On Monday, we launched our brand-new Shark Research And Conservation Project in Mexico. We're thrilled to be working alongside Yago Doson Coll and Clara Caltayud Pavia, the founders of this trip and also the project leaders. We got in touch with them to discuss the low-down on the project - check out our interview here!
What inspired you to start the project?
It was a shared inspiration between the three co-founders of the program (Clara, Lara and I) and a combination of events that made this project a reality. The idea of running shark research camps had been gestating in our minds since the three of us volunteered in a marine conservation expedition in the Seychelles in 2006. That experience not only exceeded our expectations but also changed our lives in unimaginable ways. It completely changed our perspective about travelling. During the expedition, we learned about coral reefs and sharks; we became better and more confident swimmers and divers; we collected important biological data; we immersed ourselves in the island culture; we swam in breathtaking beaches surrounded by amazing marine life; and we made life-long friendships. More than a decade later, I know joining that expedition was one of the best things I have ever done.
After completing our bachelor degrees in biological sciences, the three of us were determined to do two things: 1) work towards the conservation of shark populations, and 2) make people feel the same way we felt on that marine conservation expedition by transforming holidays into the most rewarding and wholesome travel experience possible. This is how the concept of the shark research camps began. However, we knew that we had a long way ahead of us if we wanted to make it work. The three of us moved overseas to become better divers and more knowledgeable biologists. Lara moved to Australia to do her Master of Science and complete her PhD on whale shark trophic ecology. I worked as a professional underwater guide on liveaboard dive boats around South East Asia and Central America before enrolling in a Master degree in Fisheries Science at the University of British Columbia. Clara travelled the world working on tallships as a marine biologist and professional diver before completing her Master of Science in management of Marine Protected Areas and enrolled in a pre-doctoral internship studying shark ecology in Baja California Sur. Her study focused on diver-shark interactions and how implementing an appropriate management plan for recreational shark diving can be a useful way to protect shark populations worldwide. We soon realised that we could apply that same concept to our shark research camps. Shortly after I completed my Master degree, I joined Clara in La Paz to begin organizing the volunteer program.
What is the role of the volunteers and how will they help?
Volunteers play a key role in the development of our research and successful achievement of our conservation goals. It would be logistically impossible to monitor shark populations all year round at our target locations without the manpower that our volunteers provide to this project.
Volunteers become research assistants for the duration of the program. They assist the lead scientists of the project collect vital data for the conservation of shark populations in the Sea of Cortez. As any other scientist involved in the project, volunteers will be photo ID-ing sharks, assessing and recording different behaviour, conducting visual counts, identifying individuals, estimating size, recording geographic and environmental data, assisting on tissue sampling, and helping enter data on several databases. Volunteers add an incredible amount of manpower to the on-going research, allowing for larger data sets collected in less time. This translates into more efficient and better informed decision-making on conservation and management measures for shark populations in the area.
Are there any animals/locations the volunteers should look out for on their trip?
Definitely! The Sea of Cortez is, biologically-speaking, the richest body of water on earth and always pleases its visitors with incredible wildlife sightings. Whale sharks in La Paz Bay, bull sharks in Cabo Pulmo and pelagic shark species (e.g., silky, blue, mako and smooth hammerhead sharks) off the coast of Cabo San Lucas are target species on our research studies and volunteers should definitely look out for these. That being said, volunteers should expect to encounter a lot more!
Volunteers must be aware that they will get a lot of attention from the Californian sea lion colony at Espiritu Santo National Park (ESNP) during the first couple dives of the expedition. ESNP is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is home to 98 species of birds and a resident colony of 300 sea lions. The sea lions are very playful and guarantee good fun during dives.
Cabo Pulmo is the only hard coral reef in the Sea of Cortez and one of the most successful marine reserves in the world. While monitoring bull shark populations in Cabo Pulmo, volunteers should also keep an eye for other species of sharks such blacktip and Galapagos sharks, and big schools of bigeye trevallies.
Pods of bottlenose dolphins and orcas, schools of mobula rays and humpback whales amongst many other species of whales are common sightings in the Sea of Cortez. Volunteers should expect the unexpected!
What has been your most memorable experience with a shark?
Honestly, every single shark encounter is memorable. I personally prefer interactions without SCUBA gear; the experience becomes a lot more intimate and feels more natural. Sharks (and other wildlife) seem to trust you more when you don’t carry a tank on your back.
If I had to pick 'the most memorable” experience with a shark, it would probably be the very first time I saw a whale shark. The approximately 7 metre shark cruising the shallow waters of Mahe island in the Seychelles was actively feeding and was swimming near the surface with its mouth wide open. It had a rather large number of pilot fish and trevallies right in front of its mouth, which very much surprised me at that time. I was so mesmerised by the encounter that I forgot to check the sex on the shark. I will never know if that very first whale shark that I encountered was a male or a female. I think I couldn’t stop smiling for a whole week after that experience and I will definitely never forget it.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I would lie if I told you that this project was planned only to meet research and conservation goals. Every aspect of the program has been thoroughly considered: from the need, importance and high impact of the research studies we conduct to the achievement of our own career and personal goals. Creating this project was our best chance to create the ideal job for us; a way we could make a positive impact on this planet while doing what we love.
What did that ideal job require?
This program was built to meet all these requirements. My point here is that I love everything about what I do. From the conservation work that we do, to the rewarding feeling of knowing we are facilitating what, for many, might be the trip of a lifetime. It’s been a long journey but we couldn’t be more proud and happy about this great project.
In your experience, what are the biggest issues facing Baja California Sur’s marine life today? And how does the project aim to tackle this problem?
Overfishing and unsustainable coastal development are, in my experience, the greatest challenges affecting the marine life of the Sea of Cortez. Both fisheries and tourism provide important income and livelihoods for local people but at the same time the effects of both sectors are greatly detrimental to the environment when not developed appropriately. The ultimate goal of our shark research and conservation program is to provide the Mexican government, local communities and other stakeholders with sound scientific data allowing well-informed decision-making regarding conservation and management measures to achieve sustainable and well-regulated fisheries and shark-watching tourism. This will result in a win-win-win situation where conservation, food security and economic development goals are simultaneously met for the benefit of people and nature.
Finally, why should people choose to visit Baja California Sur for their volunteering experience?
Where do I begin? Baja California Sur (BCS) is truly a breathtaking place. Its dramatic landscapes are characterised by rugged islands with high cliffs and sandy beaches, contrasting with the brilliant reflection from the desert and the surrounding turquoise waters of one of the most biodiverse seas on the planet. Not unexpectedly, Baja California Sur is a top destination for nature and wildlife lovers.
BCS is geographically isolated from the rest of Mexico. It benefits from the rich Mexican culture without the hassle and risks of other areas in mainland Mexico. BCS also benefits from a desert-like climate that’s generally hot and dry, cooled along the coast by sea breezes; perfect for those who can’t take humid heat.
La Paz is a sleepy Mexican town with all the amenities of a big resort destination. Nonetheless, the town has managed to keep that feeling of uniqueness and remoteness characteristic of the Sea of Cortez. In their spare time volunteers can go kayaking, snorkeling, paddle boarding and hiking through the desert. Some of the finest beaches in Baja California are only 15 minutes away from La Paz. Here participants can go for a swim or join the locals in a game of beach volleyball or beach rugby. Volunteers can also spend time at the Malecon, which has a great selection of artisanal shops, bars and restaurants. It is the combination of these factors that make BCS the perfect location for a volunteering experience.
P.S: Did I mention fish tacos? Yes! Without a doubt Baja California Sur has the best fish tacos in the entire world!
Thank you to Yago for taking the time to answer all of our questions. We hope you loved reading about the project as much as we have - and if it's inspired you enough, why not head to our project page now to book your place on a trip?
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