Project Leader

Maria Alejandra Herrera

Maria Alejandra Herrera

Who I am

My passion for the ocean began at an early age. I remember my parents going on diving trips and as soon as I was big enough to carry the scuba tank I began to learn to dive. I got my licence when I was 12 and did my first dives in the Pacific Ocean, where I discovered how amazing underwater life is. I never thought that it would become a career until I attended a symposium on marine mammals and listened to a presentation about bottlenose dolphins. Until then I had taken part in research on birds and bats and had even thought about studying plants, but that presentation was the turning point in my career in biology. I started looking for opportunities to work with marine life and as an undergraduate I was able to help restore coral reefs in the Colombian Pacific, look into herbivory and herbivorous fish at remote islands in the Caribbean and study sharks in unexplored locations in the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve in Colombia. My career as a scientist has just begun and I am extremely excited to contribute to the knowledge about amazing marine species and how to conserve them.

Where I work

I am currently working in one of the most biodiverse and unexplored parts of the world: the Colombian Pacific, and specifically the Sanquianga National Natural Park. Sadly, armed conflict in the region kept scientists out of the area until recently. I have never seen a mangrove forest as large or as dense as the forests here. The park is rich not only in terrestrial species, but in marine life too. Humpback whales visit each year to calve and pods of dolphins stir up its waters as they flash past. Our team recently discovered that the park is home to three of the most threatened shark species in the world: scoophead, scalloped bonnethead and scalloped hammerhead. Little is known about the movements and habitat use of these species, except that scalloped hammerheads use this site as a nursery area. Artisanal fishers, for whom fishing is the main and almost only income, are active in these waters and although they do not target sharks, the animals sometimes end up in their nets as bycatch. The fishers are very happy to help us protect the sharks.

What I do

Our work in Sanquianga is challenging; even just getting here is an adventure! First you have to take a small plane and then a boat for about two hours to reach the island we use as a base for our daily expeditions to the study area. We deploy acoustic receivers in the muddy water at the beginning of our field work and then position the bottom-set longlines that are baited with sardines to catch the small hammerheads, checking the hooks every 30 minutes to ensure that any sharks captured can be released alive. Once a shark has been caught, we surgically implant an acoustic tag, measure the animal and determine its sex before releasing it so it can be tracked by the array of acoustic receivers. A year later we will return to the study area to collect the information on the receivers for analysis and so that we, together with the local communities, can establish no-take zones around areas of high shark occurrence.

My project

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