By Daniela Escontrela, RJD Intern
The Galapagos Islands are a popular tourist destination for many people around the world. The pristine environment combined with the vast amounts of life and different species make many people come to the Galapagos every year. However, one of the most important species people come to watch are the scalloped hammerheads and the whale sharks, along with other sharks.
Living on the islands for over two months I can say I have seen most of the iconic animals that the Galapagos are known for. However, one of the best experiences I’ve had is snorkeling and diving with the sharks here. On a snorkel trip to Punta Morena, we were riding back to Puerto Villamil after a long day of snorkeling. All of a sudden, our boat slowed down and veered off to the right. It took me a second to realize why we were going in that direction, and then I saw it. A huge dorsal and caudal fin were sticking out of the water. Being marine biologists, everyone’s first instinct was to jump in the water with this massive creature. However, our boat captain and first mate were wary about this. They kept saying it was a “Tiburon gato” which we gathered was a tiger shark. However, we were positive it was a whale shark as the dorsal fin had the characteristic white spots of a whale shark. After much debate about what it was, the boat captain rode over closer to the shark and in that moment the shark swam right under our boat, and that’s when we were one hundred percent sure that it was a whale shark. The boat captain and first mate were still very skeptical, but regardless we all quickly suited up and jumped in the water to swim with this huge, majestic creature. We swam with it for at least ten minutes as it circled the boat several times. My favorite part was its gorgeous white spots that were running down its body. But as quickly as this adventure began, it then ended as the whale shark dove deep into the abyss. It was interesting, the men working on this boat run snorkel trips almost on a daily basis and have definitely seen a whale shark before, but had never jumped into the water with one.
Another incredible experience with sharks was when we were diving in San Cristobal at Kicker Rock (Leon Dormido). The dive began with more sharks than I had ever seen in one dive, small blacktips and Galapagos sharks casually swam by, eyeing us with caution. Towards the end of the dive I was filming two Galapagos sharks that were directly below me when I heard a clinking noise. I looked up, expecting to see another small Galapagos or blactip shark, but what I saw was something I was not expecting. A school of at least ten scalloped hammerheads swimming towards me, one of them coming within five feet of me. They were magnificent, something I had wanted to see my whole life. There slender bodies, big dorsal fins and beautiful cephalofoil were enthralling. They surrounded us for a couple of minutes, some swimming under me, some above me. I didn’t know where to look, they were too beautiful. But they soon swam away and I was out of air from all the excitement.
I have always been a strong advocate of shark conservation. Back in the states, I am part of the RJ Dunlap program which focuses on shark research and conservation. However, this trip gave me an insight into the shark finning problem that I had never had before. Besides being able to see these majestic creatures underwater, I have also lived with a host family the past two months where my host dad used to be a shark fisherman here in the Galapagos. It was interesting to hear his story, he had been a pepino diver, and when the pepino fishery was banned, he switched to shark finning. He says he didn’t have an alternative, he had to feed his family and the shark fishing brought in good money for him and his family to survive. Eventually, shark fishing was also banned in the Galapagos and he had to find another job. Luckily, he was able to find a job with the government. However, he tells me he would like shark fishing to continue. This time not because of the money, but because a lot of the locals are terrified of the sharks. He himself is scared of sharks, every time I tell him about my day’s stories involving sharks, he cringes and tells me to be careful.
It’s interesting, on one hand I love sharks and would love for the massive killing of sharks to end completely. However, then there’s the people that rely on these jobs to support their family; this is something I had never fully considered before. You can’t ask someone to stop their job when it’s the only source of income they have and the only way they can get through life. It made me realize that banning shark finning all together is unrealistic. However, other things can be done to reduce the number of sharks that are killed every year. We need to set up a comprehensive education program to teach locals of these small fishing communities about sharks. From talking to many locals and hearing their stories, I have come to realize that a lot of them don’t have much education when it comes to things about the natural world, especially sharks. People need to be educated about sharks, the threats they face and how catastrophic it could be to lose sharks. They need to learn that taking out sharks from the environment could cause environmental impacts, such as throwing the food web off balance. In addition, removing sharks from the environment could cause ecotourism to cease, causing them to lose a crucial part of their income.
In addition, we can’t just ask shark fishermen to stop fishing without giving them alternatives, especially when this is their only source of income. When the park banned shark finning and pepino fishing, they started to set up a lot of road blocks so the fishermen couldn’t use their boats for tourism and ferrying people between islands. The park needs to help those fishermen displaced by the ban to find new jobs, this way it will be less likely that the fishermen will go back to illegally fishing for sharks.
There also needs to be more enforcement against illegal fishing. The park currently only has one patrol boat for the island of Isabela. It’s not only enforcement to prevent local fishermen from fishing sharks. They also need to have more stringent penalties for foreign vessels that come into the Galapagos Marine Reserve to fish for sharks.
A combination of education, alternative jobs and enforcement could help the Galapagos in their conservation effort for sharks. It is imperative that these issues be faced because if the Galapagos Islands were to lose sharks, the rest of the marine reserve could be severely affected. One of the major things that attracted me to the Galapagos was the idea that I would be able to see iconic species like the whale shark and the scalloped hammerhead. Luckily, I had that experience along with the chance to meet people that once depended on these species; future generations should get the chance I had of seeing all these incredible animals and sights.