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