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Changing Perceptions About Sharks in the Galapagos Islands

Galapagos, the sharkiest place in the world–and one of the best diving destinations to see these remarkable animals! Sharks are one of the most charismatic species, but even though they have ecological and touristic importance, their bad public image remains. This is what motivates us to share the shark information we have with the Galapagos local community, to involve them in the shark world and encourage them to protect these wonderful species.

Are Sharks Really Killers?

The most common response when I talk to non-scientists about sharks, is that they are dangerous animals that, among other things, kill people. Actually, sharks are not killers, they are not out to kill you on sight; they are very interesting animals and science has helped us to discover some of their marvelous secrets. Besides being top predators in the oceans, and helping to keep oceans healthy, sharks are very important for Galapagos livelihoods that depend on tourism.

CDF scientist diving with a whale shark at the Darwin Arch in the Galapagos Islands. Photograph by: Pelayo Salinas
CDF scientist diving with a whale shark at the Darwin Arch in the Galapagos Islands. Photograph by: Pelayo Salinas

I will never forget the first time I saw a hammerhead while diving in the Galapagos Islands; it was amazing to watch a shark getting closer, with its funny and curious face making soft movements. That was when I realized how marvelous and special these animals are. After watching other species of sharks close to me, I wondered how to make people feel as curious as I felt, and how I might involve them in the adventure of discovery and learning about sharks.

Hammerhead at the Darwin Arch in the Galapagos Islands. Photograph by: Pelayo Salinas
Hammerhead at the Darwin Arch in the Galapagos Islands. Photograph by: Pelayo Salinas

After a first educational campaign, I realized how knowledge has a direct impact on the perceptions people have about a topic. Sharks have a bad public image, and if we do not share the information we have about them, it will not be easy for people to support its conservation.

Local children in the shark week public event to share information about the importance of sharks for the marine ecosystems and for tourism. Photograph by: Liza Díaz Lalova
Local children in the shark week public event to share information about the importance of sharks for the marine ecosystems and for tourism. Photograph by: Liza Díaz Lalova

‘Protect the Fins and the Ocean Wins’

Last year, we developed a new campaign in favor of sharks called “Protect the fins and the ocean wins”, with the aim of changing negative perceptions about these animals and to promote the Galapagos as an example of co-existence between humans and sharks. We developed workshops, field trips, contests and public events to communicate specific messages about the physiology, ecological role, population status, socio-economic value of sharks, the importance of science in shark conservation, and reflecting the role of science in obtaining this information.

Local children of San Cristobal Island learning about the ecologic role of sharks in the marine ecosystems. Photograph by: Beatríz Mariño
Local children of San Cristobal Island learning about the ecologic role of sharks in the marine ecosystems. Photograph by: Beatríz Mariño

We created characters as shark ambassadors, using representative species of the Galapagos and to encourage people to have a closer relationship with the ocean. We developed a shark story contest between all the schools of Santa Cruz, motivating children to research sharks, and then taking the winners on a field trip to snorkel with sharks in their natural habitat. “Teaching these kids to interact with sharks was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life; these activities are essential to understand that sharks are not killer machines, but they are very important for the marine ecosystems and the local economy,” said Dr. Pelayo Salinas, CDF Shark Project Coordinator.

Local kids in a snorkeling field trip to observe sharks in their natural habitat. Photograph by: Liza Díaz Lalova
Local kids in a snorkeling field trip to observe sharks in their natural habitat. Photograph by: Liza Díaz Lalova

Our campaign reached 1,178 children from 9 to 12 years across the four inhabited islands, totaling around 80 percent of children in these grades in the Galapagos. If a sustainable co-existence with sharks is possible in Galapagos, it can be possible anywhere else.

image002Daniela Vilema is an environmental communicator for the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF). She works with the local community through outreach and environmental education, focusing mostly on shark conservation. Previously, she was a CDF volunteer and fellow. Before getting hired as a staff member, she worked with Waorani communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon, supporting their reforestation and aquaculture projects with an environmental education program.