A Shark’s Tale
A reef encounter with hammerheads in the Galapagos Islands
We were five metres under the ocean, slowly descending into ancient underwater volcanic walls when the flickering shadows came into focus. Our dive master placed his fists on either side of his mask to give the international underwater signal for hammerheads. I was so excited, I nearly hyperventilated.
As we floated down a few metres to allow the sinister shapes to come into sharp relief through the cloudy plankton, we saw eight of those man-sized beasts, all nonchalantly sweeping their tails against the powerful current. Their aim, it seemed, was to remain static in the fast-flowing waters directly beneath us. I gripped a razor-sharp overhang with my chain-mailed glove, hypnotised by the sharks’ prehistoric meditation.
This was the underwater scene in a submerged volcano crater known as Devil’s Crown in the Galapagos. Beneath us lay a watery version of Hades. The axe-headed monsters were the most exciting things I’d seen throughout our week’s cruise. You can keep your blue-footed booby birds and giant 100-year-old tortoises; beneath me was the real reason I’d come to these Ecuadorian islands.
Of course there is plenty of wild stuff going on above sea level. The Galapagos are a million National Geographic channels running at the same time, with an overload of natural selection that require no voiceover commentary by Sir David Attenborough. Used as the basis for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in 1835 and protected as a World Heritage Site since 1979, the islands are famed for their astonishing wildlife.
Each island is an individual time capsule of wonderment. Isla Plaza Sur has red and yellow land iguanas that can’t make a move until the Pacific sun warms their blood to make them mobile. Isla San Salvador is an abstract landscape of centuries-old frozen black molten lava flows. Isla Bartolomé has crested penguins off its coast, while on Isla Seymour, birds balance chicks on their blue webbed feet.
The amazing thing is that because the islands have no natural predators, the animals and birds are unafraid of anything, even humans. During my own Galapagos adventure, I watched albatrosses run past me and fling themselves off a cliff edge into oblivion. First, I was amazed that they couldn’t just take off like a normal bird—they’re too big for that—and secondly, I was blown away by the fact that they didn’t give me, the token human, a second thought. On the beach at Bartolomé, I got so close to one baby sea lion that I could smell his fishy breath.
It’s mind-boggling, but, incredibly, you soon become immune to stepping over giant sleepy reptiles and cooing over baby chicks. After you’ve run down your camera phone battery for the third time, the novelty of capturing the ultimate Instagram wild moment seems, well, a little tame.
It was time for action. And that’s why I was 10 metres beneath the surface of the Pacific, clinging to the side of a volcanic rock face.
As dives go, Devil’s Crown is straightforward. It is close to a major island, no deeper than 25 metres to the bottom, with sharp rock on either side to hold on to (which is why we needed the chain gloves). Aside from disturbing the sharks, the biggest problem was the vicious current that funnelled through a giant break in the crater. Lose grip of your friendly rock and you might find yourself dragged down to the seabed and then propelled out to the open sea, somewhere off the coast of Peru, I imagine.
Anyway, we knew the risks, the life insurance was up to date and we’d been told what to expect on board the boat. The dive master had explained that there was a good chance of seeing hammerheads because they loved the strong currents.
More importantly, he outlined why we should treat these sharks with respect. Basically, they have an eye and a nostril on either end of that mallet-shaped head to increase the radar range of their sensory systems. So, when it comes to the hunting, hammerheads are premier division killers. I continued to look down, wondering how many disembodied shark optical systems were giving me the eyeball.
The leader gestured to continue descending. Our team of four let out more air and we slowly moved closer. Suddenly, I caught a flurry of black, grey and luminous pink out of the corner of my eye and a nightmare flashed through my heart-attacked mind.
It was my dive partner. She had lost her grip, slipped and, in a frenzy of fin flapping, had grabbed another overhang. In the split second it had taken to reposition herself, it was all over. The eight pairs of super shark sensors had seen us and were gone.
Her frantic movements were the underwater radar equivalent of tip-toeing behind someone and banging a pair of cymbals. Any normal person would freak out. And that’s what the sharks did. Of course, they could have attacked us, but this was extremely unlikely. Most sharks prefer their breakfast to be vulnerable, tired and smaller than them—not thrashing around in over-sized expensive scuba equipment.
It was a pity, but there was one major fringe benefit. Without dangerous predators marking out the territory, the sea lions came out to play. Dozens and dozens of them barrel-rolled around us, creating a three-dimensional interactive game where only they knew the rules.
They dive-bombed from above, torpedoed from below, and each time, they would swerve away at the last millisecond in a blur of streamlined fur. Each time I failed to touch them, their sea lion grins mocked me. And every time I released fat air bubbles from my tank, they would puncture them with their noses. It was fabulous.
We made our way across the seabed to the other side of the crater and began to ascend, gripping overhangs to resist the high-pressure current. When the sea lions realised our lack of mobility, they tired of baiting divers and continued to play among themselves, spinning through the water and riding the current. And then, they too, were gone.
As we paused for a decompression safety stop, close to the sparkling surface, a metre-long sea iguana lazily cruised past. Its Godzilla face was expressionless as its prehistoric webbed feet cycled through the water and its whip-thin tail steered it down, down, down.
I inflated my jacket, rose to the surface and then lay back, bobbing in the water as the others popped up. A quick couple of kicks and I was by the bright-white hull of the dive boat. I hauled my weights up to the waiting captain, passed my fins to him and dragged myself up the boat ladder. I was exhausted by adrenaline overload and physical exertion.
“Good dive?” the captain grinned. “See any sharks?”
By Andy Round