Earth to Us

Meet the Women Fighting to Protect Sharks in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez

Porfiria Gómez directora de Orgcas
Porfiria Gómez, a director of Orgcas. Photographed by Diego Vourakis

It is called the Bahía de los Sueños—the Bay of Dreams—and it doesn’t take long to understand why. We arrive at dawn when the water laps the shores softly, when the wind blows gently, when the tide is delicate, and when the fishermen are already halfway there. Here, in Baja California, lies one of the areas with the greatest marine diversity in Mexico—and preserving it is more urgent than ever.

You might think that protecting this bay is merely a local concern, but the women of Orgcas make it clear to me that is not the case. This non-profit organization—founded and led by women of different ages, nationalities, and educational backgrounds—has been working for the conservation of marine life since 2021, although the stories of its members and their different efforts go back much further. “We came together as a group of stakeholders with different backgrounds seeing that there were many goals being neglected,” Porfiria Gómez, director of Orgcas, tells me.

We meet in Ensenada de los Muertos, an hour from La Paz, the capital of the state of Baja California Sur. We talk about the sea, marine conservation, and the intimate relationship of each of them with the bigger ocean. Orgcas arose out of a series of chances and coincidences, I learn. “Our purpose is to conserve and protect, to analyze problems, and look for solutions,” says Gómez. Perhaps the path to getting here was not as straightforward as the mission itself, but what is certain is that the women all work for a common cause: shark conservation.

Mariana Vélez, director of tourism and communications at Orgcas.

Photographed by Diego Vourakis

Porfiria Gómez, director of Orgcas.

Photographed by Diego Vourakis

“The shark is a species in collapse,” adds Gómez. Currently, at least 36 percent of the 1,200 species of sharks and rays are at risk of extinction, according to data from the World Wild Fund (WWF). Among the Orgcas—a term they coined themselves—a focus on data is as important as the actions they make. “Conservation needs trained people,” says Gómez, whose family background is in marine conservation. The reason for the scientific community’s fascination with this animal is obvious, Gómez explains. “Sharks are a keystone species that play an important role in their ecosystem, they keep other species in balance,” she says. 

Warnings about the dangers that sharks face are far from new, with the scientific community having sounded the alarm for decades. This led Orgcas to take an educational approach to combatting these threats, with a particular emphasis on responsible tourism. “One of the main dangers to the sea is the fishing industry,” says Gómex. “But it is important to differentiate between commercial and artisanal fishing.” In Mexico, small-scale shark fishing continues to be a custom of native communities; for decades, it has been the main source of income for entire families. Yet while the Gulf of California is considered one of the most important fishing areas in Mexico, new shark fishing permits have been reduced over the years, leaving in place mostly those whose practice dates back generations.

A panoramic view of the Sea of Cortez. 

Photographed by Diego Vourakis

The goal, then, was to take Proyecto Tiburón—or Project Shark—to these fishermen. Orgcas reached out to the last shark fishermen in the area to propose a transition to sustainable tourism. “A combination of things worked in our favor; a need combined with a vision on our part,” Gómez says. With the decline of shark populations due to industrial overfishing evident—sharks and rays are slow-growing animals, and don’t reproduce until they are quite old—the region’s fishermen had begun to notice an instability in this source of income from season to season. 

For many, fishing can be traced back as far as five generations. “It’s the source of income we’ve had all our lives,” says Salvador Ríos, a fisherman from the area. “I spent more than 20 years fishing shark.” Since they started with Proyecto Tiburón, this community has largely turned from shark fishing to tourism as a source of income. Meanwhile, Orgcas is now securing funds to sponsor pangas—local fishing boats—for commercial tourism uses. 

Elena Herrán, project coordinator at Orgcas.

Photographed by Diego Vourakis

Martina Cocquio, community manager at Orgcas.

Photographed by Diego Vourakis

But progress on this front has required building trust. In the past, when research teams collected data among these communities, the results sometimes raised concerns that then led to the revocation of fishing permits without any notice. Many locals thus viewed researchers with suspicion, and there was a reluctance to cooperate with the Orgcas initially. After a lengthy dialogue, they have been able to work out a solution that will ensure the sustainability of both the sharks and the families in the area. “Tourism is a great alternative to bring people into this project,” says Gómez. “Today, whoever is not aware that the sea is threatened for various reasons is part of the problem. We need to be aware that the sea needs us and that there are things we can all do.” Proyecto Tiburón has obtained funds to donate at least two pangas to the fishermen of this community to help them transition to an economy based on sustainable tourism. 

Photographed by Diego Vourakis
Video: René Hope / Ernesto Madrigal

Martina Cocquio leans against La Uva (“The Grape”), the newest panga that ORGCAS will donate to local fishermen. Why the color purple, I ask? “We wanted it to look different when it is out at sea,” she tells me. This newly built panga has purple stripes along its bottom and is covered by a roof that shelters tourists from the elements while on their outings. Originally hailing from Italy, Cocquio credits her time in Mexico as having awakened a passion in her for preserving marine life. “The rest is history,” she tells me. In charge of content creation and social media management, Cocquio is also a travel guide. Like all the Orgcas, her goal is that fishermen not only become involved with tourism, but are also able to learn about and share knowledge of the region’s many species and its biodiversity.

Martina Cocquio sits on Tintorera, the second panga that Orgcas will donate to local fishing communities.

Photographed by Diego Vourakis

When you talk to the Orgcas, you understand how intertwined their stories are. I remember a conversation the prior day: “It has been a process of coming together,” said Elena Herrán, project coordinator and communications specialist. What began as a five-person project has been growing, changing, and evolving. “There is a lack of communication about science,” says Mariana Vélez, the Colombian tourism director and communications specialist. “Scientists do research, publish incredible and important information about ecosystems, environmental threats, and so on, but people don’t understand it because science has long been confined to the academy. Now we realize how important it is for science to be accessible to everyone.”

Orgcas was founded in 2021 by a group of women with a shared vision.

Photographed by Diego Vourakis

Orgcas works around four pillars: science, education, tourism, and communication. It’s here that conservation becomes the most important issue. In addition to the academic component, this group of women aims to open up spaces that make this scientific knowledge accessible. “Orgcas is breaking paradigms,” adds Frida Lara, Orgcas’s science director who has a PhD in marine biology. “I come from that old school where conservation was understood as telling people what to do and that is why many conservation initiatives have failed.” Lara has dedicated her life to studying marine life and is aware of the work that remains to be done: “These communities are ambassadors for our vision.” 

Frida Lara, Orgcas’s director of science, who holds a PhD in marine biology.

Photographed by Diego Vourakis

Gádor Muntaner, an oceanologist specializing in sharks and a trip leader in Orgcas.

Photographed by Diego Vourakis

Proyecto Tiburón is one of the current focuses of Orgcas, but it is not the only one. Different initiatives have joined the program to contribute to its documentation, research, and preservation efforts. “If someone stands here today and asks for money to save the whales, everyone donates,” says Gádor Muntaner, a Spanish oceanologist specializing in sharks. “If you ask for help to save the sharks, nobody does.”

Dynamite fishing, underwater mining, and unchecked tourism and development are other major threats to the sea and these species. One of Orgcas’s most ambitious goals is the creation of a nature reserve along the area’s Pacific Coast and the Gulf of California. “With the help of the fishermen, we are trying to promote the protection of this area and thus regulate activity, prohibit underwater mining, limit industrial shipping to certain areas, and protect more and more of this area,” says Porfiria Gómez. After a few days with the Orgcas, it’s clear that the Bay of Dreams is more than a just name. With their pioneering work to care for and protect the ocean, for the Orgcas, the dream is to preserve the place that brought all of them together—and ensure that future generations of women can follow in their footsteps. 

Mariana Vélez of Orgcas.Photographed by Diego Vourakis
Photographed by Diego Vourakis
Photographed by Diego Vourakis

In this story: photographer, Diego Vourakis; creative directors, Karla Acosta and Juan Duque; video producer & director, René Hope; video director of photography, Ernesto Madrigal; Orgcas’ team: Porfiria Gómez, Frida Lara, Mariana Vélez, Martina Cocquio, Gádor Muntaner, Elena Herrán, Lissandra Amezcua, Maru Brito, Gabriela Gómez y Sofía Martínez; translation, John Newton.