© Yann Chavance / Fondation Tara Expéditions

The Tara team began collecting coral specimens in the Gulf of Panama, and also lent a hand to the Malpelo Foundation in their long-term study of whale sharks and the ecosystem of the area. On the way, reaching the marine sanctuary of Malpelo Island (west coast of Colombia), the crew started an unusual activity — attempting to put GPS tags on whale sharks.

Sandra Bessudo, funder of the Malpelo Foundation, has been fighting to preserve the incredible marine biodiversity of tiny Malpelo Island for the three last decades. On this inhospitable rock threatened by illegal fishing, the French-Colombian biologist has created a marine sanctuary unique in the world and renowned for its extraordinary natural riches. Interview.


A Malpelo, la diversité de la faune sous-marine est aussi impressionnante que sa quantité en certains endroits.
In certain spots around Malpelo, the diversity of marine life is as impressive as its abundance © David Hannan / Ocean Ark Alliance


How did you discover Malpelo? ?

I fell in love with Malpelo in 1987, the very first time I came to the island. I vividly remember my first dive. I think I’ll never forget it. The conditions were rather special: we were on a fishing boat which a group of us diving instructors had fixed up. We didn’t know the site at all, so we were quite excited. We saw schools of hammerhead sharks and were wondering if they could harm us. We remained very alert, but with time we got to know these animals and realized they were completely harmless.


Requins marteaux à Malpelo
Hammerhead sharks at Malpelo © François Aurat / Tara Expeditions Foundation


Why have you devoted your life to the protection of Malpelo?

After the first dives, I saw the incredible natural beauty of the island, but also understood all the problems facing the site. At that time, several fishing boats were anchored directly on the coral, with their decks full of dead sharks. Once you dive with sharks, it’s very painful to see them lying dead on deck. At that moment I realized something had to be done to protect Malpelo, to preserve these magnificent species.


What did you do then?

I became totally involved and succeeded in convincing the President of Colombia to declare the island a Marine Protected Area. Then in 1999 we created a foundation: the Foundation for Malpelo and Other Marine Ecosystems. With this foundation we have developed various programs of ecotourism, surveillance, communication, education and, of course, a scientific research program to create a data base of many species over the long term. In 2006, UNESCO declared Malpelo a natural World Heritage Site. This is extremely rewarding and compensates all these years of work.


Tara au mouillage devant l’île de Malpelo (Colombie)
Tara anchored near Malpelo Island (Colombia) © Tara Expeditions Foundation


What is tara’s involvement at malpelo?

For a long time I’d been talking with Romain Troublé (director of the Tara Foundation) to figure out if we could do something here in Colombia, obviously at Malpelo. We had already worked together during the COP21 in Paris with a common goal: that in the negotiations, the oceans would be taken into account as an important ecosystem in the fight against climate change. This week at Malpelo means a lot to us. It’s the first time a boat like Tara has come to Colombia to help us do research. It’s very important for us to continue our scientific programs in cooperation with other countries, but also to show people the importance of this kind of mission. By following the rest of the Tara Pacific expedition, we’ll be able to compare the Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary with dozens of other sites on the planet.

Interview by Yann Chavance


Related articles :

- Whale sharks: the quest continues
- Below the cliffs of Malpelo
- Tara at Malpelo Island: from corals to sharks