Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary (World Heritage Site), situated in Colombia
The Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary is a polygon with the Island of Malpelo at its centre, which totals almost one million protected hectares, most of them maritime. Dry land comprises only 120 hectares of the total.
Visitors to Malpelo Island will find themselves standing on the summit of a uniquely impressive volcanic chain known as the Dorsal de Malpelo or ‘Malpelo Spine’. The island’s walls run down into the sea to depths of up to 4,000 metres. The island is surrounded by eleven rocky islets rising between 10 and 40 metres above the waves.
The name of the island comes from he Latin malveolus, which means ‘inhospitable’. It was so christened at the time of the Spanish conquest of the area, when it was mentioned in the log book kept by Cristobal Vaca de Castro as a rocky isle which ‘sailors called Malpelo’. The island has practically no vegetation but it is inhabited by the world’s largest breeding colony of masked boobies, a large white seabird.
Malpelo is the world’s ninth largest absolute marine protection area, and Unesco declared it a World Heritage Site in 2006.
There are two clearly distinct oceanic ecosystems in the Sanctuary, one being the marine ecosystem (coral reefs and sandy bottoms) and the other the land ecosystem (volcanic ocean island with rocky shores).
Malpelo has only scant and primitive vegetation, though it is important to the survival of various species of land fauna. The island’s flora consists basically of algae, lichens, mosses, some grasses and bushy leguminous plants, making a total of eight species.
Because it is so isolated from the continental mainland, Malpelo has a number of endemic species such as the land crab, the Malpelo lizard and the spotted lizard. Sixty-three species of resident, migratory and transitory birds have been recorded here, including the spotted booby and night gulls.
Chief among the thirteen species of marine mammals are the bottlenosed and other species of dolphin, the humpback whale and the occasional common sea lion visiting from the Galapagos Islands.
The marine environment contains major coral reefs, which grow in a specially adapted terrace formation which creates an extraordinary marine setting. Fish associated with these coral and rock ecosystems include the butterfly fish and the striped snapper. The area is rich in different species of fish, including the spectacular whale shark, which reaches lengths of up to 15 metres, the manta ray and large numbers of the Park’s most emblematic species, the hammerhead shark, which can be observed around the island throughout the year.
The hammerhead shark is one of those creatures that is instantly recognised all over the world because of its peculiarly shaped head. There are in fact five known species of this shark, ranging from two to six metres in length, but only one of them is abundant and can be easily observed in concentrations of more than 300 individuals in Malpelo, the Galapagos and Isla del Coco.
The form of the shark’s head allows it better all-round vision and a wider distribution of its other sense organs. This adaptation means the hammerhead can easily find prey like molluscs, fish and crustaceans hidden beneath the sand. It is not an aggressive shark, but is rather retiring and timid in the presence of divers. In fact, divers wishing to observe the hammerheads close up must be careful to stay quiet and not to pursue the sharks.
Hammerhead sharks are frequent victims of the illegal fishing boats which often enter the protected waters to obtain their flesh and especially their fins, which sell at high prices in Asia where they are used to prepare the prized and costly shark’s fin soup. In fact, fishermen often show interest only in the fins, which they cut off after the catch only to throw the sharks back into the water still alive, where they slowly and painfully drown, unable to swim after their mutilation. This practice is known as aleteo or ‘finning’ and it is strictly prohibited in Colombia.
Man’s presence on Malpelo is confined to the Colombian naval officer; and men of the Armed Forces sovereignty, control and surveillance post. Scientists also make occasional stays. Indeed, Malpelo has been described as a living laboratory, and this is reflected in the numerous international and Colombian scientific expeditions to research and monitor the area’s various species and ecosystems.
- Established: 1995
- Area: 974,474 hectares (of which only 120 are dry land)
- Altitude: Between 0 and 300 metres above sea level
- Climate: Warm and wet
- Average temperature: 27°C
PLANNING YOUR VISIT
- LOCATION: The Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary is located 490 km west of the Buenavenaj: coast on Colombia’s Pacific seaboard.
- HOW TO GET THERE: Tourist packages exist to bring visitors by boat, departing from Puerto T:-lombiano, with a permit to stay overnight. Further information may be obtained from the Natrona Natural Parks offices in Bogota or from the Fundacion Malpelo. Sailing time is approximately 3 hours.
- WHERE TO STAY: The only infrastructure on the Island of Malpelo belongs to the Armed Forcss control and surveillance post, The Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary has four anchorage buoys tr the use of vessels involved in diving, research, sovereignty, control and surveillance activities Vs-tors to the area must spend the night on board tourist vessels. There is no tourist accommccso-on the island.
- WHERE TO EAT: Food will be supplied by the vessel providing transport and accommodation. Any visitors who require a special diet should take their own provisions. It is also recommended to take energy foods.
- HOW LONG TO STAY: Tourist vessels visiting the protected area generally stay between five and eight days depending on the plan established in advance.
- WHEN TO GO: There is no special time of year to go, as all year round different species of marine tama may be observed. However, the rainy season lasts from May to December, and the waters are mid between January and April.
WHAT TO VISIT IN THE SANCTUARY:
Visitors will have the opportunity to enjoy the area surrounding Malpelo, observing the eleven astonishing rocky islets emerging from the waves, four to the north, known as the Musketeers and D’Artagnan, two in the east (Vagamares and LaTorta) and five at the southern end (the Three Kings, Solomon, Saul and David, La Gringa and Escuba).
WHAT TO DO IN THE PARK:
The main reason for visiting Malpelo is advanced scuba diving, The sand is one of the five most beautiful places on Earth to go diving, as recognized by the leading specialist publications. Its extraordinary underwater scenery is the product of the archipelago’s volcanic origins and the slow process of erosion. The area belongs to the ‘Golden Triangle of Diving which also includes the National Parks of Isla del Coco (Costa Rica) and the Galapagos Is-ands (Ecuador).
Diving also provides an unforgettable experience in the observation of the area’s flora and fauna. care is needed however, because strong currents, high waves and great depth demand constant attention to safety. Divers can observe the abrupt walls of the island covered in soft corals, sea urchins , rock weed and an enormous variety of small species, some of them almost hidden by the schools of hammerhead and silky sharks swimming by, and by the shoals of snappers, barracudas, jack mackerel, tuna and the occasional whitetip reef shark. These unending shoals behave quite calmly in the presence of humans, so that divers have the feeling they are floating in fish and not in the water.
Four diving vessels currently operate In the area, based in Buenaventura (Colombia) and Panama. These firms bring around 20 divers at a time. Only one vessel at a time is permitted in the area. The 25 key diving spots for their natural beauty and the abundance of marine life include El Tunel de Vagamares, La Gringa, La Catedral, La Puerta del Cielo, La Nevera, El Arrecife, La Pared del Naufrago, El Freezer, El Bajo del Junior and El Bajo del Monstruo.
Divers should make sure they comply with the recommendations before entering the water:
- Groups should be accompanied by a qualified lead diver who knows the area. Each group should be formed by a maximum of eight divers. Divers should hold an advanced or two-star certificate.
- The maximum diving depth for certificates Is generally 140 feet. Each diver should have the following minimum equipment for submarine activities; diving suit, BCD or ‘stab jacket alternative air source, diving knife (to cut drifting fishing lines or nets), whistle or other alert system, dive computer, personal location buoy, torch and position light.
- The lead diver for the group should be equipped with a safety buoy, stroboscopic light and pocket mask. Minors engaging in underwater activities must have written permission from their parents, and at least one parent must accompany them on the dive. It is essential to ensure buoyancy control to prevent harm to ecosystems, and to refrain from feeding, chasing or touching marine fauna.
- Noxious substances that could be harmful to biodiversity must be avoided, including aerosols, non-biodegradable personal hygiene products (soaps, shampoos, etc.). Alcoholic drinks should not be consumed under any circumstances because they speed up the circulation of the blood and increase the risk of decompression sickness. Because of this, alcohol is banned during the period of stays in the Park.
- There are no marked trails for visitors on Malpelo island, and the only path is the stair that climbs n the Colombian Armed Forces post. Hiking as such is therefore not possible, although other activities are available, including photography, filming and environmental research and education.
- Finally, fishing is strictly prohibited in the protected areas. Likewise, beach fires, bonfires or camp fires are prohibited, along with any other activities not expressly permitted under the Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary Regulations.
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