azul Foundation.

Marinella Maldonado is originally from Freirina and a mother of four daughters. She is the first park ranger of the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve, specifically in the Chañaral Island-Atacama sector, as well as a tour operator. She has created multiple local ecotourism routes aimed at highlighting marine and terrestrial biodiversity. Marinella has spearheaded environmental education initiatives with a focus on intergenerational and community engagement. In 2020, she was recognized by CONAF for her community outreach efforts. Additionally, she works as an operator and tour guide at her own venture, Marytierra, emphasizing local knowledge, environmental education, and collaborative knowledge-building. She is a co-author of the scientific article “Understanding the oceanographic dynamics of the feeding zone of the whales of Chañaral Island (Humboldt Archipelago, Northern Chile)” aimed at expanding habitat protection. Furthermore, she serves as a leader in the Chañaral de Aceituno Cove Tourism Association.


[1] The upwelling waters present high concentrations of nutrients that produce an increase in phytoplankton, food for oysters and marine and coastal resources ( CEAZA ).

[2]This area is called the Humboldt Archipelago and has been in the protection category since 2023.

[3]The SMART platform is a suite of software and analysis tools designed to help conservationists manage and protect wildlife and wild places.

[4]The “Roberto Álvarez Museum Exhibition Room” in Caleta Chañaral de Aceituno was inaugurated in 2021.

[5]Today there are management areas for locos, limpets and algae.

Violeta Bustos

Interview by Violeta Bustos Vaccia, communications director at Fundación Mar Adentro. Journalist, graduate in Data Visualization and Master in American Aesthetics from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. Content creator, researcher and teacher in the field of digital communication.