Best Place for Diving in Colombia: Malpelo Island Flora and Fauna Sanctuary

On the Pacific Ocean, 507 km west of the port of Buenaventura, is the island of Malpelo. It is the only oceanic island of the Pacific Ocean and belongs to the marine corridor of the eastern Pacific Ocean with 11 emerged islets.

The charm of Malpelo lies beneath the surface of the sea. Thanks to its location and great variety of marine flora and fauna Malpelo is among the 5 most beautiful and exotic places in the world to practice scuba diving.

The characteristics of the marine environment are strongly influenced by the type of currents that run through this area of the Pacific. Malpelo is the point of confluence of different and important currents of the Pacific Ocean. 

The encounter between the cold currents of the southern hemisphere and the warm equatorial currents makes its waters very rich in nutrients. Because of this, Malpelo is home to an incredible amount of fauna: hundreds of Green Moray Eels that swim in open waters, schools of barracudas, turtles, dolphins, manta rays in solitary and in groups, rays, longfins, and huge schools of mackerels.

Malpelo is also the sharks paradise, and this is the main reason that makes Malpelo a unique place in the world, with large concentrations of Silky Sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis) and Hammerhead Sharks (Sphyrna lewini), among others.

Discovering Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary

The Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary is located on the unique submarine volcanic mountain range, Dorsal de Malpelo. The highest point is Cerro la Mona 300 meters above sea level, this marine mountain range has a length of 150 miles and 50 miles wide.

Voluminous eruptions of basaltic lava gave birth to this island. The islets that surround the island seem to be the result of erosion processes caused by the waves, causing them to be lifted by tectonic effects. This process forms terraces known as “Strath Terraces”.

Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary was declared a protected area in 1995 and has had 3 expansions in the years 1996, 2006 and 2017 with a total of 1.7 million miles.

In 2005 it was named an Important Bird Conservation Area (IBA) by BirdLife International and the Alexander Von Humboldt Research Institute. In 2006, UNESCO declared the sanctuary a Natural World Heritage Site, and today it is a Mission Blue hotspot. 

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Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary has one of the most important coral formations of the Colombian Pacific; the marine fauna is very varied on the island, and in this sanctuary you can find 2 species of starfish endemic to the country. In addition to this, one of the most important hammerhead shark breeding areas in the world is located in Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary.

Unfortunately, the sanctuary is constantly harassed by illegal fishermen, which mainly affects hammerhead sharks and hawksbill turtles. In addition, overfishing in zones of influence within the protected area’s limits, such as for tuna, can reach alarming numbers, endangering the decline of the tuna communities.

The Malpelo y Otros Ecosistemas Marinos Foundation, is in charge of promoting the protection and care of marine areas, especially sharks, so that they have a safe habitat for their reproduction. They work together with the national parks system and the national navy.

How to get to Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary

Bogotá-Buenaventura

The only way to access the sanctuary is by sea, after a 36-hours open sea journey from the city of Buenaventura. Take a 145- minutes flight from Bogotá to Alfonso Bonilla Aragón International Airport (CLO) at Palmira city. Once at the airport, take an approximately 3- hours ride to Buenaventura.

What to do in Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary

Diving and snorkeling

The sanctuary has the following areas for these activities: La gringa, Escuba, Los Reyes, Los gemelos, Sahara, Vagamares, El arrecife, La nevera, Monster face, El mirador, El Freezer, Aquarium, Naufragio wall, Bajo del ancla and Bajo del Monstruo.

These areas have the optimal conditions for a unique experience. You must keep in mind that if you want to do these activities you must have previous knowledge.

Wildlife

The biological component in the terrestrial environment of Malpelo Island is represented by algae, lichens, mosses, some grasses, shrubby legumes and ferns. Seabirds provide guano that acts as fertilizer along with the rain to generate a food source for the invertebrates that inhabit the island.

Ants such as the trap jaw ants (Odontomachus baur), which is considered to have been introduced to the island by man, can be found throughout the sanctuary. It is also possible to find a new species of beetle from the Platynus genus, which is unusual and can be found in Colombia and Ecuador.

Johngarthia malpilensis – Ph. by Daniel Vásquez-Restrepo CC

On the island, it is also possible to observe the terrestrial crab Johngarthia malpilensis, which is also endemic to the island. Besides this, several other species of crabs also live on the hard substrates, and there are around 270 species of gastropods, 60 of bivalves, 3 of cephalopods, 2 of Scaphopods, and 6 of Polyplacophorans.

Four species of reptiles inhabit the sanctuary:

  • Anolis agassizi, from the equator, feeds on the remains and food waste of seabirds.
  • Dactyloa agassizi is one of the island’s endemic lizards, greenish in color. It feeds on insects and crabs.
  • Diploglossus millepunctatus is also an endemic lizard of the island. Its diet is based on the remains of seabirds and in case of food shortages they can break their eggs and consume them together with the dead hatchlings.
  • Phyllodactus traversalis, known as the geko lizard, joins the sanctuary’s endemic species. It has nocturnal feeding habits based on insects, but during the day it takes refuge in rock crevices.

Malpelo has a wide variety of marine birds, making it an excellent place for bird watching. The bird with the largest representation is the Nazca booby (Sula granti). A third to a quarter of the total breeding population of this species worldwide nests in the Island of Malpelo.

The Biological Component in the Marine Environment

You will see different specie in the rocky walls of Malpelo depending on the depth. From 3 to 6 meters the walls are covered by sponges and some corals, such as the Tubastrea aurea. After 27 meters it is possible to see filamentous algae and violet hydro corals.

In the depths of the sanctuary there are submarine terraces divided into 4 sectors; the slopes of these sectors are the areas where the coral communities are most present. The four sectors are located as follows:

  • “El Arrecife”, it is the most extensive and is located to the northeast of the island.
  • “Pared del Náufrago” (Castaway’s Wall), located to the northwest.
  • “La Bahía de la Nevera” to the west, and “El Bajo de la Nevera” to the southwest.
  • “El Bajo de Junior” to the southwest.
Whale shark (Rhincodon typus) CC Ph. By Sandra Bessudo, Malpelo Foundation

The sanctuary has identified 390 reef fish species and 5 of these species are endemic: Halichoeres malpelo, Axoclinus rubinoffi, Lepidonectes bimaculta, Chriolepis lepidotus, and Acanthemblemaria stephensi.

Pelagic fish, mammals, and sea turtles aggregate in the sanctuary, and it is considered a passageway for migratory species such as tuna, which feed in the sanctuary’s environment during their migration.

There are two species of sharks that can be seen during the visit: hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini) and Galapagos shark (Carcharhinus galapagensis). The cleaning zones in Malpelo are inhabited by the barberfish (Jhonrandallia nigrirostris), the king angelfish (Holacanthus passer) and juveniles of mexican hogfish (Bodianus diplotaenia).

Due to the large number of larvae present in the sanctuary, it is possible to see whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) and manta rays (Manta birostris), which can be frequently sighted along with communities of common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus).

Where to stay in Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary

Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary does not have lodging available, you will stay on boat.

Best time to visit Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary

Malpelo Island can be visited all year round, it has humidity in the air and remains covered by a dense mist. The months with the lowest humidity are between December and March.

Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary Entrance fees

The entrance fee varies depending on the nationality and age of the visitors. These are the entrance fees for 2021:

  • Colombians, foreigners holding a valid residence permit, and tourists from Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru (over 25 years old): COP 116.000 (Diver/day); COP 79.000 (Instructors for accompanying groups/day): COP 35.500 (Boats/day)
  • Non-resident foreigners (over 25 years old): COP 216.000 (Diver/day); COP 116.000 (Instructors for accompanying groups/day): COP 65.000 (Boats/day)

What to consider before visiting Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary

  • To dive in Malpelo there must be one certified guide with experience in the area for every six divers.
  • Tourists must be certified as advanced divers or two-star divers, and have a minimum of 35 dives in their logbook, information that will be corroborated by the National Parks official in the protected area.
  • The maximum diving depth allowed is up to 140 feet.
  • Each diver must have the minimum equipment for underwater activities and safety equipment.
  • Minors must have written permission from their parents, even if they are accompanying them.
  • It is important to ensure buoyancy control as a measure to avoid damage to ecosystems, and to refrain from feeding, chasing or touching marine fauna. Therefore, a buoyancy check dive is done to verify the diver’s ability.
  • Avoid carrying harmful elements that threaten the health of ecosystems such as CFC aerosols, and non-biodegradable cleaning products.
  • Diving activities are programmed from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., all within a previously defined schedule and depending on weather and oceanographic conditions.
  • Recommended the use of binoculars to admire animals’ behavior and beauty in their natural habitat.
  • Carry valid identity documents and health insurance. It is recommended to be vaccinated against yellow fever and tetanus.
  • If you take specific medications, take them with you.

Some prohibitions

Feeding, bothering or hunting animals, alcoholic drinks and drugs, throwing cigarette butts, burning garbage, felling, and capturing wildlife.

If you want to plan your trip to Colombia do not hesitate to contact us, visit our Plan your trip page!

References
About the authors

Luisa Martin

Engineer, world traveler, amateur photographer, traveling blogger, and foody.

Sara Colmenares

The current director of Sula. Doctor in Biological Sciences. Her main interests are to explore and understand the organism–environment interactions, taking advantage of emerging knowledge for the management and conservation of species and ecosystem services. She is currently working as a consultant in functional ecology, ecosystem services, and conservation projects in Colombia related to ecotourism and birdwatching.

From a Cursed Island to a Paradise: Gorgona Island National Natural Park

In the early to mid last century, prison islands were all the rage. One of the most famous was Alcatraz, in San Francisco (United States) of which many books and movies were written, such as the famous Escape from Alcatraz with Clint Eastwood. There were many in the Atlantic, but all of them were inhabited. In Colombia, the uninhabited Gorgona Island, in the Pacific, was the perfect place to create a prison where more than 4,000 prisoners served their sentences.

Around the decade of the 80’s, 70% of the Gorgona island was deforested, as 10 tons of firewood were used weekly to cook for more than a thousand people. Fortunately, the ecological wave that rising everywhere, saved this unique and magical place from being completely wiped out.

Today it is known as the Gorgona National Natural Park, a spectacular place to visit, which, according to biologist Mateo Lopez, it serves as a barrier against climate change. It rains so much that the water production is immense, forming 75 streams in winter. Besides this, in Gorgona there are unique species such as the spectacular blue anole (Anolis gorgonae). This is a small Galapagos, but in Colombia!

Discovering Gorgona National Natural Park

Gorgona National Natural Park, made up of three islets,  is on the Pacific Ocean in the western part Colombia, between the island of Malpelo and the port of Buenaventura. This small paradise has an extension of about 26 km² of land  and 616.88 km² of marine area.

Gorgona has one of the most beautiful and complex ecosystems on the planet. It is possible to appreciate a tropical rainforest, beautiful coral formations and Indo-Pacific coral reefs. During the months of June and October it is possible to appreciate the migration of humpback whales, which come to this point to give birth to their calves, named ballenatos in Spanish.

A little bit of Gorgona’s History

The Sindagua native (precolonial aborigins) inhabited Gorgona around 1500 a.c. By 1526 the island was discovered by the Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro who gave the island its modern name “Gorgona” thanks to the large number of snakes on the island, recalling the Greek mythology, where the gorgons instead of wearing hair carried snakes.

In 1959 the president of Colombia Alberto Lleras Camargo ordered the construction of a maximum-security prison, which opened in 1960. The main house of the Payan family, who lived on the island, was modified to be the prison administration.

In 1984 President Belisario Betancur closed the prison and authorized the house to be turned into a museum. The island was then declared a protected area designated for scientific research.  Entry since then was restricted, but nowadays is open for ecotourism.

Pirates in Gorgona Island

It is estimated that in the centuries XVII and XVIII Gorgona was the refuge of pirates, because it was considered a privileged point to set full sail to attack the galleons returning to Europe from the colonies with large amounts of gold. After the attacks they sailed up the seas to Panama.

La Virgen, old prison reminders in Gorgona, Colombia CC Licence

Gorgona Prison Escape Stories

Daniel Camargo Barbosa, known as the “Monster of the Mangones” was sentenced to 16 years in prison for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a nine years old girl in Barranquilla. After his capture it was learned that in his home he had a record (photographs and underwear) of 170 girls and women from Colombia and Ecuador whom he raped and murdered.

On November 23, 1984 it was confirmed that “Camargo”, as he was known, did not return to the patio number 2 where he was confined and no more information was obtained from him after the weekly bath that the prisoners had on the beach.

3 days later they found a boat destroyed at the shore and thought that sharks had killed the Camargo.  An order  to suspend the “search mission” was issued and the version that the “fugitive had died in his escape attempt” was officially released.

The prison had so far 21 records of escape attempts but none of these men were found alive. The traces of the bodies were found in the remains of the boats in the middle of the ocean.

The only escape that was confirmed much later was that of Pedro Ariza and his nephew Alberto Lopez,  together with their dog Jacqueline. They all managed to survive because they were rescued by a crew of tourists who took them to the port of Buenaventura.

Gorgona Island as a Protected Area

Gorgona Island currently belongs administratively to the municipality of Guapi, Cauca. The protected area consists of the islands Gorgona and Gorgonita, and the islets El Viudo and El horno.

The island is the largest in the world in terms of freshwater production, with 25 freshwater streams and 120 transient streams. The island also has 2 lagoons Tunapurí and Ayantuna, located on the southeastern side of the island, and are home to babillas (small size alligator type reptiles).

The highest point of the island is La Trinidad with a height of 338 meters above sea level. There are additionally  3 other small hills of lower altitude: Los Micos, La Esperanza and El Mirador.

Blue anole – Anolis gorgonae by Diego Gomez

Importance for Conservation and Local Communities

Gorgona Island is an important coastal marine conservation enclave in the Colombian Pacific. Due to its environmental characteristics, the biological diversity on Gorgona Island is considerable. As of 2004, 715 plant species and 1398 animal species had been reported, without considering terrestrial invertebrates and zooplankton species (UAESPNN, 2004). Among these, six endemic species stand out:

  • Nhotria gorgonensis (marine worm),
  • Maldane gorgonensis (marine worm),
  • Hypobolosera gorgonensis (lung crab),
  • Dyrmaeus gorgoniensis (land snail),
  • Parides gorgoniensis (butterfly),
  • Anolis gorgononae (blue anole),

And six endemic subspecies:

  • Thamnophilus punctatus gorgonae (Black-crowned Antshrike),
  • Coereba flaveola gorgonae (bananaquit),
  • Cyanerpes cyaneus gigas (Red-legged honeycreeper),
  • Cebus capucinus curtus (Colombian white-faced capuchin),
  • Bradypus variegatus gorgonae (Brown-throated sloth), and
  • Proechimys semispinosus gorgonae (Tome’s spiny rat).

Additionally, of the total number of flora and fauna species that have been reported for Gorgona Island, at least six plant species and 40 animal species are classified with some degree of threat according to the IUCN categories.

In addition to the high diversity of species and ecosystems, Gorgona Island fulfills a strategic function for the coastal human communities near its area of influence, since it was traditionally used as an artisanal fishing area.

How to get to Gorgona National Natural Park

Bogotá-Palmira-Buenaventura

Take a 45- minutes flight from Bogotá to Palmira city. Once at the airport, take an approximately 3- hours ride to Buenaventura. Once at Buenaventura port  you should take an extra 12-hour boat ride to Gorgona.

Bogotá-Palmira-Guapi

Take a 45- minutes flight from Bogotá to Palmira city. Once at the airport, take a flight to Guapi with Satena airline. Finally, from Guapi you should take an extra 1,5-hour boat ride to Gorgona.

What to do in Gorgona National Natural Park

Diving and snorkeling

Gorgona Island is a wonderful place for diving and snorkeling thanks to the great variety of marine fauna and flora species, including whitetip sharks, turtles of different species, groupers, octopus, large schools of snappers, jacks, among others, along with the beautiful and colorful coral reefs found on the island.

The park has 12 authorized dive sites with a maximum depth of 40 meters; the most recognized are: El planchón; La tiburonera; El remanso; La parguera; La plaza de toros; El horno and Las montañitas.

These areas have the optimal conditions for a unique experience. Bear in mind that in order to dive in this waters you need to have certified experience.

Hiking and Trekking

Hiking is the most exciting activity in Gorgona National Natural Park. You can hike along 4 trails: Antiguo Penal, Playa Palmeras, Yundigua y Higueron. This activity allows you to admire majestic landscapes among a paradisiacal tropical jungle while admiring the place that was once a prison.

Gorgona & Gorgonilla by Hector Chirimia Gonzalez

Birdwatching

In Gorgona the most representative birds are the frigate bird, the pelican and the sulas. Other species of birds from Malpelo island that can be seen during the traveler’s stay are: the Red-billed tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus) nesting in Malpelo, Galapagos and California; the Pomarine and Long-tailed jaegers (Stercorarius pomarinus and S. longicaudus); the Audubon’s Shearwater (Puffinus iherninieri), the sooty shearwater (P. griseus), and the black storm petrel (Oceanodroma melania).

Wildlife Observation

The coral formations of the island are divided into sectors: La Ventana is the one with the largest coral extension (73.2%), followed by Playa Blanca (66.4%) and finally La Camaronera and La Azufrada (44.15%). Corals present in Gorgona belong to 18 different species of a group of 6 reef families.

The park has a record of 381 species of marine fish, 11 species of whales and dolphins, and 4 sea lions. In the second half of the year it is possible to see humpback whales, despite the possible rains.

Where to stay in Gorgona National Natural Park

Gorgona natural national park offers simple accommodation for travelers. In addition, the island has the beautiful Hotel Parque Nacional Gorgona, where you can enjoy wonderful facilities and an afternoon swim at a pool.

Best time to visit Gorgona National Natural Park

The climate on Gorgona Island is tropical maritime super-humid. Air temperature is generally above 26°C while relative humidity reaches 90% saturation. Average monthly precipitation ranges between 180 mm to 400 mm during the “dry” season (January-March) and between 550 mm to 750 mm during the “rainy” season (April-December).

Gorgona Island can be visited all year round, there is no dry season but the months with less rainfall are February and March. 

Gorgona National Natural Park Entrance fees

The entrance fee varies depending on the nationality and age of the visitors. These are the entrance fees for 2021:

  • Colombians, resident foreigners and tourists from Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru (ages 5 to 25): COP 13,500 (approx.USD 4)
  • Colombians, resident foreigners and tourists from Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru (over 25 years old): COP 22,000 (approx.USD 7)
  • Non-resident foreigners (over 5 years old): COP 53,000 (approx.USD 17)
  • Children under 5 years old and Colombians over 65 years old have free entrance presenting their IDs.

What to consider before visiting Gorgona National Natural Park

  • To take any of the tours inside the sanctuary you must hire an authorized and certified guide.
  • Gorgona is one of the mating, breeding and feeding sites of the humpback whale. For this reason observing whales must be done under supervision of authorized guides;
  • Consider wearing personal protective items (sun blocker, sunglasses, towel, insect repellent, and hat).
  • The use of flash when taking photographs is prohibited.
  • Recommended the use of binoculars to admire animals’ behavior and beauty in their natural habitat.
  • Carry valid identity documents and health insurance. It is recommended to be vaccinated against yellow fever and tetanus.
  • If you take specific medications, take them with you a personal first aid kit.

Some prohibitions

Feeding, bothering or hunting animals, alcoholic drinks and drugs, throwing cigarette butts, burning garbage, felling, and capturing wildlife.

References
About the authors

Luisa Martin

Engineer, world traveler, amateur photographer, traveling blogger, and foody.

Sara Colmenares

The current director of Sula. Doctor in Biological Sciences. Her main interests are to explore and understand the organism–environment interactions, taking advantage of emerging knowledge for the management and conservation of species and ecosystem services. She is currently working as a consultant in functional ecology, ecosystem services, and conservation projects in Colombia related to ecotourism and birdwatching.