When I was a kid my greatest nightmare was being the only survivor of a plane crash in the ocean and being eaten by a shark. What a crazy fear to have. I did not grow up near the ocean and I did not have much to do with marine life. In fact, I was born in Germany and grew up in Bolivia, in the middle of the Andes, far away from the sea. I never thought I would work as a marine scientist. I was more of an artist, a creative person, but I always loved nature. When we moved to Ecuador, I became even more fascinated by nature, especially marine life. There I was confronted by the most beautiful and sad things I had ever seen. The Amazon, the Andes, the Pacific and the Galapagos. I ended up studying marine ecology and swimming with sharks, the creatures I had feared for so long. I got involved in conservation projects, I studied their behaviour and I understood the importance of preserving them.
Today, my biggest nightmare is being the only survivor of a plane crash in the ocean and not seeing any sharks while I’m waiting to be rescued.
Our project is based in the Canary Islands, a beautiful archipelago of seven volcanic islands in the Atlantic and a popular destination of German and English tourists who come to escape the winter or to go diving. The diving community here is very large, with hundreds of divers visiting the same spots regularly throughout the year. One of the biggest attractions for them is seeing an angel shark. Many dive clubs use this shark as their logo and to promote adventure dives.
Angel sharks are easily spotted by a trained eye and can be found very close to shore at popular dive sites. Once one has been seen, the dive guide often removes its covering of sand or makes it swim away so that the divers can take better photographs and observe the shark while it is swimming. Angel sharks also appeal to recreational, artisanal and sport fishers, as they seem to be quite tasty and look good in a photograph when they have been caught from a charter boat.
I was surprised to find out that even though this shark is so popular and quite common in the Canary Islands, hardly anything is known about its biology and ecology. It has been extirpated from the rest of Europe and is locally extinct in many areas. Considering the species’ Critically Endangered status, the Canary Island population may be its last stronghold worldwide. For the local people, however, the angel shark appears to be abundant and everywhere.
One of the main problems we have identified is the lack of awareness of its conservation status and vulnerability. Fishing activity and increased disturbance to this shark may cause damage to the apparently healthy population. So before any management decisions can be made, we need to gather enough information about its current status.
The Angel Shark Project is trying to gather all the information necessary to secure the future of the angel shark in the Canary Islands and the rest of Europe. To do so, we have developed different strategies that involve the recreational-diving and sport-fishing communities. We have engaged members of the diving community to register their encounters with angel sharks on our online database, ePOSEIDON, where they can give us information about the exact locality of the shark, the environmental conditions at this locality, and the individual’s size, sex and behaviour. Now citizen scientists are constantly helping us to gather information across the entire archipelago and we are getting an idea about the current distribution patterns and the structure of the population. At the same time, we are raising awareness of the critical status of this shark and educating divers to avoid disturbing it.
Taking advantage of this participation, our next step in the project is a tagging element. We want to find out how many angel sharks are left in the Canary Islands and to understand their movements. At the moment we are unsure whether they move between islands or even away from the Canary Islands. With funding from the Save Our Seas Foundation (SOSF), we will be able to tag angel sharks in the three main islands where divers are spotting them regularly, marking them with different colours depending on the island. Divers will be encouraged to submit encounters of tagged angel sharks into our database and report the colour and number of the tag. This will let us know which individual was seen at a specific locality and the island where it came from. We are very excited that so many people from different backgrounds are involved in our project and to have the SOSF helping us to achieve our goals.