In 2016, sharks swarmed around Darwin and Wolf islands in the Galápagos archipelago and while the numbers were abnormally high, the island pair is known to harbour large populations of the predators. Working to understand why this should be so and what should be done to protect them has been a dream job for Pelayo Salinas-de León for the past five years.
As a teenager growing up in Asturias, northern Spain, I had two things very clear in my head: I wanted to be a marine biologist and I wanted to work in the Galápagos Islands. I’m still not sure why the Galápagos Islands; I’d probably watched a Jacques Cousteau documentary or read an article about Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Whatever the reason, during my undergraduate and postgraduate years in Wales, New Zealand, Indonesia and Spain I had shared my obsession for Darwin’s enchanted islands with pretty much everyone who crossed my path. So when the position of senior marine ecologist with the Charles Darwin Foundation was advertised in 2012, I received multiple e-mails from different corners of the globe, all with the same message: apply for this and stop daydreaming about it!
It’s now been five years since I joined the CDF, a not-for-profit institution that for more than 50 years has been running the Charles Darwin Research Station, the only facility of its kind in the Galápagos. The role of the CDF, as official scientific advisor to the government of Ecuador, is to generate knowledge to inform the conservation of the fragile Galápagos ecosystems. Working for the organisation has been an amazing roller-coaster ride and, once I had completed a very steep learning curve on the job, I have been extremely lucky to have enjoyed some incredible experiences, like collaborating with one-of-a-kind people such as Bob Ballard and Enric Sala, and exploring and documenting new species aboard a manned submersible to a depth of 1,000 metres (3,280 feet). Even calling the waters around Darwin and Wolf islands – the sharkiest location on earth – my underwater office is a tremendous thrill. You could say that I have fulfilled my childhood dream, but the mission is far from over; there is still far too much to learn and do in order to protect the islands, and especially their marine environment and threatened shark populations.
When I’m diving in these shark-filled waters, as a reality check I always think back to when I was conducting research for my MSc and PhD in Indonesia and even after 700 or so dives I could still count the number of sharks I’d encountered on the fingers of one hand. For most marine biologists of my generation this is the sad baseline. But read the reports of early explorers like the great William Beebe or Thor Heyerdahl with his Kon-Tiki expedition and the baseline looks very different: healthy marine ecosystems dominated by populations of sharks and large predatory fishes.
Nearly 200 years after Darwin arrived at Galapagos, Euan and his team are exploring the shark communities of this fabled archipelago. They are also running programmes to inspire local communities to protect sharks within the islands’ marine reserve.