Esperanza: A New Hope

With her impressive display of stripes and spots, the young whale shark (Rhincodon typus) glides through the undulating waters, sucks drifting plankton into her mouth and filters out excess water through her gills. At just 10 feet in length, she’s nearly a quarter of her projected size, but with miles of open ocean to roam, she has over 100 years to grow into her skin. Fortunately, she’ll be able to pass the time alongside fellow marine giants like the leatherback sea turtle and the manta ray. Though she swims in a mixture of currents from the tropics and Antarctica, the Galapagos is her home.

Meanwhile, just north of the archipelago, in the vicinity of Darwin Island, a team of scientists with the Galapagos Whale Shark Project is preparing a satellite tag to be fitted on her dorsal fin. The device will transmit her movements so they can observe her migratory routes and learn more about her biological and social behaviors. Diving beneath the white-capped waves, the scientists can now fully admire her grandeur.

A juvenile, yes, but just as enigmatic and powerful as one many years her senior. The sun’s rays cast ribbons of light and shadow upon her back. The intricate pattern—as unique as a human fingerprint—flashes like an illusion. It’s September 2020, the COVID pandemic has touched every part of the world, and this whale shark is a much-needed source of light in the darkness. The scientists name her Esperanza, the Spanish word for “hope.”

For eight months, Esperanza explores the depths of her ocean home, while researchers and animal lovers of all ages watch from afar.

Suddenly, in mid-May, her signal disappears. The people of Galapagos and mainland Ecuador eagerly await for Esperanza’s light to return on the screens. But a month goes by and there’s still no sign of her…

Scientists confirm the transmission stopped after 280 days, when Esperanza’s course intersected with that of a foreign fishing fleet at the border of Ecuador’s protected waters. A wave of silence rushes over all who had been tracking her journey. Esperanza was likely on the deck, scattered among dozens of other bycatch (accidental capture of non-target species), or worse, being illegally traded for her valued white meat, fins, and oil.

Whale sharks are pelagic species, meaning they are capable of vast trans-oceanic movements. Despite being the largest shark, and therefore, fish in the world, very little is known about their ecology and movements, particularly in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. What we do know, however, is that whale sharks are endangered. According to their status on the IUCN Red List, their population is in decline as a result of vessel strikes in shipping lanes, the illegal wildlife trade and bycatch in ghost nets.

To the local people, Esperanza was a symbol of hope, but to the rest of the world, she is just another victim of illegal, unregulated and undocumented (IUU) fishing. In 2021, the Galapagos Whale Shark Project reported that two of the eight whale sharks they tagged met the very same fate. Globally, more than one-third of all sharks and rays are at risk of extinction due to overfishing, and one-third of the world’s assessed fisheries have been pushed beyond their biological limits.

Esperanza’s story sets a precedent for policymakers to create management strategies that safeguard critical migration routes for species and benefit the livelihood of people who depend on tourism and subsistence fishing.

The Galapagos-Cocos Swimway: A Conservation Brotherhood

Recognizing that the long-term coexistence of humanity and wildlife requires a sustainable balance, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso proudly announced the creation of the Hermandad Marine Reserve on January 14, 2022. This historic declaration expands the boundaries of the Galapagos Marine Reserve (created in 1998) by 23,166 square miles, bringing the total area to 76,448 square miles of protected marine habitat. The expansion also includes an 11,583-square-mile “no-take” migratory superhighway that connects the Galapagos Marine Reserve to protected Costa Rican waters.

Though the island of Santa Cruz in the Galapagos Archipelago served as the site for this conservation victory, the initiative could not have been achieved without the crucial negotiations that took place during the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow.

In the equatorial zone, there is a region known as the Eastern Tropical Pacific. This biogeographical province boasts one of the highest levels of endemism in the world. Its global importance is evident in its four UNESCO marine World Heritage Sites: Galapagos Archipelago in Ecuador, Cocos Island in Costa Rica, Coiba Island in Panama and Malpelo Island in Colombia. The degree of ecological interconnectivity makes this site ideal for collaborative conservation strategies.

The Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor (CMAR) was an intergovernmental initiative between Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Panama. The Hermandad Marine Reserve is now an integral section of the greater CMAR, which connects the countries’ respective marine protected areas (MPA) to form a safe swimway for a range of permanent and migratory species. Some of the threatened and endangered species include whale sharks, hammerhead sharks, rays, Galapagos penguins, tuna and sea turtles such as the olive ridley, green and hawksbill, in addition to cetaceans like the sei whale.

Swimways are a set of connectivity conservation projects that establish biological corridors between MPAs and natural seascapes like the Cocos Ridge (an underwater mountain range on the northeastern side of the Galapagos Islands). Linking these habitats supports species richness and population, protects marine life from the threats of industrial fishing and increases resilience against climate change.

Keel Billed Toucan, from Central America.

30% by 2030

The long-awaited, in-person phase of the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is due to take place from April 25 to May 8 in Kunming, China. CBD published a draft agreement last year, with the goal to protect 30% of land and ocean by 2030.

Jacqueline Álvarez, United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Regional Director, said the following in response:

“Now that the world embarks on the vision of effectively protecting 30 percent of the planet’s terrestrial and marine areas, Latin America and the Caribbean could improve and expand the conservation of its natural capital, and jointly promote solutions to the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss and pollution and waste.”

“Living in Harmony with Nature” guides the post-2020 Global Biodiversity framework, and it is a sentiment that President Lasso has taken to heart. He calls on other nations to join the collective effort in preserving the oceans with these words:

“The inextricable connections between the sea, climate, and biodiversity are undeniable. The ocean is one of Earth’s most significant climate regulators—absorbing nearly a third of emitted carbon dioxide and over 90% of excess heat. In short, the planet’s health depends on a healthy ocean, and ensuring a healthy ocean requires cooperation and coordination well beyond individual borders. By working together to live in balance with nature, we are closer to doing our part in protecting the ocean, and in turn, the climate and planet. Through the creation of this marine reserve, I call on other nations to join this collective effort and successfully preserve the ocean’s irreplaceable biological treasures. In doing so, we honor our motive of Hermandad—symbolizing the unity between the Earth and people, as well as the respect, equality, and fraternity needed among the nations to work towards a common goal: guaranteeing the preservation and conservation of our planet for the current and future generations.”

Green sea turtle and sergeant major fish, Galapagos Islands

WWF in Action

The New Year has brought with it a host of new conservation success stories, but continuous and collaborative efforts are needed if we are to turn the tide of biodiversity loss. Fortunately, World Wildlife Fund and Natural Habitat Adventures contribute to global conservation goals through their dedication to wildlife protection, community partnerships, environmental education and carbon-neutral excursions.

Here are just a few examples of WWF in Action in the Galapagos:

Conservation Training

Since 2007, WWF has been awarding scholarships to Galapagos students to pursue training in environmental management, tourism and business administration. Training the next generation of conservation leaders is vital for the long-term conservation of the Galapagos Islands.

Innovative Fisheries Management

WWF works with the lobster fishing communities in the Galapagos Islands to embrace sustainable practices and to promote a new fishing rights-based approach. This encourages fishermen to catch quality products rather than large volumes. It also eliminates overfishing and the dangerous conditions artisan fishers endure.

Improved Monitoring of the Galapagos Marine Reserve

WWF has helped create more efficient ways to monitor vessels in the Galapagos Marine Reserve, using technology such as satellite, radio and radars. These systems have been very effective at detecting illegal fishing activities and minimizing the risk of vessel accidents, which could lead to oil spills.

 Implementing Ecotourism

WWF helps the Galapagos to design and implement a new ecotourism-based model to support conservation and improve people’s livelihoods. The model includes improving local governance, designing new ecotourism activities, promoting an ecotourism-oriented culture and monitoring the impact of the tourism sector. The latest innovation includes solar-powered boats (fuel-free and emission-free). WWF and the Galapagos National Park used an existing boat—which the park had confiscated from an illegal fishing operation—and transformed it. Currently, the solar boat is used for educating the public about renewable energy.

Nat Hab offers several unique itineraries through Central and South America, and all are conscious of travelers’ ecological footprints. The Galapagos and Costa Rica adventures in particular offer unparalleled access to the many marine species protected by the new Hermandad Marine Reserve and the greater Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor.

In honor of Esperanza, the next great conservation story starts with you!