Winner avatar
2019 Whitley Award
Ilena Zanella Costa Rica Marine
Strengthened sanctuary for the scalloped hammerhead shark


The Golfo Dulce is one of only four tropical fjords in the world. The unique nutrient cycling at this site means its waters are teeming with life. Nine years of research by Ilena, Co-founder of Misión Tiburón, has proven the further significance of the site as key nursery habitat for juvenile scalloped hammerhead sharks.


Hammerheads migrate thousands of miles each year connecting populations across Ecuador, Panama, Colombia and Costa Rica in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. The focus of conservation efforts on sharks around oceanic islands where adults congregate to breed and feed has demonstrated the critical need to protect sharks throughout their lifecycle. Based on the data collected by Ilena and her team, the coastal wetlands of Golfo Dulce were declared a Scalloped Hammerhead Shark Sanctuary in May 2018, including a 4,000Ha no take zone. This marks the first shark sanctuary in Costa Rica, and the first shark sanctuary globally to focus specifically on juvenile nursery habitat.


Building on this political good will, Ilena will continue to work with the local community to reduce the use of juvenile scalloped hammerheads as fishing bait and improve detection of illegal fishing activity. Misión Tiburón’s new Education Station will provide an education programme for children in the community promoting a shift towards increased environmental awareness and sustainable fishing practices.

Ilena’s project will:

  • Work with coast guards and local fishermen to halve illegal catch of hammerheads.
  • Double the number of students involved in Misión Tiburón’s education programme to reach 1,000 school children.
  • Evaluate the impact of management decisions on the abundance of juvenile sharks in the Golfo Dulce.

Why it matters:

  • Whales and dolphins are easily observed in the calm waters of the fjord and threatened sea turtles breed along its shores.
  • At its mouth the Golfo Dulce is only 60m deep, but sheltered inland waters reach more than 200m in depth.
  • Misión Tiburón is part of the Migramar network, involving collaborations with other Whitley Award winners, conserving migratory species in the Eastern Tropical Pacific marine corridor.

“I hope to engage the communities in the protection of the scalloped hammerhead shark and I would like the local people to feel proud of the sanctuary.”

Image credits: David Garcia