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Whale Shark Migrating from Galapagos Island to Cocos Island Documented for First Time

For Immediate Release, September 14, 2020

Contact: Alex Hearn, Galapagos Whale Shark Project, ahearn@usfq.edu.ec  
Todd Steiner, Turtle Island Restoration Network, tsteiner@seaturtles.org 

Whale Shark Migrating from Galapagos Island to Cocos Island Documented for First Time

For the first time in history, a group of scientists documented the complete journey of a whale shark from Galapagos Island in Ecuador to Cocos Island in Costa Rica, highlighting the need for cutting-edge solutions to protect highly migratory species in the Eastern Tropical Pacific.

Coco, an adult female approximately 12 meters long, made the 700 kilometer crossing in three weeks. She was tagged in mid-August while sailing north of the Ecuadorian archipelago and on Sept. 5 her presence in the park’s waters was reported. 

“This is exciting news. We’ve seen these sharks move in that general direction before, but this is the first time one has entered the protected area around the island. She joins a growing list of tagged animals moving between the marine reserves,” said Alex Hearn, Principal Scientist on the Galapagos Whale Shark Project. 

MigraMar, a network of groups conducting scientific research to better understand and safeguard marine migratory species in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, revealed endangered and threatened marine species like whale sharks, green sea turtles, silky sharks, and scalloped hammerhead sharks use an underwater highway — known as the Cocos-Galapagos Swimway  — to migrate between Cocos Island National Park with the Galapagos Marine Reserve, both of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. When these species leave the protected areas, however, they enter the open ocean where they are at grave risk to industrial fishing.

“This exemplifies the need for a new type of marine protected area for highly migratory species like sharks and sea turtles,” said Todd Steiner, executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network, a global ocean conservation nonprofit that is part of MigraMar. “The Cocos-Galapagos Swimway is one of the best documented underwater superhighways known to be used by three endangered shark species and two species of sea turtle, and we are hopeful the presidents of Costa Rica and Ecuador will take immediate action to protect this region and create a blueprint for swimways that is copied across the globe.”

Cocos Island National Park and the Galapagos Marine Reserve not only share an important percentage of species and ecological characteristics, they also face similar threats. Both marine protected areas have regulations that control how people and commerce can interact with the islands. Despite these restrictions, conservationists face several challenges to protect the species that inhabit them. 

A biological justification for the creation of the swimway recently published by MigraMar states about 19% of rays, 34% of sharks, 17% of marine mammals and 27% of marine birds found in these protected areas are threatened or endangered. The document also highlights that Cocos and Galapagos share an important percentage of endemic and island species, as well as pelagic and benthic fauna. Both sites are interconnected by the Cocos seamount ridge that concentrate a significant marine migratory activity. 

Hundreds of global citizens have signed a petition urging Costa Rica and Ecuador to create the swimway. In August, environmental groups Mission Blue and Turtle Island Restoration Network sent a letter to the Ministers of Environment of Costa Rica and Ecuador, urging them to create the swimway. In May the Swimway was declared an international Hope Spot by Dr. Sylvia Earle, founder of Mission Blue and a National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence.

Map and videos of whale sharks are available for media to use.

About Turtle Island Restoration Network
Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN) is a global conservation nonprofit and leading advocate for the world’s oceans and marine wildlife. TIRN has led more than 25 tagging expeditions to Cocos Island since 2009 to help elucidate the migratory pathways of sharks and sea turtles in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. Our work is based on science, fueled by people who care, and effective at catalyzing long-lasting positive change that protects the likes of green sea turtles, whale sharks and coho salmon. By working with people, communities, and our more than 90,000 members, we preserve and restore critical habitats like the redwood-forest creek banks of California to the biodiverse waters of Cocos Island.

About MigraMar
MigraMar was founded in 2006 as a network of scientists dedicated to research and conservation of migratory marine species in the Eastern Pacific. Their mission is to provide the necessary technical advice for the conservation of the migratory marine species in the Eastern Pacific. The network is made up of 20 researchers belonging to universities, government agencies and non-profit organizations in different parts of the American continent. MigraMar provides scientific information regarding migratory patterns of marine species, evaluates and forecasts the state of populations, in order to increase knowledge about these, understand the role they play in the ecosystem, and how best to preserve them.

About the Galapagos Whale Shark Project
The Galapagos Whale Shark Project was created over a decade ago by explorer, naturalist guide and wildlife photographer Jonathan Green, who had been documenting whale shark presence and behavior in the Galapagos Islands for many years. The project is a collaboration between scientists at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito’s Galapagos Science Center and the Galapagos National Park Directorate, and experts from around the world. 

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