Ultima Patagonia, an underground scientific expedition deep in Chilean Patagonia

The Madre de Dios archipelago is an exceptional site for scientific research being totally isolated and in an extreme geographic location where polar and maritime influences meet. The exploration of this pristine group of islands by a team of cavers and scientists, is of particular important to the Petzl Foundation, which already contributed to the funding of the Ultima Patagonia expeditions in 2008 and 2010.


Madre de Dios, 2008

  • Project partner: Centre-Terre Association,
  • Country: Chile, Latin America
  • Project type: Preservation of the environment
  • Budget: €20,000 in 2008 and 2010

The Ultima Patagonia expedition is the fourth of its kind organized by the Centre-Terre Association on Madre de Dios Island after a reconnaissance trip in 1997 and studies carried out in 2000 and 2006. This archipelago is home to large limestone regions, which contain the limestone hard-rock of cold areas, and presents forms of corrosion that are unique in the world: the famous rock comets.

Rock comets in Patagonia © Centre Terre In 2008, Paul Petzl, Petzl Foundation President, after a lightning visit into the eye of a Chilean storm, said: "It felt like I had arrived in another world. The place is magical. Here, I find the spirit of expedition in the broadest sense of the word: an international expedition that the Petzl Group and our Foundation are happy to support".

The discoveries

This expedition, which lasted for two months at the beginning of 2008, gave very encouraging results. Although exploration of the chasms is particularly physical being difficult to access and subject to copious rainfall, caving enables fascinating discoveries: archaeological deposits, Alakaluf Indian rock paintings, the karst network...For example, how do you explain the presence of whalebones in a coastal cave 37 meters above the Pacific Ocean?

The Whale Cave © Centre Terre A Kawesqar Indian in front of cave paintings © Centre Terre
Left: The Whale Cave ; Right: A Kawesqar Indian in front of cave paintings
La Cueva de las Manos © Centre Terre
La Cueva de las Manos

2008 was a milestone year for the expedition since the Chilean government decided in January 2008 to protect the island, acknowledging the importance of the unique heritage of this archipelago.

Ultimately, this research will enable an application to be made in collaboration with the Chilean government to include this area on the UNESCO's world heritage list, with the same aim of preserving this unique, exceptional heritage site.

2010, Year of Biodiversity, was also an opportunity for the Petzl Foundation to strengthen its links with these scientific expeditions. In early January, scientific cavers of Centre-Terre returned to the southern hemisphere to the small Pacific island called Madre de Dios.

Madre de dios - Exploration © Centre Terre

For 2010, bicentenary of Chile (1810-2010), the international team of scientists and explorers has a common objective in Madre de Dios island: to set up a natural laboratory in serving science, with four main objectives:

  • Exploration on sea, land and underground,
  • Archaeological studies in pacific caves and shelters,
  • Study exceptional paleontological site of the Whale cave,
  • Installation of a cave-laboratory especially for the study of climate change.

Madre de dios - Exploration © Centre Terre

This year Jeanne d'Arc, helicopter cruiser of the French Navy, continues its Pacific journey from Ushuaia and lead to Madre de Dios. It has appointment with the Ultima Patagonia team, to drop off all the expedition members, with a ton of material on four sites developed for implantation in inaccessible areas - and therefore unexplored.

Also, the French schools were invited to participate in tracking the expedition and follow the daily progress and adventures of cavers on the "logbook".

Ultima Patagonia 2010 © Centre Terre Ultima Patagonia 2010 © Centre Terre Ultima Patagonia 2010 © Centre Terre

For more info:

Updated in september 2014



A mountain range in south-west Madagascar, the Makay is one of the last unexplored areas of the island. To study the exceptional biodiversity of the Makay, two scientific expeditions (...)

Find out more -  Our environment projects