This is the true story of a journey to find a little known
species of hammerhead shark that ended at the heart of the Central American
The Mallethead Shark Sphyrna
corona, is a small species of hammerhead that lives in the turbid coastal
waters of the eastern tropical Pacific. Mostly because of its extreme rarity and
preference for murky inaccessible habitats, it has never been photographed in
the wild. Small, endemic shark populations are extremely vulnerable to
overfishing, and without compelling images to help inspire conservation
measures, the mallethead (like many other rare sharks) may simply cease to exist
before any attempt has been made to save it.
Still busy rebuilding its image
after a long and bloody civil war, El Salvador is rarely visited by tourists,
let alone divers. The last time that I was there was back in the turmoil of
1989. During that visit, I was pulled off a bus and held at gun point in the
middle of a field. Eventually, I was released unscathed but other travelers and
foreign aid workers were not so lucky. Today, El Salvador is a land in
transition. The people are practical, helpful and exceptionally friendly. They
are also obsessed with security which is not surprising considering that E.S.
has the 4th highest incidence of violent crime in the world.
Upon arrival in San Salvador I paid
a visit to Alex Hasbun who runs El Salvador Divers. Alex pioneered scuba diving
in the region and is well known for his marine conservation work. When I
explained my mission to photograph the Mallethead Shark he immediately committed
to the project and began phoning local fishermen to try to get information on my
shark. Alex explained that in all his years of diving he had never seen a shark
in El Salvadorian waters. This was discouraging but I was undaunted. Even if he
had encountered sharks, it was unlikely that he would have seen a Mallethead
because of its secretive nature. If I was going to get close enough to
photograph this particular species I would have to work with the fishermen. I
reasoned that if they let me release one from their nets, I could snap some
pictures before it swam off into the grey.
There was a young man named Max
waiting for me when I returned to my hotel that afternoon. Something about Max
made my skin crawl and I wanted to get away from him as soon as I could. Somehow
he had heard that I was in town and he offered to take me to see a shark
fisherman named Juan who had some knowledge of local sharks. It involved a trip
into a rundown suburb of San Salvador and I was nervous. Unwisely, I agreed to
accompany him and as we drove along, Max talked about his time in the US, his
subsequent deportation and his drug convictions.
Max’s beaten up sedan crawled past
graffiti sprayed buildings topped with corrugated tin roofs laced with razor
wire. Juan’s house was encased in a network of sturdy wrought iron bars. We were
escorted past Doberman Pincers to a central living area where Juan explained
that he was a businessman who had very little to do with the shark fishing
industry. Max looked about sheepishly while Juan called another supposed shark
fisherman. This man had no idea about sharks but wanted me to charter his sport
fishing boat. Tired of playing ‘fleece the gringo’ I asked Max to drive me back
to my hotel.
Alex and I spent the next day
pouring over maps of the coastline. We narrowed our search down to an area in
the east of the country where the Rio Lempa (among others) empties vast
quantities of coffee colored water into a network of mangrove fringed lagoons;
an ideal habitat for small coastal sharks.
After making plans to visit the
area the following day, Alex introduced me to his cousin Professor Carlos
Roberto Hasbun who is the President of the conservation group Funzel.
Coincidentally, Carlos Roberto is also spearheading the newly established
Central American Shark Coalition which was created to bolster legislation
limiting offshore shark fishing. Over the last few decades, rampant shark
finning along the Pacific coast of Central America has led to a dangerous
reduction in shark numbers. Silky sharks, threshers, and scalloped hammerheads
are the main targets of this largely unregulated fishery and unlike the
artesanal Salvadorian fishermen, the offshore Taiwanese fleets are only
interested in the fins. Their cruel and wasteful practice of throwing the
finless live sharks back into the ocean, allows their enormous factory ships to
harvest and process thousands of animals on each catastrophic trip.
Carlos Roberto’s group is working
hard to force the fleets to land their sharks intact (fins attached). This will
limit the amount of sharks that can be stored onboard each ship reducing some of
the pressure on depleted stocks.
Early the next morning we drove to
La Puntia, a long peninsula that protects the lagoons from the pounding Pacific
surf. From there, we traveled by dingy to a small port to check on the morning’s
shark catch. Apart from a tiny Scalloped Hammerhead in a bucket, the fishermen
had caught no sharks so we continued further down river until we reached the
small fishing community of Isla Tasajera.
Even before making landfall I could
see a large caudal fin protruding from a nearby panga (a small wooden skiff).
Under the watchful eyes of the community Alex nosed our dingy onto the beach and
we stepped ashore. Simultaneously, an athletic young fisherman rolled the
headless corpse of a large thresher shark over the gunwales of his boat, letting
it slap into the shallows at his feet. He picked up his fleecing knife and began
sharpening it against a stone while Alex introduced us both to the gathering
knot of fishermen.
Once he was satisfied with the
blade, the butcher went to work, firstly slicing off the shark’s fins which he
threw haphazardly off to one side. Next he removed its toughened hide, peeling
it away from the meat as though it were nothing more than saran wrap. He worked
at lightning speed while I circled around him with my Nikon, trying to document
In the centre of the group of men
was Fransisco Coto, a shark fin dealer from San Salvador. The locals called him
El Zambuzi - The Bull Shark. Fransisco buys fins from numerous shark fishing
cooperatives along the coast and sells them to a mysterious character that the
fishermen call ‘The Hindu’. The Hindu appeared in San Salvador about 15 years
ago from India. Since that time he has grown steadily richer and more powerful.
Now he is the largest exporter of shark fins north of Costa Rica.
Fransisco pays $19 to $23 dollars
per pound for fins depending on the species. Hammerhead fins fetch the highest
prices because of their high fiber content. Once the fibers are rehydrated they
take on a noodle-like appearance. These shark noodles are the controversial
ingredient of the oriental delicacy shark fin soup.
They call the hammerhead shark
La Charula which comes from the local word charro, the wide brimmed
Mexican hat. Pulling out my field guide I pointed to drawings of the different
types of hammerheads and asked them which ones they generally encountered. They
explained that during April and May thousands of Scalloped Hammerheads migrate
inshore to give birth and that during that season they catch them in great
numbers. I said that I was looking for the smaller Mallethead shark and I
emphasized its different characteristics. This generated much discussion that I
found hard to follow. Alex translated that apparently they did see this shark
but its appearance was rare and unpredictable.
Another fisherman then pulled out a
large plastic sack from the bottom of his panga. Upending it onto a dirty piece
of plywood, he tipped out 20 or more scalloped hammerhead pups. The lifeless
embryos lay in a heap glistening in the sun while the butcher resharpened his
knife. He explained that these baby sharks, barely 12 inches long, were destined
to become cerviche, a kind of marinated fish salad that is popular in the
The shark fishermen take their
pangas 80 miles offshore to set their long-lines, returning with their catch
after 3 days. Most do not carry GPS, radios, or spare outboard motors and
occasionally they are found drifting towards the coast a month or more after
their departure. Some pangas simply disappear.
A well dressed man named Jacobo
joined the men huddled around my shark book. Unlike the shark fishermen, Jacobo
was a gill-netter. Pointing to yet another species, he said that the Smooth
Hammerhead sphyrna zygaena sometimes got tangled in his nets. I then
explained to them that I wanted to get in the water with the sharks to
photograph them while they were still alive. The fishermen took this idea
Jacobo invited us to accompany him
and his son Antonio on their fishing trip that evening. Alex was not keen to
sleep in a small rocking panga in the middle of the ocean and I too had some
reservations especially when he told me to bring lots of Dramamine as there
would be no escape from the merciless Pacific swells. Needing to think this
over, I thanked him and said I would try to return the next day.
On the way back to San Salvador I
did my best to convince Alex to join me on the adventure. Conversing with Jacobo
for an entire night in my rudimentary Spanish would be difficult enough, but I
was worried that I would not be able to give instructions in the event that we
did catch a shark. Alex agreed to lend me an air tank and give me directions
back to the island but after that I was on my own.
The next afternoon I hired a panga
and returned to Isla Tasajera. I was directed to the fisherman’s cooperative
where Jacobo eyed up my enormous bag of dive gear and submersible camera with
some surprise. For a moment I thought he was going to retract his offer but he
nodded slowly and told me we would sail before sunset. Relieved, I sat under the
shade of a champa, a simple wooden framed structure with a palm thatched roof,
and talked sharks with the retired fishermen of the community.
Jacobo and Antonio finished setting
their nets as the sky turned red, five miles off the Salvadorian coast. In
darkness we sat eating tortillas and laughing at each other’s half understood
stories. When the conversation died, the mariners pulled hammocks from a bucket
and strung them diagonally across the gunwales. For me, they provided a soft
mattress that Jacobo laid out next to a pillow so grimy that I didn’t dare to
touch it. Staring up at a thick blanket of stars, we traded the names of
constellations before I drifted off to sleep with my feet hanging over the
Jacobo woke us at 4am to begin the
laborious task of recovering the nets. He and Antonio worked in unison, pulling
a yard at a time onto the deck. 200 yards lay neatly folded before the first
fish, a mackerel, fell to the floor. Half an hour passed before they saw another
and as the final buoy approached, I resigned myself to the idea that this trip
was going to be completely sharkless. For his nights endeavor Jacobo had four
fish weighing about 30lb. These, he presented to the cooperative upon our
return; a sad testament to the condition of our oceans.
He invited me to his house for
breakfast. It was a primitive building with a mud floor but it was spotlessly
clean. His wife Maria cooked eggs while we sat and talked in broken Spanish
about families, sharks, and the war in El Salvador. Jacobo, like many others in
his village, had fought in the militia to protect the island from insurgents.
While we ate, some of his 50 nieces and nephews dropped by. It was humbling to
see the aura of contentment that Jacobo displayed around his family. “Pura
vida” he said to me smiling, ‘the good life’.
By mid afternoon I was back in San
Salvador. I strolled into El Salvador Divers and Alex invited me to a dinner
party. My jeans smelled of fish and grime from sleeping on the panga but they
were all I had, so I threw on a clean shirt and we drove downtown.
If I had known that we were going
to a party for El Salvador’s legal elite I might have made a bigger effort to
clean up. We missed the President of El Salvador by half an hour, but as we
entered the ballroom, the eyes of the most powerful lawyers and judges in the
country turned in shocked amazement to see the unshaven gringo with the big grin
come loping through the door. With a smile Alex turned and whispered “tonight we
swim with the most dangerous sharks in Latin America”. Before long I had been
introduced to most of the high court judges, and a score of steely eyed lawyers,
all dressed in silk suits and with trophy wives hanging off their arms. As we
met each one, Alex introduced me as El Cazador de Tiburones (The Shark Hunter).
They had no idea what to say to me. It was priceless.
We ended up in a bar, drinking the
night away with a couple of lawyers that Alex had taught to dive. But, as the
whiskey flowed it began to sink in that my grand plan to photograph the elusive
Mallethead Shark had failed.
The next day, nursing a sore head,
I joined Alex at Los Cobanos where we explored a reef system that was created
when an ancient volcanic eruption threw apartment sized cinder blocks into the
ocean. The visibility was horrendous and I was barely able to make out each
coral formation as I groped my way along the seabed. Twenty years ago Los
Cobanos contained a vibrant marine ecosystem unparalleled on the Pacific coast
of Central America. Sadly, erosion caused by slash and burn land clearing
techniques and the harvesting of the forests for fuel has caused 75% of El
Salvador's irreplaceable topsoil to slide into the rivers. Each year thousands
of metric tons of fertile earth spews out onto the Pacific slope, clogging
sponges and suffocating corals. Consequently, only the hardiest invertebrate
species survive and water clear enough for diving is rarely encountered except
during the dry season when river runoff is at a minimum.
We moved on to Lago
Ilopango, a deep crater lake teaming with freshwater fishes and warmed by
submerged volcanic vents.
Once the cool liquid had cleaned
the fog from my brain I attempted to reassess my mission. It was time to let it
go of the Mallethead (at least for this trip) and concentrate on an angle of the
story that had been nagging at me. I had met the fishermen that inadvertently
catch small coastal sharks, and the fearless cazadores that ply the waters far
off shore for enormous pelagic sharks. I had questioned Fransisco Coto who
travels from village to village buying up fins to resell in the city and
interviewed Carlos Roberto Hasbun who is fighting to limit the impact of
offshore factory ships. The picture was solidifying but there was one more
person I needed to meet. Before I left El Salvador I wanted to find 'The Hindu'.
I imagined him as a turbaned figure sitting atop a mountain of fins surrounded
by armed guards. It seemed unlikely that he would grant me an audience but with
two days to kill and half a story, I had nothing to lose.
Alex and I spent the next morning
making calls. Eventually we tracked down Francisco ‘The Bull Shark’ who gave us
as much information on The Hindu as he could. His real name was Carlos Pinto
which seemed odd for a man of Indian descent. Not trusting my Spanish, Alex
called his office in San Salvador and explained that a North American journalist
was writing a story about the history of the shark fishing industry. He was told
that Señor Pinto would return soon and our message would be passed on. At 4.30pm
we called again. This time Alex was transferred to Carlos Pinto’s office and he
immediately handed the phone to me. I introduced myself in English and
reiterated that I wanted to better understand the industry. Sr. Pinto was
suspicious but friendly enough. When I told him that I worked for a shark diving
magazine and that I had no specific environmental agenda he began to relax.
Amazingly, he invited me to lunch the following day, and after the call I sat in
Alex’s office in stunned silence.
Carlos turned out to be a rushed
60ish business man in a grey suit. He shook my hand firmly and we began by
talking about the Mallethead Shark. Not surprisingly, his knowledge of sharks
was excellent and he suggested that if I returned, I should concentrate my
search in Nicaragua.
He then explained that he had been
approached by reporters in the past but they had turned out to be
environmentalists looking to expose him in some negative way and he had declined
their interviews. A quick internet search would have revealed me to be just as
vocal about shark finning but luckily he had not had time to do a background
check. Overrun with work, Carlos introduced me to his step son Rafael who
accompanied me to a restaurant to talk about finning.
Rafael was as friendly and matter
of fact as his father who he called Charlie. He told me that Charlie was from a
Portuguese colony in India which explained his Hispanic name. Because of his
fair attitude when dealing with the fishermen he had quickly risen through the
ranks of the other fin traders and now he controlled most of the shark fins
exported between the Costa Rican Border and Mexico. Every 1 to 2 months he would
send a container filled with 1000lb of dried fins to his contact in China.
For two hours we sat and discussed
the industry. The El Salvadorian fleet consists of about 50 small pangas and 5
larger vessels. Charlie owns the largest shark fishing boat in the country which
can carry 14 tons of shark.
I asked Rafael if Charlie also
worked with the Asian longliners who ply the 200 mile exclusion zone. “They are
pirates” he said, becoming very animated. He described their wasteful practice
of finning the sharks and dumping the carcasses. “It is the Taiwanese” he
continued “They have no respect for the oceans. All they care about is fins and
Now that we had broached the
subject, I asked him directly about the impact of fishing on the local shark
stocks. “It is a big problem” he said. “Ten years ago the fishermen would set
their lines with 100 hooks. Now they use 400 but they only catch half as many
He explained that one reason is the
gill netters like Jacobo. Even if the hammerheads make it past the longliners on
their way in to shore to give birth, lots of the pups end up in gill nets.
I asked him what he thought they
could do about it. “It’s complicated” he said. “We could make a good living in
many other fields because we are educated. But if you take away the fishermen’s
livelihood, they will starve. This is all they know how to do”.
Rafael continued “We are in favor
of regulation if that is what it takes. When the WWF came to us to conduct a
study into sea turtle deaths, we gave them all the assistance we could. By
redesigning our hooks we cut the turtle bycatch down to almost zero”.
I told him that I had been in
contact with the newly formed Central American Shark Coalition. Rafael had not
heard of it and he rolled his eyes at the prospect of more interference in his
industry. When I mentioned that Carlos Roberto Hasbun was leading the campaign
he brightened. He was familiar with Professor Hasbun’s work with sea turtles and
obviously had some respect for the man.
Taking a leap, I asked Rafael if he
would be prepared to talk to Carlos Roberto, if I could arrange it. With no
hesitation, he said that he would be happy to explain the realities of the
industry in order to create some practical solutions. This was more than I could
possibly have hoped for and I wound up our conversation on less controversial
Rafael dropped me at Alex’s shop
just in time for our next engagement. While I was talking with Raphael, Alex had
arranged an interview with the national press agency La Prensa Grafica.
Jumping into Carlos Roberto’s car the three of us headed over to the newspaper
offices where we were met by a reporter who wanted to know all about my hunt for
the elusive Mallethead Shark and subsequent explorations into the fin trade.
They also questioned Carlos Roberto about his work with the Shark Coalition.
Concerned that this interview would do more harm than good, we tried to impress
upon the reporter that this was a real chance for progress and that if the story
drove a wedge between the environmentalists and the fishermen, the sharks would
be the victims.
After the interview I posed for
pictures holding up a drawing of the shark that I had been searching for in
vain. The reporter then said that if I eventually found my shark, to please let
them do a follow up story. I agreed and we left.
Carlos Roberto, Alex, and I,
grabbed a last meal. Exhausted, I returned to my hotel room and packed.
Flying back to Canada I wondered if
Carlos Roberto and Charlie Pinto could ever really find a way to work together.
Would the sharks in Central America eventually be protected from over fishing or
was it already too late? And, would I ever get to return and find the Mallethead
Shark? Maybe; with the right people involved, all things are possible.