Malpelo, treasures Island
The Yemaya mooring in front of Malpelo rock
The wildlife and fauna sanctuary of Malpelo is not only one of the best known meeting areas of the Pacific's most emblematic sharks. Take it for granted: In Malpelo, you see the hammerhead sharks roaming above your head near the surface on a daily basis, you meet with the king Galapagos sharks reigning over their dominion, and during the rainy season the silky sharks invade the area. But Malpelo is also an explosion of colours, shapes, species, and overwhelming numbers and sizes. Underwater, I encountered schools so large I could not circle them, or see where they ended, and which blocked the sunlight by their sheer gigantism. Behind every other rock I came across cleaning stations swarming with blue and yellow operators and endless waiting lines. Groups of five or six green ribbons shot out of every nook and cranny, flights of triangular-winged angels were suddenly appearing from the blue, and on our return to the skiff, we bumped into several ton grey giants, waiting to swim playfully with us for what seemed like an eternity.
In the warm light of the evening sky, millions of black dots made their way home after a day at sea, ascending in large spirals along the cliffs, and landing near their awaiting progeny with the evening meal. The land itself was singing out, leaping, crawling, swarming with life. On this green less bare rock, a complementary variety of wildlife managed to settle itself and prosper, under the indifferent watch of a few Colombian soldiers and that more protective of the rangers of Columbia's national Natural Parks.
So is Malpelo a shark sanctuary, surrounding a desolate rock lost at sea? Yes, of course, but it is also much more than that! Follow me, and let me show you its hidden treasures.
Malpelo, from the skies (vidéo)
On the morning of Thursday 27 June, 2014 we depart from our hotel in Panama. A comfortable 45 seat bus chartered by Coïba Dive Expeditions takes us on a four hour drive west. We follow the Pacific coast of Panama through a primitive jungle, where villages rarefy, and on arriving at Puerto Mutis in the early afternoon, we feel like we have travelled to the end of the world. Our ship, the Yemaya, is moored in a muddy estuary near a rusting wreck. Not exactly a luxurious touristic marina, but all the better. The genuine aspect of the place gives off a vibe of true adventure.
The "marina" of Puerto Mutis
Lightning flares at the treetops of the rainforest, reminding us that we are at the beginning of the rain season. We will be enduring warm downpours daily, 29 degrees Celsius and a humidity level of nearly 95 per cent. We might just as well be in a giant sauna. After a quick formal customs check, we board on our comfortable Yemaya.
A calm crossing
After a short one-day stop near the island of Coïba, the MV Yemaya weighs its anchor at 3 AM and we leave for a twenty six hour cruise. We plan to reach it at daybreak in order to have a full day of diving ahead of us. Some photographers use this time to ready their gear and compare their weapons of choice. As for me, I make last verifications on my cameras, and especially on my drone. If I am able to fly it and recover it without damage, I will have the very first aerial images of the island.
During the crossing from Coïba to Malpelo (© Sarah Heaney)
On board, life revolves around the delicious meals and snacks shared on the top deck, sheltered from the sun, or the rain accordingly. Cold breakfast, hot breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner. On the Yemaya you are constantly eating, and the daily meat and fish is always sided with fresh fruit, vegetables and salads. Between meals, some enjoy their travelling companions' diving videos on the large HD screen of the inside living room.
Outside, the sun reflects on the glassy sea, and miles pass by slowly to the rhythm of the Pacific Ocean.
Custom made dives
Thanks to the jetlag, my coffee and I have been standing firmly on deck since 4 AM, and I have joined our captain Josh on the footbridge. For a while now we have been able to see the lighthouse of Malpelo. we reach the island just before dawn. The Yemaya roams the area, waiting for daylight to moor. A large swell from south-south west breaks on the coast, but the Yemaya holds its ground and does not budge. Later, we will moor in the permanent anchorage on the north-east side of the island, and that is where the ship will stay during our entire visit.
At sunrise, Malpelo looks hostile with threatening features...
The sun has not yet finished emerging from the horizon when Luis calls me out. It is time to gear up. So as not to interfere with the passenger's operations, I will dive privately and in different shifts. In order to make this more comfortable, the boss of Coïba Dive Expeditions, Otmar Hanser, has procured me a personal guide, in addition to the two who will be taking care of the other passengers! Meaning that three times a day, Malpelo will be mine, with at my entire disposal a guide, a skiff and a pilot. Louis, Sten and Erika will take turns to provide me with the most personal custom-made dive program I have ever had the pleasure of attending.
The Yemaya on the Island north east mooring
I feel like I am shopping in a supermarket, and I push our guides to visit several sites at each sortie. My enthusiasm is going to contaminate the ocean, and it will reward us tenfold with its offerings of the treasures of Malpelo.
The ocean is a theatre
Whilst the 16 passengers awake one at a time and crawl out onto the sundeck, I am busy on the dive deck. Besides the wetsuits and cameras, all tanks and equipment are already on the skiffs and will stay there for the entire trip, freeing the space and providing an easier access for the divers dressing and those returning from a dive.
Inspection of my Hugyfot housing only takes a minute. A green blinking diode tells me I am ready to dive safely with no risk of water leakage.
For this first dive, I decide to entrust myself to Luis, who has been here often. He recommends the Nevera, a cleaning station for hammerhead sharks. Four minutes later, we have arrived at our spot on the west coast of the island. It is still very dark, but nothing will stop us. Just in case we encounter stronger currents than expected, we go for a negative water entry. Louis has been briefed and stays behind me, thus making sure that none of his bubbles end up in my frame. The surface temperature of the water is 28 degrees Celsius. We quickly pass the thermocline at 75 feet. The temperature has dropped a few degrees but my 3mm integral wetsuit is more than enough to keep me warm. At 100 feet we prop ourselves against the rock and start waiting, checking our fins from time to time; the island has a very large population of green moray eel. Their favourite activity being to swim in open waters, it is a constant and tricky business to avoid shoving them.
Moray eels in open water, a speciality from Malpelo
It is very dark and my camera stays down for now. I want to take time to discover and feel the place, locate my subjects before I start shooting randomly. I have eight days ahead of me and I will have all the time I need to find the images I want.
The cleaning station in front of us is extremely busy. Barberfish (Johnrandallia nigrirostris) and king angelfish (Holacanthus passer) bustle around rainbow runners (Elagatis bipinnulata) and leather bass (Dermatolepis dermatolepis).
Leather bass queuing at the cleaning station
Eagle ray in tight formation fly above us.
A flight of eagle rays in close formation
Just as I am thinking that I have not seen such a busy cleaning station in a while, our first Hammerheads appear around a curb. One, then two, and then five. The rest of the school has to be nearby, it is just too dark to see. A lordly couple of Galapagos swim by peacefully, clouds of Jacks busy on their tails. The Galapagos is truly the area's lord. Then it’s a Silky shark,wirier and smoother, more alert than its cousins. Suddenly I feel as if I am at the balcony of the ocean's grand theatre, and that it is showing off its finest treasures. I can't believe my luck on this very first dive.
The famous Hammerhead sharks of Malpelo
As we head back to the surface, the light seems to dim even more. We emerge under a horrific downpour, and a black sky, which limits visibility to a few yards. Luckily Felix, our pilot, has followed our bubbles when we came up swimming away from the shore to avoid the surge on the shore. Malpelo is often prone to such weather whims and you should always pull your safety sausage as soon as possible so as to be located on the surface.
A very active cleaning station (vidéo)
A permanent human presence
On our second day we have the pleasure to meet with Jaiver, a ranger working in the Malpelo Wildlife Sanctuary. He will spend five or six weeks on the island with a small group of soldiers from the Armada. His job is to make sure that the commercial operators respect the parks rules and procedures concerning environmental control and behaviour. One of the most important rules is that only one operator can be on site at all times. This in fact only assures us of always having a greatly appreciated exclusivity for the dives during our entire trip.
The Colombia flag witness of the military presence on the island
But Jaiver has also been warned of my specific authorisation delivered by the park to film and photography. He has decided to accompany me on all my excursions to make sure that my work does not interfere with the island's wildlife, in the water or on land. He is a welcome addition to my team since he has a large knowledge of the island's history and it's inhabitant's habits. Thanks to him I will be able to accost the island to film the famous Nazca booby (Sula Granti), this usually being forbidden to touristic operators.
Malpelo, temple of biodiversity
During the following days I will explore Malpelo thoroughly. I already knew of "two tank dive", where you use two tanks for two dives in a row before heading back to the dive centre. Sten now initiates me to the "three dive tank", where we use one tank for... three dives in a row! It is an original way of optimising resources and time, if the species you are interested in is a no-show. If this is the case, we come up without taking off our gear and the pilot brings us to another site a few minutes away. As this happened numerous times, I am a little confused in recalling what I saw on each dive.
A stunning gathering of Big eye jacks (video)
Visisting "los tres mosqueteros" and "d'Artagnan", we will come across thousands of Bigeye jacks (Caranx sexfasciatus) who assemble in a giant mass until evening, when they will separate to hunt. I must ask my companions to enter the frame, just to have a scale for this gigantic compact group.
A huge gathering of Big eye jacks
In "Aquario" we meet an entirely different species: Mullet snappers (Latjanus aratus), a large fish usually more than 1 meter long and weighing 15 kilos. They are assembled into the largest school that I have ever seen by far. Starting at the surface, I attempt to circle it from beneath, but reaching 120 feet I can still see no end to the multitude, and my Nitrox mix does not allow me to dive any deeper. Incredible! This monument blocks out the daylight, clouds the water with the sheer amount of dejections. I have never seen anything like it. And just wait for the school of a couple thousand Pacific bonitos (Sarda chiliensis), which soon joins in the fun.
Thousands of 15 kgs Mullet snappers
Captivated by this giant moving monument, we reach our air limit and must start our ascent. But suddenly a huge shadow comes over us: a whale shark of some 10 meters long is swimming above me in the direction of the Mullet snappers. The animal seems to be following the trail of the school and eating its waste. We attempt to hurry after it, but the powerful phlegmatic animal swims out of sight with one stroke of its gigantic tail. However, suddenly it turns and swims back in our direction.
A whale shark seems to eat the wastes of a mullet snapper gigantic school (vidéo)
In Malpelo, Whale sharks are curious and interactive
To our surprise, it swims playfully around us for a quarter of an hour, then follows us back to the skiff and roams around it for several minutes yet after we are back on board. I have never observed this type of behaviour in whale sharks, usually indifferent to the small scurrying creatures that are divers to them. Astonishingly, another specimen will later wander near the Yemaya playfully swimming from diver to diver for more than twenty minutes, and will swim away only when the last man is back on the ship.
Whale sharks with a very specific behavior ! (video)
In "La Carra de Fantasma" we come across a school of barracudas near the surface where the water is clearer and I ask my companions Sten and Jaiver to swim towards it. Though they are entirely wild, the animals of Malpelo do not seem bothered by human presence and we can approach them without any difficulty. This leads to magical encounters, and magnificent footage.
A school of barracudas close to the surface
When emerging, I am confused by the multitude and diversity of what I have seen, and I need time to recall all of our dives. Even after the excitement has passed as I am back on the Yemaya, I need to go through the chronology of my discoveries with the aid of the footage I took in order to organise my memories, and convince myself that I was not simply dreaming. But in the following days all of my dives will be as rich and dense, confirming that Malpelo truly is one of the world's temples of biodiversity.
Un school of barracudas. : harmony and beauty in the shallows (video)
Malpelo is famous for being one of the areas where you may (with luck) encounter a shark that is not well known and rarely observed: the Small tooth sand tiger shark (Odontaspis ferox). It is rarely observed in the 120-180 feet zone. Many specimens are found dead and stranded on the beach or in fisher's nets, but the "ferox" scarcely ever shows itself intentionally to divers.
The « Small tooth sand tiger shark » (Odontaspis ferox) or "Ferox"
At Malpelo, however, and more specifically at the site of "Bajo de Monstruo", and very occasionally at "Cara de Fantasma", it has been seen, mostly in winter during the dry season when the water is at its coldest, but also on rare occasions during the summer rain season. Erika, my Columbian guide, will follow me during the last three days, and we will attempt with everything in our power to rout out the "monster".
In order to reduce the risk for decompression accidents, the use of Nitrox is compulsory for leisure diving in Malpelo. But I am not on vacation! For the last three days of shooting, I will be using air for my morning dives. This will enable me to station at 150 feet, backed up against the rock, facing a sand trough, which has a sudden and rapid drop into the deep blue. This way if the "ferox" appears deeper, we have still some room to dive towards it. Otherwise we will not go below 165 feet, and Jaiver who is diving with Nitrox will stay above us in the limits authorised by his mix.
At 7 AM the light is very dim but with my two lights Sola from Light & Motion, I have 8000 lumens of light. This should be enough if the monster approaches to a close range. And my two strobes Inon Z240 should do the trick for the photos.
We wait in the dark. From time to time I throw a peek at Jaiver's dark shape a few meters above us. When he signals gently, I know everything is well for him.
Stop time starts to increase. I stay calm, knowing that Felix, our pilot, has immerged a security Nitrox bottle at 20 feet. Whatever happens we will not run out of air. Erika and I keep staring at the depth.
Suddenly a large shark appears in the distance...
Suddenly a large shark appears in the distance. Everything seems to freeze, my heart as well as the ocean. I hold my breath whilst the animal swims gracefully toward us. It is big, but not as big as I had thought. As it gets closer my doubts keep growing. No, it’s not the Ferox. It is a curious Galapagos shark that has come to visit. It plays around us a few minutes before vanishing back into the darkness of the Ocean. We stick to our positions and wait as long as we possibly can, but the Ferox will not show today.
The ocean, a place of freedom
For three days in a row we will relive the same wait and deception. But I am neither frustrated nor resentful, I know by now that the Ocean is not a movie theatre, or a zoo. It is a vast and borderless open, and its inhabitants roam freely wherever they please. Sometimes, you are lucky enough to spot them, and other times like now, they decide to stay out of sight. When diving, you need to be patient, humble, and a bit of a philosopher!
Bait balls like in South Africa
I wouldn't want you to think that there aren't many sharks in Malpelo. Wait and see for yourselves.
In the middle of the week, an impressive surf comes out from the Pacific, and the more exposed sites are inaccessible. Luckily there is always one side of Malpelo that is protected. After one of our dives we emerge at "La Nevera" and Sten, on a good instinct, asks Felix to go around the south, which is exposed to the surf. The waves, stuck between the smaller islands of "La Gringa" and "Scuba", form into giant tsunamis of some 12 meters high, which then crash on to the cliffs of Malpelo.
Passing by far at sea, we spot dozens of birds on the horizon. A "bait ball"!! But its activity is not abundant and many birds are already landed on the water.
Even so, we must go and take a look. Felix heads towards the birds whilst Sten and I gear up with masks and flippers only, since our stabs are useless for we are once again out of air. Backside jump and we find ourselves in front of hundreds of silky sharks and a few larger Blacktip sharks. Left, right, below us, they are everywhere we look...
Les soyeux arrivent avec la saison des pluies et se nourissent sur des "bait balls"
We also spot some Rainbow runners and a few Tunas that probably took their share of the feast. The bait ball down to a couple dozen fish tries to escape from the last predators. In a desperate wave of survival instinct, the group swims towards us and surrounds us, hoping to gain shelter. The best way to get bitten is to swim between a shark and its prey. We must flee, and taking to our fins we must swim frantically to lose the group of fish, thus seeing only the final act of this exciting scene. It is time to return to the Yemaya and leave the skiff to the passengers, disappointed to hear that they have missed the show.
Hammerheads at Malpelo?
That afternoon we take our chances at "El Bajon", a deeper site (around 100 feet) to try and catch a few Galapagos. We are not disappointed! 7 or 8 large specimen hurry curiously towards the noise of Sten crushing a plastic water bottle in his hands. They stay within a range of 10 or 15 meters from us at all times. I shoot and lose track of time, until my computer reminds me that I am not a fish. As stop time increases, we decide to get out of the water and visit a second, shallower dive site. I have 1200 psi left, which is more than enough.
We decide that the Nevera and its 15 meters deep cleaning station will be our destination. That is where I am a few minutes later filming Rainbow runners at work when a hammerhead appears and swims right in front of me. Everybody knows that you should never hold your breath when diving. Yet, I do exactly that, afraid that my bubbles might scare the shark away.
Hammerhead sharks by numbers come to the cleaning stations
Soon two, then five, then a dozen hammerheads follow. Even in this shallow water, nitrogen and stop time start to accumulate. I should not be playing games; the nearest pressure chamber is at a two-day sailing distance… This is too far if any serious accident happens. Anyhow, I don’t want to take any risks, for my health but also because an incident would interfere with the other passenger’s vacation. Reluctantly, we leave our wall and start swimming upwards and out to the sea. But still we are followed by a couple dozen Hammerhead sharks, and it is a memorable sight, even if you’ve seen it all, which I for one have not!
The exceptional circumstances in which this shooting took place made it a very special diving trip for me. I would like to express warm thanks to:
- Otmar Hanser, the boss of Coïba Dive Expeditions, who financed the entirety of my stay on board of the Yemaya.
- Louis, Erika and Sten, my three diving guides, along with the captain and crew of the Yemaya, who bent over backwards in order to enable me to shoot all the footage and interviews I had in mind.
- My partner, H2O Voyage, who agreed to finance all transportation for my trip.
- Sandra Bessudo and the members of the Malpelo Foundation, along with the managers of the Columbian National Natural Parks, who helped obtaining and delivered my special filming and photographing authorization.
- My very first partners Aqualung, Plongimage, DivePhotolight, Hugyfoot and Light & Motion.
You want to know more about Malpelo. Read the following...
The Island of Malpelo
From 1494 onwards, Malpelo was owned first by Spain, then by Peru. Columbia claimed sovereignty over the island in 1810, and it has since then ruled over Malpelo, the 12 nautical miles around it, and on an economical zone up to 200 nautical miles from the rock. It is Malpelo that gives Columbia a common border with Costa Rica.
© Parcs Nationaux Naturels de Colombie
The island is located 500 km west of Buenaventura on the Pacific coast of Columbia. It is the peak of an underwater volcanic ridge which climbs up from a 4000 meter depth. This peak called “Maleplo Ridge” is 150 miles liong frpom north to south, and 50 miles wide. It’s highest point is 300 meters above sea level. Malpelo goes through two meteorological periods: the dry season from January to April, and the rain season from May to December. The average air and water temperature on the surface is 27°C, with a thermocline between 20 and 40 meters depending on the season. The island has no natural drinkable water supply, but the rocky peaks make for excellent condensers and fresh water pours down them permanently. This allows for a primitive form of flora to appear at certain areas, mostly mosses, lichens, algae, grass and ferns.
Despite its’ isolation and its’ distance from any other land, wildlife has developed mildly with a certain amount of endemic craband reptilian species, and many different species of seabirds. Among these, the famous Nazca Boobie (sula granti) is the most common, with a permanent colony of over 100 000 birds.
A couple of Nazca Boobies (Sula granti)
The couple, only capable of feeding one young at a time, nevertheless hatches two eggs a few days apart. If the first chick survives, it will promptly make its’ young sibling disappear. Otherwise, the younger bird will have a chance at survival and may see adulthood. Nature’s way is harsh but in this case essential to the survival of the species.
The Nazca Boobies and the Yemaya in the background (video)
In July of 2006, Malpelo was declared by UNESCO as a natural World Heritage Site.
Illegal fishing, plague of the Marine Parks
Malpelo’s worldwide reputation does not keep it safe from the longing and cupidity of organized trusts who live off the illegal shark fin trade.
The modus operandi is always the same : coming from Panama, Equator, Costa Roca, or sometimes even Columbia, a main unit is tow several 6 or 7 meter long boats, which themselves carry the long lines. Without the main boat, the distance would be too far for the smaller boats to reach. At the limit of the territorial waters, the main boat stops its’ engines and the longliners continue. They operate during the night hoping that darkness will protect them from the military based on the island.
Long lines of several kilometers are dropped in the evening and picked up in the early morning. Without even being killed, the sharks are freed of their fins, and their mutilated bodies are thrown back to sea. The fins will later be packed on the the main boat where they will be put to dry. Sharks are not the only victims of this illegal process. Manta rays, dolphins, turtles and other fish like swordfish, are also thrown back to sea, often dead, their market price being a trifle compared to that of the shark fins which go by several hundred dollars a kilo on the Chinese market.
© Natural national parcs of Colombia
Having no boat, the military and Rangers on Malpelo have partnered with the touristic operators such as the Yemaya from Coïba Dive Expeditions, in an attempt to fight against illegal fishing in the area. When Longliners are spotted by the tourists or guides, the operator’s skiffs are deployed to fetch armed military force who will then intervene to intercept the long liners and confiscate their lines.
© Natural national parcs of Colombia
Sadly the Columbian law does not give them authority to arrest the crooks, who are left free after a few regulations checks and the seizing of their equipment.
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