The Cocos-Galápagos Swimway / A route for life

Mica Stacey

For 20 days, a team of expeditioners set out to tag sharks along the Cocos-Galápagos Swimway, all in the effort of protecting marine species from human pressures. For one grant-winning participant, it was a novel experience and a renewal of hope.

Mica Stacey

If you’ve never taken a boning knife to frozen chum as part of the process of collecting evidence on shark migrations, it’s a terrible stench, let me tell you!

But to see a mighty tiger shark or a highly endangered thresher shark lifted from the ocean, into the care of diligent scientists, to be measured, tagged, and further tracked in the name of conservation makes any nose-wrinkling smell worth the effort. These tagged sharks could be the very key to securing greater protection from industrial fishing, pollution, and other human pressures—and somehow I was lucky enough to be part of this mission.

Tagging sharks along the Cocos-Galápagos Swimway could be the very key to securing greater protection from industrial fishing, pollution, and other human pressures · Mica Stacey

On May 3, 2021, a team of 13 expeditioners and 8 crew members from 6 different countries set sail from the port of Quepos, Costa Rica. We were going to spend 20 days at sea with a single objective: to gather substantial research in the remarkable marine corridor formed from seamounts that connect Cocos Island in Costa Rica to the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador, in the name of urging people to protect it.

This corridor is called the Cocos-Galápagos Swimway. It is the habitat of countless highly endangered migratory species, from hammerhead and whale sharks, to leatherback sea turtles, dolphins, and seabirds.

It is considered a critical ecosystem in the Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP) Seascape, a vast ocean region in Central and South America.

The Cocos-Galápagos Swimway is the habitat of countless migratory species, from sea turtles to sharks to seabirds · Mica Stacey
Marbled rays are a part of Cocos Island's incredible biodiversity · Mica Stacey
Whitetip sharks are easily identifiable by their namesake feature · Mica Stacey
Cocos Island and the Galápagos are both part of the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape, a region that attracts an enormous aggregation of life · Mica Stacey
The endangered scalloped hammerhead of the ETP Seascape is one of several shark species often targeted by industrial fishers for shark fin soup · Mica Stacey

Though the expedition departed on May 3, my journey started one month prior when I received an unexpected surprise back in my hometown of Quito, the Ecuadorian capital: I was the winner of a creative mentorship grant from Only One and MigraMar, two of the over 20 organizations that came together to make this scientific expedition happen. Despite putting considerable effort into my application, I never thought I would be selected. It meant I was going to be a member of the communications team in charge of documenting all the scientific progress made on the boat and in the water, while getting to learn from the expertise of some of the marine biologists I had most admired throughout my studies.

As a marine biologist myself and an underwater photographer, with a deep love for the ocean and its wildlife, I couldn’t wait to be involved in this major effort to protect the ETP Seascape.

After a month of preliminary Zoom meetings, visa procedures, and much other preparation, I set off to Costa Rica. That first morning, we went on a 36-hour trip from Quepos to Cocos Island on board the Sharkwater vessel. Fascinatingly, Sharkwater used to be a Japanese fishing ship, now repurposed to house marine research and shark conservation projects.

The team visited 8 sites and seamounts along the Cocos-Galápagos Swimway

From the moment we arrived, the whole team jumped into action. We visited eight sites and seamounts along the Cocos-Galápagos Swimway, where we studied diversity, abundance, habitat use, and environmental DNA to better understand the temporal and spatial behavior of highly migratory species. We used techniques such as BRUVS (Baited Remote Underwater Video Systems), wildlife observation, and, as I previously mentioned, shark tagging.

Tagging is completely safe when done correctly and allows scientists to learn more about the shark’s migratory movements; 10 sharks were tagged during the trip · Mica Stacey
Sharks need a constant flow of water through their gills in order to breathe, this is why a water hose is placed in their mouth to allow normal breathing during the tagging process · Mica Stacey
The information obtained from satellite tags will provide evidence about shark’s migratory movements, the routes they are using, and how long they stay in each site. This will then help to demonstrate the urgency to create a marine protected corridor to ensure the survival of highly migratory species · Mica Stacey
BRUVS are aluminum structures with 3 cameras and a cannula, which is a basket-like device that contains rank smelling bait to attract marine predators. The BRUVS cameras film everything underwater at 360 degrees, and the hundreds of hours of video are then analyzed frame by frame to give scientists a glimpse of what is going on under the surface · Mica Stacey
Cutting bait to attract sharks was a stinky everyday task, but knowing this would help with conservation efforts made everything worth it · Luis Javier Sandoval
A filmmaker dives with his underwater camera to capture astonishing images. His work helps to communicate the expedition's work and show the wonderful underwater world that surrounds us · Mica Stacey
A young graduate biologist collects and filters water samples to analyze and characterize environmental DNA. This technique will help determine the hidden diversity within each site visited · Mica Stacey

Studying wildlife in the ocean is not easy and often far from glamorous! Shark tagging can also be emotionally intense—each tagging event was 10 minutes of pure adrenaline.

Expert fishers from our crew had to reckon with both the current and the shark’s strength to take the creature out of the water without causing any harm. Once the shark was on board, it took four to five people to carefully grab the shark’s fins, tail, and body to immobilize the animal and put a water hose in its mouth to allow normal breathing to continue. Then, the scientists took data each time, such as body size and sex determination, and attached a satellite tag to the shark’s dorsal fin. Tagging is completely safe when done correctly and allows scientists to learn more about the shark’s migratory movements, which can then be used to help secure their protection. 

Every single day the team gave their full passion and patience to our activities. And even though everybody was exhausted at times, the smiles and the laughter never failed. We were doing what we loved.

Though the work was exhausting, the crew's laughter and smiles never failed · Juan Bonilla

Lucky for us, as part of the hard work we got to explore the underwater wonders found in the Swimway. We had the privilege of diving in two crown jewels and UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Cocos Island and Darwin’s Arch. The waters surrounding both islands are known for their extraordinary biological richness. During the dives, I was enchanted by dozens of hammerhead, white tip, and black tip sharks, by enormous stingrays and turtles, and by hundreds of fish. I was amazed by how calmly the sharks approached us. They came within just a few meters of us, never showing aggression and sometimes even showing curiosity.

Diving at Darwin’s Arch was an aquatic paradise for us, but what we didn’t know was that we were going to be the last fortunate people to see the emblematic geological feature intact.

The morning after we left Darwin’s Arch, while navigating to our next study site, we received unexpected news: the Arch had collapsed due to natural erosion. At first we thought it was a joke, or fake news—but, in truth, the Arch was gone. None of us could believe it, and a strange sense of loss washed over us.

Darwin's Arch, the day before it collapsed due to natural erosion · Mica Stacey

The collapse of the Arch made me reflect deeply on the ETP Seascape as a whole. If we felt such an acute sense of loss now, how would we feel the moment when the last shark of Darwin Island was caught by fishing fleets?

What if we lost all the species that make Darwin’s Arch so iconic? A naturally occurring geological event like the Arch’s collapse can’t be stopped, but biological collapse—in this case driven by industrial fishing, pollution, and habitat destruction in the Swimway—can and must be stopped. These concerns stayed at the forefront of my mind for several days, confirming again and again why it’s so urgent that we give the Cocos-Galápagos Swimway a rest from human pressures and ensure a better future for marine life, and for the millions of people who depend on a healthy ocean.

The road to protecting the ETP Seascape’s sharks and other marine species is still a long one. But by the end of the expedition, I had learned how multinational and multidisciplinary collaboration can make a real difference to ocean conservation efforts.

Crossing paths with these 21 remarkable expeditioners and crew members gave me back hope I didn’t know I’d lost.

They have been fighting for decades on many fronts—science, politics, education—to demand better protection for wildlife, and are teaching the next generation about the importance of ocean resources. They choose to take a stand for the ocean and its beautiful yet vulnerable creatures, and to give them a voice—and now, so do I.

By the end of the expedition, Mica had learned how multinational and multidisciplinary collaboration can make a real difference to ocean conservation efforts. Crossing paths with the 21 remarkable expeditioners and crew members gave her back the hope she didn’t know she'd lost · Luis Javier Sandoval
The creative mentorship grant I received from Only One broadened my horizons, giving me a once-in-a-lifetime experience that renewed my determination to do what I can to protect the ocean, one step at a time. I hope you will consider joining Only One to support vital ocean projects like our expedition to the Cocos-Galápagos Swimway and help rebuild ocean life for future generations.
Contributors

Mica Stacey

Biologist and Wildlife Photographer

Mica Stacey is an Ecuadorian biologist and wildlife photographer, currently pursuing a master's degree in Biodiversity and Climate Change. Her passion for the sea and underwater life has led her to specialize in the study and conservation of the oceans, focusing mainly on the serious problem of plastic and microplastic pollution in marine ecosystems. Currently Mica is carrying out a project that seeks to determine the presence of microplastic and its associated pollutants in the population of giant manta rays (Mobula birostris) of Isla de la Plata, Ecuador. Using her photographs as a divulgation tool, Mica seeks to show an underwater world still unknown to many and create awareness over the threats that oceans are facing and the urgent need to take measures for its conservation. Mica is convinced that accessible science, based on art and education, is the best way to promote the conservation of threatened species and their environment.

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