I am a lover of the sea. I imagine that this kind of love is normal for someone like me, who was born and raised in the marvellous environment of the Canary Islands. Growing up near the sea, I have always felt a strange attraction to the ocean. Experiencing this allure – and the peace that it brings – every day makes me forget all my problems, whatever they may be.
My first contact with the sea came when I was only a child and every weekend I visited the beach with my family. I remember my first explorations of rock pools and my encounters with small species such as beautiful shrimps, with their incredible leaps out of the water, and different fish species, each one more strikingly coloured than the last. The appeal of the sea continued to grow and in my case I think led me to feel the same passion for the species that live in it.
For this reason I have spent more than two thirds of my life observing and learning about the different species that inhabit the entire archipelago of the Canary Islands. To begin with I observed them from the surface, during my first snorkelling sessions, but as I gained experience as a diver I gradually went deeper and learned more. I think that’s why I decided at some point to study marine biology. For me it’s incredible to see all these animals in their own environment and to watch how calmly they move when they swim, how they float up and down using the currents and how they have total control of everything around them.
I am fortunate to be able to work in this lovely archipelago. If you look up the Canary Islands in Wikipedia, they are defined as ‘A group of islands in the Atlantic Ocean, off the north-western coast of Africa, forming an autonomous region of Spain; capital, Las Palmas; population 2,098,593. The group includes the islands of Tenerife, La Gomera, La Palma, El Hierro, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote.’
Obviously, there is more to the Canary Islands than this description. Surrounded by the sea and with an incredible coastline, they have amazing beaches, mountains and views, as well as great weather all year round. A massive number of marine species are found in these waters, including pelagic and benthic species with extraordinary colours and forms, and they range in size from the enormous whale shark to tiny nudibranchs and frogfishes. In summary, the Canary Islands are a paradise to live in.
Unfortunately, they’re not the best place for the survival of marine species. There are no data about activities such as recreational fishing in the archipelago, and management of the environment is poor, with weak laws and a high degree of ignorance about the biology, ecology and abundance of its species.
Our group is dedicated to studying elasmobranchs in the Canary Islands and increasing their chances of survival. One of the marvellous species we are studying is the spiny butterfly ray Gymnura altavela, which is categorised as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The entire Atlantic population of this ray, including in the Canaries, is decreasing due to it being taken as by-catch in both professional and recreational fisheries. However, it can be regularly encountered in Gran Canaria, where there is an important breeding hotspot.
Yet knowledge about this species is still very poor. We know nothing about its behaviour, distribution or abundance. Making use of the tools available to us – in this case the different citizen science programmes with online databases, combined with a visual sampling programme – we will be able to provide basic information about the ecology of these incredible rays.
Our goal this year is to expand the existing knowledge of this species in the Canary Islands, particularly around the island of Gran Canaria. In addition, we aim to get a better understanding of the patterns of its distribution and abundance along the coastal areas of the island. This information will enable us to better manage the habitat of this species, which is currently Vulnerable but may be reclassified as Endangered or Critically Endangered in the near future.