Bearing Witness to a Gathering of Giants
February 27, 2017
Behind the Scenes with Mission Blue in the Revillagigedo Archipelago
By Courtney Mattison
Earlier this month, the Mission Blue expedition team joined forces with Fins Attached, the lab of Dr. James Ketchum of Pelagios Kakunjá and FUSION Media to explore the Revillagigedo Archipelago about 250 nautical miles south of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Fondly referred to as “Revi” and Mexico’s “little Galápagos,” this open ocean oasis attracts some of the most impressive schools of shark and ray species on Earth. With waters teeming with giant oceanic manta rays, silky, silvertip, white tip, Galápagos and hammerhead sharks, and shoals of wahoo and jacks, the four volcanic islands of Socorro, San Benedicto, Roca Partida and Clarión were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site less than one year ago. Last week, we went to explore it for ourselves.
“Visiting Revillagigedo gave us the opportunity to not only document the work of our scientific partners, but to interact with some of the largest manta rays on Earth” says Mission Blue Director of Expeditions and Photography, Kip Evans. The expedition began on January 9th as the team left the Mexican port of San José del Cabo aboard the M/V Southern Sport for a 26-hour trip south to the closest island, San Benedicto. As expedition team leader, Kip Evans stayed busy on the long journey preparing camera gear with the help of Brett Garling, Mission Blue’s Director of Communications. Our team of 11 included shark expert Dr. James Ketchum of Pelagios Kakunjá, Fins Attached Board Chair Shane Taylor, Mission Blue Board Director and conservation photographer Shari Sant Plummer, shark attack survivor turned conservation influencer Mike Coots, and director and photographer Pablo Garcia for FUSION Media. With such an accomplished gathering of researchers and thought leaders, this expedition proved to be an inspiring melding of minds.
This rich ocean ecosystem put our team in awe of its rugged beauty and power throughout 16 dives over the course of four days. We encountered walls of dozens of hammerhead sharks, danced with giant manta rays, and got friendly with a couple of curious dolphins. Half a dozen big healthy Galápagos sharks circled us during our second day at Roca Partida, while dozens of white tip, a few silvertips, and giant tuna, wahoo and jacks lingered nearby. “It’s challenging diving because when you’re next to the rock at Roca Partida the surge brings you up and pushes you down,” remarked Mission Blue Board Director Shari Sant Plummer. She continued:
When you get away from the island you are in the blue and there’s not a frame of reference for how deep you are. And then there are mantas like sirens tempting you to go deeper and deeper following their seductive ocean acrobatics.
Amid all of the amazing diving, the science team, led by Dr. James Ketchum of Pelagios Kakunjá and Fins Attached, deployed several acoustic tags on silky, white tip and silvertip sharks that will provide invaluable data to researchers on the migration, feeding and reproduction behaviors of key shark species in the Revillagigedo Archipelago Biosphere Reserve and across the Mexican Pacific. These data are already being used to motivate policymakers to expand protections for sharks throughout the region.
By interviewing expedition team members about the best way to protect sharks from overfishing and documenting Revi’s rich biodiversity, Mission Blue aims to raise awareness among decision makers at local and federal levels about the ecological importance of the Revillagigedo Islands and the migratory corridors that link shark species—especially as they pertain to threatened shark populations. The scalloped hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini), for example, is listed as endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and is also listed on CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) Appendix II, which prohibits international trade of shark products from this species without first verifying that these animals are being fished sustainably with legitimate certificates of origin. Yet in Mexican waters, the scalloped hammerhead is fair game. Content generated during the expedition will be used for both a short documentary and our social media channels with the goal of realizing stronger protections for shark species throughout the Mexican Pacific.
One of the cornerstones of the Mission Blue Hope Spots initiative is exploration. By conducting expeditions to Hope Spots—special places that are vital to the health of the ocean—and documenting what we find, these short-duration trips are designed to create awareness, foster meaningful partnerships, and build community support for marine protection. Mission Blue’s goals for this particular expedition are to increase awareness about and support protections for the Revillagigedo Archipelago both locally and around the globe, with a particular emphasis on the urgent need to ban shark fishing and finning in this vibrant ecosystem.
Together with our Mexican and American partners, Mission Blue is embarking on a new shark conservation initiative to raise awareness and protection for the thousands of sharks that are being removed from the Mexican Pacific to meet Asian market demand for shark fins. This expedition to the Revillagigedo Islands marks the first stage of this project, during which we worked with Mexican scientists, the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (CONANP) and our local partners to help push the archipelago into full protection, including designation as a sanctuary for sharks with surveillance to enforce protection of these species.
The Mission Blue team enjoyed testing out new equipment including dive gear from ScubaPro and a new underwater housing from Gates called the Pro Action Housing, which allowed us to shoot 4K and 5K RED footage underwater during the expedition. This joint expedition was made possible by generous donor support in partnership with Fins Attached and FUSION Media. Many thanks go out to all of our partners, sponsors and the amazing donors around the world that help keep Mission Blue afloat.