Thursday, 7 July 2011

Opening Peru's Secret Treasure Chest

A conversation with conservationist Stefan Austermühle.

Peru is known for its inland treasures, for its mountains and rainforests, ancient ruins and rich culture. But there is an undiscovered treasure in Peru, or more accurately, in its oceans. Stefan Austermühle of the conservation organisation Mundo Azul and the marine eco-tourism company Nature Expeditions, told me more about this unrecognised marine hotspot.
This part of the Pacific is vaguely known to have a high biomass (meaning biological mass, i.e. a lot of anchovies). But what remains unrecognised is its astonishing biodiversity (meaning many different animals, i.e. not just anchovies.) The water here is dense, it is a "Floating soup of food", but with no existing culture of marine tourism to promote it, no one knows of its bounteous beauty.
The richness of the Peruvian coastal waters is the result of two ocean currents. One is the Humboldt Current, which flows northwards along the Peruvian coast, bringing with it cool, oxygen rich waters from Antarctica. The other is a strong upwelling close to the Peruvian coast which draws up nutrient rich water. These two currents combined cause a very high production of algae, and consequently form the basis for an extraordinarily rich diversity of marine life. There is one big party going on here, and everyone is invited, be they a charismatic whale or a humble mollusc.
The figures which Stefan gives are, quite simply, staggering. "Over 30 species of cetaceans either reside or migrate here to feed. That's 37% of the total number of cetacean species in the world. There are 1,000 species of fish, 600 crustaceans and 1,400 molluscs. There are sea lions, fur seals and sea otters. There are 87 species of marine birds, 27 of which are albatrosses, shearwaters and petrels, and seven are gulls."
When Stefan takes tourists out on trips with Nature Expeditions, they are at a loss for words. More than 1,500 bottlenose dolphins reside along one short stretch of coastline near Lima, which means there are a staggering six dolphins per kilometre. Viewing the dead desert meeting the sparkling ocean and watch dolphins leaping out of the water against a background of dramatic sand dunes, takes people's breath away.
Kayak tour operators from other countries have told him that they have never in their life seen as many species of marine birds and animals as they see in Peru on a two hour kayak trip. Divers are amazed to see rocks covered in a carpet of life not just one animal deep, but two or thee animals all sitting on top of each other!
One of Stefan's personal favourite nature experiences is swimming with sea lions. In Stefan's words, "Swimming with sea lions is great. Sea lions make contact with you, they gently nibble at you to see what strange creature you are. They are funny, they play, they sneak up on you and shoot away when you turn and look at them!"
In could be assumed that it is a blessing for Peru's ocean to remain unknown to the world at large. After all, surely this means that it will not become spoilt. However, as Stefan says,
"The ocean here is being overfished, contaminated and destroyed, and no one knows about it. Nobody sees the plastic bags and other waste floating in the waves. Because no one sees it, there is no one to shout out 'Wait, what are you doing to this beautiful ocean!' Conservation only works when people are aware of the fact that beauty can disappear. When no one is aware, no one cares, and when no one cares, unscrupulous people are free to continue destroying."
I asked Stefan what he hopes Mundo Azul and Nature Expeditions can achieve in the future. He replied, "Helping people to discover the beauty, so that they care and take action to protect it."
There is a huge potential in Peru for marine eco-tourism. The more successful Nature Expeditions and other companies become, the more well known Peru's ocean treasures become. Stefan hopes this will start the metaphorical snowball rolling on its way to providing incomes for local people and, importantly, gaining the worldwide recognition which the area needs to ensure its protection for the future.
Stefan Austermühle is the director of the conservation organisation Mundo Azul, and the marine eco-tourism company Nature Expeditions, in Lima, Peru. To find out more about each organisation go to: and
Amanda Banks is a freelance writer from England, currently engaged in a three month project writing about the life and work of cetacean conservationists in North and South America. To read more of her posts on conservationists, go to:

Photographs, copyright: Mundo Azul

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