Malpelo island: Colombia’s shark palace

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What comes to mind when you hear Colombia? Most people must have imagined the legendary drug dealer, Pablo Escobar. It turns out that if you look for the background of this man, there is one very interesting thing. Namely, Malpelo Island which became his hometown. Malpelo Island is a paradise in Colombia which, due to its unique geographic features, is home to a wide variety of marine species. Separated from the Colombian coast by over 300 miles, Malpelo is a remote island located on the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean, approximately 500 kilometers west of the port of Buenaventura. It is part of the Buenaventura township, in the Valle del Cauca department. The name Malpelo comes from the Latin malveolus, which means ‘inhospitable,’ it was so christened at the time when the Spanish conquest the area. When it was mentioned in the logbook kept by Cristobal Vaca de Castro, a Spanish colonial administrator in Peru, as a rocky isle, the island has practically no vegetation, but it is inhabited by the world’s largest breeding colony of masked boobies, a large white seabird. The area belongs to the ‘Golden Triangle of Diving which also includes the National Parks of Isla del Coco (Costa Rica) and the Galapagos Is-ands (Ecuador).

Man’s presence on Malpelo is confined to the Colombian naval officer, and men of the Armed Forces sovereignty, control, and surveillance post. Scientists also make occasional stays. Indeed, Malpelo has been described as a living laboratory, and this is reflected in the numerous international and Colombian scientific expeditions to research and monitor the area’s various species and ecosystems. The island is the summit of a uniquely impressive volcanic chain known as the Dorsal de Malpelo or ‘Malpelo Spine.’ The island’s walls run down into the sea to depths of up to 4,000 metres. It is surrounded by eleven rocky islets rising between 10 and 40 metres above the waves. Four to the north, known as the Musketeers and D’Artagnan, two in the east (Vagamares and LaTorta) and five at the southern end (the Three Kings, Solomon, Saul and David, La Gringa and Escuba). The rising islets are believed to have formed some 16 million years ago.

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Malpelo island is so unique it is widely recognized as one of the top diving sites in the world due to the presence of steep walls and caves of outstanding natural beauty. The 25 key diving spots for the natural beauty and the abundance of marine life include El Tunel de Vagamares, La Gringa, La Catedral, La Puerta del Cielo, La Nevera, El Arrecife, La Pared del Naufrago, El Freezer, El Bajo del Junior, and El Bajo del Monstruo. Malpelo is also known as the world’s ninth largest absolute marine sanctuary where there are two clearly distinct oceanic ecosystems in this protected area, one being the marine ecosystem (coral reefs and sandy bottoms) and the other the land ecosystem (volcanic ocean island with rocky shores).

The island’s vast marine park is the largest no-fishing zone in the Eastern Tropical Pacific with almost one million protected hectares, most of them maritime, whilst dry land comprises only 120 hectares of the total. But unfortunately, apart from disturbance from visiting tourists, scientists and Navy personnel, illegal fishing is the largest current threat to the site, with both illegal artisanal and, more importantly, illegal industrial fishing occurring within and around the marine protected zone, including by foreign vessels. Increased efforts in monitoring and law enforcement are needed. Indeed, a management protection plan was completed in 2015 for the years 2015-2020 and the 2020-2025 management plan is currently on going, however, due to the large size of the site, law enforcement capacity remains low due to lack of personnel and equipment and therefore the site remains under pressure from illegal fishing.

The marine environment contains major coral reefs, which grow in a specially adapted terrace formation which creates an extraordinary marine setting. Fish associated with these coral and rock ecosystems include the butterfly fish and the striped snapper. These deep waters support important populations of large predators and pelagic species, including the spectacular whale shark, which reaches lengths of up to 15 metres, the manta ray and large numbers of the Park’s most emblematic species, the aggregations of over 200 hammerhead sharks and over 1,000 silky sharks, which can be observed around the island throughout the year in an undisturbed environment where they maintain natural behavioural patterns. It is in particular a ‘reservoir’ for sharks, giant grouper, and billfish, and is one of the few places in the world where sightings of the short-nosed ragged-toothed shark, a deep-water shark, have been confirmed.

Malpelo has only scant and primitive vegetation consists basically of algae, lichens, mosses, some grasses, and bushy leguminous plants, making a total of eight species. It provides a critical habitat for internationally threatened marine species and is a major source of nutrients resulting in large aggregations of marine biodiversity. Because it is so isolated from the continental mainland, Malpelo has a number of endemic species such as the land crab, the Malpelo lizard and the spotted lizard. Sixty-three species of resident, migratory and transitory birds have been recorded here, including the spotted booby and night gulls. The Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary is administered by the Colombia Natural National Park System, which has an administrative branch in the city of Santiago de Cali. Since 2005, it has been catalogued as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International and the Alexander Von Humboldt Research Institute. Its greatest acknowledgement is its declaration as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – UNESCO in 2006. It is in this framework that Malpelo has been called a “marine jewel” by the National Government.

Colombia has a tropical climate. So, it only has two seasons, the rainy season, and the dry season. The types of sharks that visitors will see vary based on the season when they visit. Hammerhead sharks and small-toothed sand tiger sharks can be easily observed on the dry season (from January to May), for the weather is usually brighter, higher sea waves, and cooler temperatures. While the rainy season (falls from June to December), with calmer waves and warmer temperatures, is the season for whale sharks and silk sharks.

Access to Malpelo is reserved for researchers and scuba divers. Even for divers, it is fairly restricted, as only one vessel, carrying a maximum of 25 divers, is allowed at any given moment. The only way to reach the island is only by liveaboard. This is because the rules for visiting Malpelo Island have changed since 2018. Only operators who have a permit can depart from Colombia to enter the marine park, and only five ships are authorized to sail to Malpelo, three of them do so from Colombia and two from Panama. The time of the visit itself was predetermined. Liveaboard only departs from the small Port of Buenaventura, two and a half hours from Cali and generally stay between five and eight days depending on the plan established in advance. The trip to this distant island is estimated to take approximately 30 to 40 hours of travel.

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