In northern Patagonia, Indigenous communities dive for seaweed and safeguard their coastline

View from water below as net of seaweed is lifted onto boat deck by Captain Manuel Vida

When the seaweed divers of Guafo Island return to the surface, it’s as if they’ve come back from some distant planet. Three men heave their slippery bodies onto a fishing vessel, like dazed aquanauts, dressed from boot to hood in thick black wetsuits to endure the chill of maritime Patagonia. It’s only lunchtime, but these tired men have been underwater so long already that their faces are shriveled like prunes.

“It’s a tough life out here,” says the captain of the Cobra vessel, Manuel Vidal, who, at 57, has spent the past four decades working off the coast of this remote Chilean island. He comes to sustainably harvest a flat, leathery, maroon-colored seaweed called luga. The luga season begins each year in October and ends in March. During that time, dozens of boats like Cobra take men eight hours away from the port of Quellón for multi-week shifts out at sea.

All morning, these divers have been connected to 450-foot oxygen hoses, plying the ocean floor 30 feet below. They’ve gathered seaweed into nets and surfaced – only briefly every half-hour or so – to deliver the 150-pound loads to Vidal before descending once again into the murky Eastern South Pacific. Most of this luga will eventually make its way into either the cosmetics industry or carrageenan (a thickening agent for the food industry).

Diver Juan Ortega looks on as Juan Chiguay hooks a net of seaweed harvested by Ortega

Seaweed Scarcity

When Vidal first got into this line of work, he says he could load the hull with seaweed in about four days. Now, due to overextraction, it takes an average of 10 days, meaning he and others must live onboard in their rudimentary shelters for longer periods of time. That’s why 11 Quellón-based fishing syndicates have thrown their support behind a group of 10 local Indigenous communities fighting to safeguard these waters.

The plan is to designate Guafo as an 870-square-mile Coastal Marine Space for Indigenous People, an initiative supported by the WWF, that would offer greater protections for the coastline, including who can access it and where and when they can extract its resources. Approval could come as soon as the year’s end, not a moment too soon for artisanal fisherman like Vidal who rely on it for their livelihoods.

“There are areas where there is basically nothing left to harvest,” Vidal says after winching up the latest net of seaweed. “I think that a good coordination [on the Coastal Marine Space for Indigenous People (ECMPO for its Spanish acronym)] would be great for the future, for the people that come after us, so they can have something, too.”

Manuel Vidal, captain of the artisanal fishing vessel, and Juan Chiguay pull in a net full of the leathery seaweed known as luga.

Following tradition into the future

Just across the bay at Caleta Arrayán, on another fishing vessel, are two teenage divers who’ve followed their fathers into the industry. “This work goes back generations,” says Damián Gueicha, 17, who monitors the oxygen hose for his 38-year-old father, Adán, down below. “Almost everyone in my family works in the sea, mostly in diving.”

Gueicha learned to dive when he was 12 years old and says he and his cousin are (now that they’re old enough to work summer jobs) among the few young people out on these boats. Once he graduates from high school next year, he plans to enter the industry full-time. “I’m dedicating myself to this life,” he says, sipping on the stimulating tea yerba mate, which divers drink for energy.

This season is his first at Guafo, and it’s been an eye-opener. “Closer to Quellón the luga is very scarce, but here there is much more,” he explains as a skua bird circles above the boat, inspecting the latest catch. “Guafo really stands out to me because it’s an island that always gives. You can keep coming back and it has more to offer.”

The teenager may not have seen this place when it was giving even more than it gives now, but Guafo nevertheless remains one of the more pristine spots in northern Chilean Patagonia for fishing families like the Gueichas and Vidals. The hope is that, with new protections, it will stay that way for future generations, too.

Seaweed exposed at low tide in a coastal algae meadow on the shore of Guafo Island

After a long day of diving, Adán and Damián Gueicha search an algae meadow for a dinner of ocos (Chilean abalones) and lapas (sea snails)