On the third snorkel of my Galapagos trip, I finally spotted the creature I'd spent days pining to see: a Galapagos green turtle. The graceful reptile snacked on the sea rocks as I bobbed above it like a buoy, my awestruck mind brimming with questions. Where had this ancient reptile come from? Equally important, where was it going?
In the lead-up to this small-ship Galapagos cruise with outfitter World Expeditions, I'd pored over research about the archipelago's famed flora and fauna. These rare species — many of which can only be found in the Galapagos — inspired Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. There's a roster of measures in place to protect them, including highly regulated tourism and fishing protocols.
Yet an intriguing new, cross-ocean approach to marine conservation particularly caught my eye: the Cocos-Galapagos Swimway.
The idea is simple; it's like a protected superhighway for sea creatures. This swimway, a major marine animal migration route, spans more than 46,000 square miles (119,139 square kilometers) between Ecuador's Galapagos Islands and Costa Rica's Cocos Island, two biodiversity hot spots. Wildlife like the sea turtle I snorkeled with and numerous other endangered species, regularly traverse this roughly 400-mile (643 kilometer) route for food and nesting.
While each country protects the waterways around its respective islands, the well-trodden passage between the two is riddled with life-threatening risks for marine life, largely linked to overfishing.
The underwater highway, first proposed in 2018, could change that and "serve as a model for other parts of the world," Tom O'Hara, communications manager for Galapagos Conservation Trust, says via email.
Here's how the marine swimway plan works, and how it could benefit our increasingly threatened oceans.
Will There Really Be an Underwater Highway?
No. As awesome as it sounds, there won't be an "expressway" with turtles and sharks traversing lanes between these two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. And the marine passage won't require construction or physical guardrails like other bridges and tunnels that safeguard migratory terrestrial animals around the world.
Instead the Cocos-Galapagos Swimway will protect sea life from human-driven threats like fishing with a series of interwoven regulations and oversight.
"What we proposed was a no-take zone, so primarily a no-fishing zone," Todd Steiner, executive director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network, says. Steiner is a founding member of MigraMar, a collective of scientists studying the movement of keystone migratory marine species. MigraMar is spearheading this swimway initiative.
While animals are already largely safe within those reserves, they face severe threats from commercial fishing — such as net entanglements — when they enter open waters. "The ocean between Galapagos and Cocos is a popular place for industrial fishing fleets to work, including those that focus on harvesting shark fins often destined for the Asian market," O'Hara says. "In order to fully protect the swimway, new MPAs must be created and implemented."
Creating New Marine Protected Areas
In 2022, Ecuador made headway with its new Hermandad Marine Reserve. The reserve added more than 23,000 square miles (59,569 square kilometers) to Ecuador's protected areas of the ocean; roughly half of that includes a no-fishing zone to protect the Ecuador's portion of the swimway.
Now, the initiative relies on Costa Rica expanding its protections, which Steiner says it has the power to do. "Every country owns 200 miles [322 kilometers] out from its landmass," he explains. "Costa Rica owns 200 miles from its coast and it also owns 200 miles around Cocos Island." These exclusive economic zone (EEZ) legalities are exactly why something like the Cocos-Galapagos Swimway could work.
"Cocos Island and the Galapagos are 394 miles [634 kilometers] apart, so the [EEZs] just overlap," Steiner says. "If you can get these two countries to agree, you can protect a large swath of this important migration corridor."
To run effectively, this protected swimway requires oversight from the government and scientists. In the Galapagos, this is already in motion.
"The Galapagos Marine Reserve is policed by both the marine unit of the Galapagos National Park Directorate and by the Ecuadorian Navy," O'Hara says. "There is also increasing use of technology such as satellites to monitor fishing activity."
Why Does Sealife Migrate Via This Route?
Whether it's an official protected swimway or not, sea creatures frequent this migratory route throughout their life cycles. It sees turtles and sharks, including six endangered species: whale sharks, tiger sharks, leatherback turtles, green turtles, silky sharks and scalloped hammerhead sharks, O'Hara says.
Creatures follow this specific route because of its easy navigability.
The seamounts along the swimway's mountain range are packed with biodiversity, providing food for migratory animals along their journeys. The migrators also flock to the Cocos and Galapagos islands for nesting and foraging.
Take the turtle I spotted on the Galapagos' Floreana Island. Flipper tracks from the dune-top nest (off limits to tourists) toward the waves hinted to its likely life stage: nesting. According to our World Expeditions naturalist guide, the Galapagos green turtle averages about 100 eggs per nest, yet only two on average reach the adult stage due to natural predators like crabs and birds.
Once these two hatchlings reach the adult stage and begin to travel, they encounter even more threats, again, commercial fishing. According to the WWF, more than 250,000 turtles around the world die after being caught in fisheries, largely from fishing nets.
These are bad odds for the Galapagos green turtle, which is listed as endangered by WWF. It's even worse news for the leatherback sea turtle, which is on the verge of extinction due to overfishing pressures, Steiner says. The WWF reports that the Pacific Ocean may only have 2,300 adult leatherback females remaining.
The Cocos-Galapagos Swimway was designed to safeguard marine migrators like the sea turtle, but turtles aren't the only animals who would benefit from enhanced protections.
"Island, coastal and marine ecosystems are all linked, and healthy ocean biodiversity helps terrestrial and coastal species that depend, directly or indirectly, on the ocean," O'Hara says.
Thriving ocean biodiversity also helps Earth's climate resilience. "Carbon dioxide is absorbed and stored by marine ecosystems, such as mangroves and by marine creatures themselves," O'Hara says. "Protecting the seas around the Galapagos is not just about protecting marine wildlife. It's about safeguarding the future of our own species."
Now That's Cool
Humans aren't the only ones with wanderlust. While turtles regularly travel migratory paths like the Cocos-Galapagos Swimway, they've been known to travel well beyond that. Take the record-breaking leatherback turtle, who made headlines with its 12,774-mile (20,557-kilometer) journey from Indonesia to Oregon in 2008.
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