14 March to 3 April 2018


Scientists at the bedside of the Sanctuary

From 14 March to 3 April 2018, the Monaco Explorations team called in Colombia, in the Malpelo Sanctuary.  This mission mobilised about twenty scientists from Europe, Colombia and other countries of South America for the continuation or implementation of the marine biodiversity identification, monitoring and census programmes.

Three types of on-site operations conducted

The study of shark movements and breeding behaviour by fitting satellite or acoustic tags.

The study of deep-sea biodiversity with an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) ECA H800.

The megafauna census using two complementary techniques: environmental DNA and long duration and baited cameras.

The Shark Island

Malpelo is a 3.5 kmvolcanic islet lost in the middle of the Tropical Pacific, 360 km south of Panama and 500 km from the Colombian coasts. A marine protected area since 1995, this 857,465 ha sanctuary is known for its large gatherings of hammerheads and silky sharks. Owing to its unique position in the middle of the ocean, it harbours an abundant life on land and in the surrounding waters.

H.S.H. Prince Albert II alongside the scientists

H.S.H. the Sovereign Prince paid an official visit to Colombia, from 20 to 22 March. This visit led to the signature of an agreement strengthening in particular the partnership between the Principality of Monaco and the Republic of Colombia in the areas of science, oceans and the environment. H.S.H. the Sovereign Prince then came to support the work of the scientists in Malpelo. He participated in several operations, engaging in an in-depth and enriching dialogue with the teams concerned.

These marine ecosystems, if they are left alone for a few years, regenerate and recover very fast. Hence the importance of having the largest possible number of Marine Protected Areas.

H.S.H. Albert II of Monaco, March 2018.

Preparing the lines for the launch of the baited cameras. © O. Borde

Sandra Bessudo explains to the Prince how the tags are attached. © O. Borde

From left to right: Fred Buyle, Sandra Bessudo, H.S.H. Prince Albert II, Pierre Frolla, Robert Calcagno. © O. Borde

Diving during shark tagging operations.© O.Borde

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Sandra Bessudo and the Malpelo Foundation and other marine ecosystems

The Franco-Colombian marine biologist and passionate scuba diver Sandra Bessudo has devoted herself to protecting the exceptional wildlife of Malpelo at national and international levels since 1987. In 1999, she created a dedicated foundation, the Fundación Malpelo y otros Ecosistemas Marinos. Sandra Bessudo was Minister for the Environent of Colombia, and then advisor to the Colombian Vice-President for the Ocean. In 2014, she was awarded the Albert I Grand Medal, mediation section, by the Oceanographic Institute, Prince Albert I of Monaco Foundation. During the mission, she supervised the scientific dive operations, in particular the tagging of sharks.

The first time I came here, I fell in love with this island right away and I also saw the problems facing it, a lot of fishing, so I decided that something had to be done to protect this site.

Sandra Bessudo, March 2018.

A World Heritage of Humanity site

In 2006, Malpelo was included in the World Heritage of Humanity, like other islets and archipelagos located in the ocean region that stretches from the Gulf of California to Ecuador; Cabo Pulmo and the Revillagigedo islands in Mexico, Coco Island in Costa Rica, Coiba in Panama or the Galapagos in Ecuador. The universal value of these islands is exceptional, due to their high biodiversity levels and unique and irreplaceable marine ecosystems.

Illegal fishing: a permanent fight

This exceptional natural site has a critical habitat, including a number of marine species globally threatened by over-fishing, such as sharks. Its remoteness from the coast does not protect it against illegal and intensive fishing. The large marine park surrounding Malpelo is the largest area where fishing is prohibited in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. But its fish-bearing waters are still coveted, despite the surveillance of the site undertaken by the Colombian Government.

An operating network

As part of the activities of the MigraMar network, more than 1000 sharks have been tagged since 2006 in the various islands of the Eastern Tropical Pacific corridor, including 150 in Malpelo. During this mission, five gestating female hammerhead sharks were tagged. The satellite monitoring confirms that they migrate towards the nursery areas along the Colombian coast. The information shared and cross-checked between the scientists of the MigraMar network makes it possible to better target actions for protecting sharks and other migratory animals.

Shark tagging

Shark movements are tracked by satellite or acoustic methods using small transmitters, also called tags, fitted on these large animals by free diving. For this operation, Sandra Bessudo teamed up with two renown champions of the discipline, the Monegasque Pierre Frolla and the Belgian Frédéric Buyle.

These two freedivers now put their skills and know-how in the service of scientists. Everything is taken into account at the time of the approach and fitting to stress the large sharks as little as possible. Some tags are also fitted by Sandra by scuba diving.

The Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor

Led by Sandra Bessudo, the MigraMar scientific group studies shark movements between these islands, in the so-called Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor. Monitoring the migrations of the megafauna, sharks but also marine mammals or turtles, is essential to better know the behaviour and breeding sites of these species and therefore better protect them.

Mission Malpelo 2018_Pacifique. Explorations de Monaco
Carte MigraMar. Connectivité marine des espèces migratrices dans l'océan Pacifique oriental tropical©MigraMar

The importance of a global protection action

The studies conducted since several years show the importance of a global action. There are no borders for migratory species. It is therefore of the utmost importance that the protection conditions be applied to large areas. This approach is part of the global strategy of Unesco, whose vision consists in recognising and protecting sites which are exceptional havens of coexistence between humans and nature. 

A ROV to explore the deep seabed

Under the supervision of the Monaco Scientific Center, an underwater robot, ROV H800, was used to explore and census in Malpelo the deep-sea benthic fauna found on the seabed, a previously understudied life, the observation of which reveals many new species. Equipped with recording cameras and a sampling arm, it can go as deep as 1000 metres. 

Revealing the hidden biodiversity...

Just like a fingerprint, DNA reveals species presence. The baited or long duration cameras confirm it, but we also find non-referenced species, new species that remain invisible to the eye of the cameras. The currently known and identified species of Malpelo are only a small part of the underwater life present in the site. A real police investigation is ongoing in all the oceans of the world to census the biodiversity, using this technique and other complementary tools.

Environmental DNA: census of the ocean megafauna.


Through the DNA traces present in the water, we can track the invisible part of biodiversity for all species, from the microscopic to the megafauna. In sites that are very isolated from man, such as Malpelo in Colombia, the Galapagos or the Scattered Islands in the Indian Ocean, we will be able to measure the richness of this fauna and therefore of these ecosystems. All species, even the most elusive ones, leave a DNA trace that can be sampled 24 hours after their passage…

David Mouillot, October 2018.

Baited cameras

These cameras equipped with baits to attract animals are immersed in the water column at various depths and down to the bottom. The Malpelo mission was the opportunity to test and optimise these techniques for identifying the marine fauna. Like environmental DNA, they have the advantage of not being invasive or sources of stress for animals, particularly in areas such as Malpelo where wildlife has very little contact with human beings.

Long duration recording cameras

The team of Professor David Mouillot of the University of Montpellier, Director of Research of the MARBEC Mixed Unit, also tested the installation of cameras that can continuously record images for 36 hours. This device facilitates the identification and census of animals that flee from the presence of divers. All these images allow the results obtained with the environmental DNA technique to be cross-checked.

An exhibition and two films VR

The mission in Malpelo resulted in a photography exhibition available for travel. It was inaugurated during the Monaco Ocean Week on 25 March 2019 at the Monaco Oceanographic Museum. Two 360° films, entitled L’île aux requins (The shark island) and Enquête en eaux troubles (Investigation in troubled waters), relate the operations performed on sharks and on environmental DNA. These creations are regularly used during school workshops and presented to the Museum visitors.



The mission day after day: the blog

Photo gallery

Malpelo Island. © O. Borde. Monaco Explorations

Sandra Bessudo takes a photograph of a shoal of barracudas. © O.Borde. Monaco Explorations

Shoal of barracudas. © O.Borde. Monaco Explorations

Great hammerhead sharks. © O. Borde. Monaco Explorations

Eagle ray, Aetobatus, narinari. © O.Borde. Monaco Explorations

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Scientific partners of the mission