LIFE WITH SHARKS

Scuba Diving - - GEAR BAG -

San­dra Bes­sudo first came to Malpelo in 1987 and was bowled over by the schools of silkies and ham­mer­heads.

She also no­ticed sev­eral fish­ing boats moored to reefs, with sharks on board. This was the start of a life ded­i­cated to the con­ser­va­tion of Malpelo. Be­gin­ning with a pe­ti­tion — and small num­bers of mostly friends, divers and con­ser­va­tion­ists — Fun­da­cion Malpelo was cre­ated in 1989 ( fun­da­cion­malpelo.org).

A chance meet­ing served her well. While do­ing re­search, Bes­sudo in­ad­ver­tently en­tered a mil­i­tary zone on Colom­bia’s Caribbean side; the navy boat that in­ter­cepted her had on board then- Pres­i­dent Ce­sar Gavaria. She told him that if he truly loved div­ing, he should go to Malpelo.

Gavaria had never heard of Malpelo; Bes­sudo ended up guid­ing him for a day of div­ing there. A year later, Malpelo was de­clared a sanc­tu­ary — 3,310 square miles were pro­tected in 1995. The Colom­bian navy now works with Colom­bia’s Na­tional Parks Au­thor­ity to or­ga­nize an­nual sci­en­tific ex­pe­di­tions to the is­land. Be­cause the navy boats are ded­i­cated pri­mar­ily to fight­ing drug traf­fick­ing, it takes a lit­tle work and ne­go­ti­a­tion to get their time and sup­port; since 2000, there has been a real sci­en­tific pro­gram in place thanks to Fun­da­cion Malpelo.

Fun­da­cion Malpelo’s goals and roles are to raise funds to study and pro­tect Malpelo, which the foun­da­tion co- man­ages with the Na­tional Parks Au­thor­ity. The funds are used to sup­port the science pro­gram, eval­u­at­ing mi­gra­tions be­tween the is­lands of the Golden Tri­an­gle.

The foun­da­tion also pro­motes Malpelo as a sanc­tu­ary and div­ing des­ti­na­tion, both within Colom­bia and with in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors, and re­news moor­ing sites around the is­land. Divers book­ing trips through Fun­da­cion Malpelo make a small con­tri­bu­tion via the boat op­er­a­tor. The foun­da­tion is cur­rently rais­ing funds for a cata­ma­ran to mon­i­tor the area around the is­land.

Since Malpelo be­came a marine

park, most species have shown signs of re­cov­ery, although ham­mer­heads are still de­creas­ing at a dra­matic rate. Silkies have re­bounded in re­cent years, by the thou­sands, although Bes­sudo now sees hun­dreds with hooks em­bed­ded in their mouths.

Colom­bia was the first coun­try to im­ple­ment legislation ban­ning the land­ing of shark fins, and di­rected shark fish­ing is now banned. ( By­catch of sharks is not il­le­gal, but the en­tire shark must be landed, with fins at­tached.)

Af­ter six years of lob­by­ing, a law was passed in July 2017 to fight il­le­gal fish­ing and poach­ing. Un­til this law, the navy had 30 hours to bring sus­pects to the near­est port for pros­e­cu­tion. This worked for drug traf­fick­ers but not for Malpelo poach­ers — Malpelo is 40 hours by boat from the near­est Colom­bian port. To­day, the 30-hour dead­line starts once the poach­ing boats ar­rive in port.

The gov­ern­ment has in­creased the size of the marine pro­tected area to more than 10,000 square miles, and the navy now pa­trols the MPA, ac­tively chas­ing and ar­rest­ing poach­ers.

Since the law was passed, one boat has been seized. Since then, no il­le­gal ves­sels have been seen in the area. Bes­sudo be­lieves that the Colom­bian au­thor­i­ties have the will­ing­ness and the teeth to fight il­le­gal fish­ing.

Silky sharks school in large num­bers — a star at­trac­tion at Malpelo — at a site called Sa­hara. Op­po­site: La Fer­rete­ria is a site where mo­ray eels also seem to “school” re­li­ably in big groups.

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