Off the Pacific coast of Colombia lies a gem of biodiversity so valuable it was named a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site in 2006. The island is so remote, 500 km (311 miles) west of the Colombian port of Buenaventura, travel there takes 36 hours by boat. This location preserves unique species, not only birds above on the rocks, but fish, shark and marine mammals beneath pristine waters. As an underwater oasis, Malpelo is one of the top destinations in the world for experienced divers.
The island and surrounding waters are the largest no-fishing zone in the Eastern Pacific at this tropical latitude. The park is 2,700,000 hectares, which is 10,000 square miles of ocean. In 2003, the International Maritime Organization declared the sanctuary a “Particularly Sensitive Sea Area,” and banned commercial shipping through it. The Colombian navy protects this area from illegal fishing, sending a team of five out to the island to live there a month and patrol daily by boat.
These protected waters have enormous biodiversity including; longfin yellowtail, blue horse mackarels, black horse mackerels, striped bonitos, black nosed butterfly fish, tuna, Passer angelfish, giant manta ray, and bottle nose dolphins. Researchers estimate there are 17 species of marine mammals, seven of marine reptiles, 394 of fish and 340 species of mollusks. The schools of fish are so large that they often form fish balls on which predators feed.
Top predators, such as the scalloped hammerhead shark, Galapagos shark, small toothed sand tiger shark, whale sharks, and more than 1000 silky sharks frequent these depths. Malpelo is important for these sharks’ life cycles and serves as a nursery. Such places are rare and critical to protect.
Marine biologist Sandra Bessudo was the founder and is the director of the Fundación Malpelo since 1999. She’s been central to the conservation of this uncommon place. In 1987, she went diving around the island with friends. Bessudo was able to swim near to schools of hammerhead sharks. Then, back on the surface she was horrified to see a fishing boat with dead hammerheads on its deck.
Bessudo fell in love with the ocean creatures who lived there and decided to fight for their ecosystem. For 30 years she has worked to protect Malpelo’s uniqueness. She had a hand in pursuing the national and international protections that are now in place. Bessudo has served as the Colombian Minister of the environment and currently represents Colombia in international sustainability forums. Thanks to her vision and tenacity, Malpelo is a safeguarded Pacific jewel.
Interested in the Malpelo story? Would you like to adopt a shark? (~23 Euros or $27/ year)
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