LIFE WITH SHARKS
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.