Truly, madly, deeply... the fatal attraction of sharks

The Galapagos Islands offer a natural showcase of wonder that has captivated visitors for centuries. Andy Round enjoys a reef encounter with a pack of hammerheads.

By Andy Round

We were five metres under the ocean, slowly descending underwater volcanic walls when the flickering blue shadows came into focus. I wasn’t sure, but they looked suspiciously like sharks. The dive leader placed his fists either side of his mask to give the international underwater signal for hammerheads. Unbelievable. It was professionally confirmed. Real hammerheads, just metres away, I was so frightened I nearly hyperventilated.

 

We cautiously released air from our buoyancy jackets and floated down a couple more metres to allow the sinister shapes to come into sharp relief through the cloudy plankton. There were eight of the man-sized beasts all nonchalantly sweeping their tails against the powerful current. Their aim, it seemed, was to remain static in the waters directly beneath us. I tightly gripped a rock overhang with my chain-mailed glove, hypnotised by some seriously prehistoric chilling out.

 

I was in a submerged volcano crater known as Devil’s Crown in the Galapagos. Beneath me was a watery version of Hades. Still, the devil always has the flashiest tunes and these axe-headed monsters were the most exciting things I’d seen in the whole of a week’s cruise. You can keep your blue-footed booby rare birds and giant 100-year-old tortoises, beneath me was the real reason I’d come to these Ecuadorian islands.

Squashing land iguanas

Of course there is plenty of wild stuff going on above sea level. The Galapagos are 20 Discovery Channels running simultaneously. They are an overload of natural selection that doesn’t need a David Attenborough documentary voice-over. Used as the basis for the visiting Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in 1835 and protected as a World Heritage Site since 1979, the islands are famed for their fearless 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; Isla San Salvador is an abstract landscape of centuries-old black molten lava flows; Isla Bartolomé has crested penguins off its coast and on Isla Seymour birds balance chicks on their blue webbed feet.

 

The amazing thing is that because these vigilantly monitored islands have no natural predators, the animals and birds are not afraid of anything, even humans. When I watched Russell Crowe purposely stride ashore a cinema location Galapagos island in the movie Master And Commander I held my breath, not in anticipation of manly heroics, but in case he accidentally trod on a land iguana. The lazy thing just wouldn’t have been bothered and was unlikely to move for anyone let alone an Oscar-winning actor.

 

In my own real-life Galapagos big screen adventure during my cruise, I’d watched albatrosses run past me and fling themselves off the 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 Bartholomé I got so close to a baby sea lion on the beach I could smell his fishy breath.

Disembodied shark optical systems

It’s all mind-boggling stuff, but, incredibly, you soon get immune to stepping over giant sleepy reptiles and cooing over baby chicks. After your first dozen rolls of film, the novelty of capturing the ultimate ‘wild moment’ for your blog website just seems, well, a little tame. It was time for action. And that’s where I found myself at 10 metres of salty Pacific clinging to side of Devil’s Crown.

 

As dives go it’s pretty straightforward, close to a major island, no deeper than 25 metres to the bottom with sharp rock either side to hold on to (that’s why we needed the chain gloves). The nightmare, sharks aside, is the vicious current that funnels through a giant break in the side of the crater, gathers momentum and whips through one opposite on the other side. Lose grip of your friendly rock and you’ll find yourself dragged down and out. 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 leader had explained that there was a good chance of seeing hammerheads because they loved the strong currents of old the volcanoes. More importantly he then outlined why these sharks were cooler than John Coltrane’s fridge. Basically they have an eye and a nostril either end of the mallet-shaped head to increase the radar range of their sensory systems. Great whites are frightening, but when it comes to the hunt and destroy shark league, hammerheads are in the premier division. I continued to look down wondering how many disembodied shark optical systems were giving me the eyeball.

 

The leader gestured us to continue descending. Our team of four let out more air and we slowly moved closer. Suddenly, I caught a flurry of black and grey out of the corner of my eye and Jaws, The Deep and Open Water flashed through my heart-attacked mind. It was my diving buddy. She’d lost her grip and slipped a metre and, in a frenzied flurry of fin flapping, had grabbed another overhang. In the split second it had taken her to reposition herself it was all over. The eight pairs of super shark sensors had seen us and were gone. Long gone. We watched as their powerful tails propelled them into the impenetrable depths.

Fat air bubbles and sea lions

My buddy’s frantic movements were the underwater radar equivalent of silently creeping up behind someone and banging a pair of cymbals. Naturally you’re going to freak out. And that’s what the sharks did. Vamos. They were out of there. Of course they could have us for breakfast, but usually sharks prefer their prey to be vulnerable, tired, smaller than them and not thrashing around in expensive luminous fins.

 

It was a pity, but there were some major fringe benefits. 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 us from above they torpedoed us from below and Kamikazed towards us at warp factor 10. Each time they would swerve away at the last milli-second in a blur of streamlined fur. Each time I failed to reach out to them, their sea lion grins mocked me. And every time I released fat air bubbles they would puncture them with their noses. It was fabulous.

 

Prehistoric webbed feet

We made our way across the rocky seabed and began to ascend up the other side, holding on to the rock to steady ourselves against the underwater flow. The sea lions realising our lack of underwater mobility soon tired of diver baiting and continued to play among themselves spinning through the water and riding the currents. And then, they too were gone.

 

As we paused for our second diver safety stop close to the sparkling water’s surface, I saw a metre-long sea iguana lazily cruise past us. Its Godzilla face was expressionless as its prehistoric webbed feet cycled through the water, ruddered by a whip-thin tail. There was a surreal touch of Alice In Wonderland about it. It didn’t give me a thought or deviate once. It just continued its dignified leisurely swim. Clearly, this was a lizard with something serious on its mind.

 

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 tide-stained 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?”