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Galapagos – January 2016
Shark cried the guide emptying our 12 person zodiac in a few second. Even the captain and the woman who couldn’t swim well had jumped into the water. I sat in the now empty boat for a few more seconds contemplating the irony of all this. However we had come to see sharks and there weren’t any in the boat so I jumped in too.
The scene looked like a cheap screen saver. Everything was blue with no bottom insight and sharks wiggled back and forth far beneath me swimming slowly in and out of my view. Along with them were large turtles at varying depths. Who knew that a cheap screen saver was fairly accurate in its depiction of sea creatures swimming.
Above the surface massive cliffs on both sides rose above us. The current was sucking us through this giant gap in the rocks and out into calmer water. Kicker island is fairly small but it makes up for it in vertical impressiveness. Sharks come here as it acts as a cleaner station where smaller fish clean off parasites.
This was my first but not only shark encounter. Having a cage between me and a great white in South Africa was very different.
Some people require a shot of adrenalin each day to stay sane. I should not be counted among them. Our guide however ……..
Let me explain.
A sea lion had just given birth to a pup and the placenta was clearly visible in the water as a pink blob. If I had not been so fascinated my thinking should have gone like this. Birth equals blood. Blood equals shark. Instead my thinking went. Wow this is so cool. On cue a shark appeared. Not a small 1 to 2 meter beast like around Kicker Island but a rather large three meter creature in the relative shallows next to us. As he was leaving the scene, the guide dove down and followed him getting close enough to reach out and touch him but instead he took a photo. The first photo was kind of pointless as it didn’t fit in the frame. The only thing scarier than seeing a shark swimming off is having it return which it did.
Sharks are so plentiful in the Galapagos that it is possible to see hundreds in a day. Knowing where to snorkel is key. In one shallow bay the small and very active foot long baby whitetips were almost translucent in the sun. This was a feeding area with almost zero visibility under the water. Here we took a zodiac cruise. In other areas where we snorkelled the adolescents sleep on the bottom. Sometimes it is possible to see twenty at one glance. When the guide asked me to dive down for a photo with three I did without hesitation. When one sees enough of them you become blase about them. These creatures are a critical part of our oceans. Human fear of them is unwarranted as mostly they are uninterested in you. You are better off fearing cancer or dogs or cars or even other humans. These are the things that will bite you and possibly kill you. Apparently the biggest regret that the director of Jaws had in his life was making Jaws. It created so much fear that he spent the rest of his life working to help sharks. Unlike Jaws or the more recent shark movie I have seen so many times on buses now, a shark is not stupid. It doesn’t want to get hurt. Respect it and be smart and it will leave you alone.
A shark is not the ruthless king of the sea he is made out to be. From the Beagle (our boat) we witnessed another sea lion birth. The placenta once again attracting a 3-meter long shark. In this case the alpha male sea lion was around and after warning his clan to get out of the water he went after the shark which quickly lost its nerve and fled. It was like being on a national geographic television show. Once the shark was gone the alpha male turned his attention to a group of tourists watching from the shore which he chased into the bushes. Don’t mess with an alpha male sea lion seems to be the lesson here. Any animal can injure a human, even a mouse.
Our guide as it should be obvious is an adrenalin addict. One afternoon we chanced upon a pod of 50 or 60 bottlenose dolphins so the Beagle changed course. Before long six or seven of these animals were surfing our bow wave with me positioned just above them on the rope netting at the bow. It was incredible, but it lasted only briefly as the boat stopped. On cue, the guide appeared in his wetsuit and snorkel, camera in hand and jumped into the blue abyss. The dolphins weren’t that interested in him, but they would shoot past him like torpedoes which he found unnerving in the low visibility water conditions. What he found terrifying is among them were quite a few sharks that would saunter past him as well. With the low water visibility it was hard to tell which was which. The size of a dolphin these sharks were not a breed that anyone recommends swimming with. I had always believed since I was a child that dolphins would not socialize or be around sharks hence if you saw a dolphin it was safe to assume that the area is shark free. Hmm.
Sharks are so common in the Galapagos that they would often mill around our boat curious about things. It wasn’t too uncommon to have 2 or 3 creatures around 9-12 ft long swimming back and forth. They came for the scraps washed down the sink with the dishwater and for the hundreds of fish that came for shelter under the boat.
When we snorkelled our barely swimming fellow passenger would go with the captain and hang on to a lifesaving ring for reassurance. He forgot the ring one day as we motored off in a zodiac to snorkel. The crew threw it into the water near the zodiac and within seconds a fin headed towards it. Ironically, everyone found this incredible funny. The shark checked it out but didn’t bite it. Perhaps a bright orange life saving ring is not the ideal ocean life saving device.
We had such a good snorkel that another fellow asked if he and I could swim the last kilometer back to the Beagle. Everyone else was back in the zodiac as they were tired. Sure the guide responded. Just don’t let any of the large sharks hanging out near the boat scare you. We too were back in the zodiac quite quickly.
Sharks aren’t always friendly though and swimming is not recommended with the wrong species. On the last night we happened across a patch of sea where around 30 fins broke the surface within view. A tiger shark would occasionally swim past the boat and I would watch from the netting on the bow. Below me were massive tiger sharks sometimes 5 meters in length. Ranked as one of the top 5 most dangerous sharks they appeared to be the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the shark world with overdeveloped upper bodies attached to gaping jaws and tiny little tails. Our guide is not stupid and he made no attempt to jump into the water. Imagine how many sharks must have been below the surface!
The huge number of sharks perplexed everyone. The guide nor the captain had never seen so many massive sharks. Even Martin the old salt (a 76 year old passenger) who had spent his life at sea had only seen such an event once thirty years earlier. Our guide remarked that tiger sharks were at the tail end of an unprecedented population surge. Apparently the Chinese won’t eat tiger shark fin. This was due to the poaching of sharks for their fins. About 10 years back Galapagos fisherman would cut off the fins of every other species of shark and return them to the ocean. Without any fins the sharks would sink to the bottom still alive and wiggle like sausages unable to swim. They would live for weeks until they starved. He quite guiding for awhile as he hated having to explain to tourists why the sharks had become hopeless tubes of meat. Although highly illegal the fisherman who did this saved enough money to buy highly lucrative tourist businesses. Only now are the other shark populations bouncing back to regular levels. We need sharks in our ocean. We kill them by the millions yet they barely kill any of us. If you are going to be afraid of something be afraid of something that actually may kill you. Yes mom, I am talking to you.
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