By Stephen Weir
in the Galapagos Islands
A mammoth shark to the left, an equally hefty one to the right. Two noble sharks so huge that as they glided by I could feel the wake of the water as it was pushed across their broad three-metre-long frames. In a snap I'd gone from a happy-go-lucky Galapagos Islands tourist to being the jam in a shark tooth sandwich.
For scuba divers, the Galapagos Archipelago is the place to see schoolinghammerhead sharks, sleepy white tip reef sharks and the odd whale or two. Like most divers, I'm not averse to swimming with sharks. But when the sharkis bigger, wider [THAN ME] and of a species suspected to enjoy the tasteof [HUMAN] flesh, well, it is time to reflect on why one got into the waterin the first place.
The Galapagos Islands are unique. Situated on the equator some 950 kilometres west off the coast of Equador, this remote volcanic archipelago remains much as it was millions of years ago. Its unique wildlife - both in and out of the water - has evolved without fear of man.
Still, after a four-day island-hopping eco-cruise aboard the plush triple-deck MV Santa Cruz, I had had my fill of blue-footed boobies,copulating giant tortoises and slime-spitting lizards.
I had been feted aboard the Santa Cruz, the biggest cruise ship allowed to sail among these environmentally controlled [PROTECTED BY THE UNITED NATIONS] islands. On board were a dozen university-trained naturalists. Conversant in what seemed like every known language, they escorted the passengers over hill and lava field, observing a variety of endangered birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals.
Access to the islands is annually limited to 100,000 people. A brain trust of experts does everything to minimize man's impact on the ecosystem. Theday I left, a team of Australian-trained "hit men" converged on IsabellaIsland to begin slaughtering 100,000 wild goats introduced on to the island a century ago.
The goat cull is an effort to sustain the giant tortoises - the slow-moving tortoises are dying off because the ravenous goats are eating them out of house and shell. However, the two tortoises I saw and heard were oblivious to the hunt. They were too busy copulating in a bush. Not only was the congress a study in slow motion, it was also a noisy affair as shell scraped and banged upon shell.
It is stifling on these volcanic islands, and tortoise watching is a hot and sweaty business. To cool off in between treks, snorkelling expeditions were laid on.
Drifting parallel to the craggy cliffs of Isabela Island, our wet-suited snorkelling party encountered penguins - the most northerly herd in the world. The penguins were hunting bait fish, and the pickings were good.
A day later I was snorkelling around Turtle Island, a large rock that sits in the middle of a channel off Hood Island. The current at tide change is so strong that if you go with the flow, you can almost circumnavigate the rock without kicking a flipper.
Flying over rocks and deep crevasses it was impossible to fight the current,let alone stop and observe life on the bottom. Pity. Ten minutes into the snorkel, I glided over a horn shark, feeding on sea urchins. A relative of the bull shark, this blunt-nosed, motley metre-long shark, oblivious to the current, was having his fill crunching up spiny echinoderms with his grinding molars. There were no turtles to be found near Turtle Island. But a snorkel trip off nearby Isabella Island proved that the green turtle has as little fear for humans in the water, as the tortoise does on land.
As I was snorkelling in shallow water a 100 metres off-shore, a pair of the metre-long turtles decided to swim alongside me. It was a rare chance to examine this usually shy species. One of the turtles had had a close encounter with an orca or shark: a large bite was taken out of her shell. The wound healed long ago but the turtle still pushed itself sideways through the water.
As we approached a small rocky reef, the turtles veered off. Finning down to look at the rocks, we saw a small cave filled with resting white tipped sharks. The largest shark was about 1.5 metres long and was at the very back of the grotto. Four sharks, in descending order of size, were piled inbeside her, filling the opening with their bodies.
It is a misnomer to say that the white tip sleeps. Zonked, whacked out, lazy - yes. But 10 eyes watched us as we swam within inches of their whip-liketails.
Those were the last sharks that I saw while snorkelling
Desperate to actually stay underwater for longer than a minute, I took a layover in the small city of Puerto Ayoro on Indefatigable Island (Isla Santa Cruz) and signed on for two dives in the cold waters of the SouthPacific Ocean.
Puerto Ayoro is the centre of commerce for the 16,000 Ecuadoreans who scratch out a living on five of the 46 islands that make up the Galapagos Archipelago. Education, fishing and tourism keep Puerto Ayoro, a community of 2,000, limping along. Drab old stone buildings line a large harbour chock-a-block full of sailing boats, trawlers and eco-tour boats.
Although Puerto Ayoro is only 80 kilometres south of the equator, only the heartiest visitor goes swimming without a wet suit. Out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the Galapagos is the terminus point for an Antarctic deep water current.
In these waters you won't find pretty corals or fancy little fish; it is just too cold. The seas teem with life, but in this tough environment the fish are big and their predators are even bigger.
I had arranged to meet a dive boat owner in Puerto Ayoro who was prepared to take me to a high impact dive site. White tips and horn sharks are fine, but my goal was to photograph the schooling hammerheads that are known to frequent the waters near Santa Cruz island.
Oh, the vagaries of dealing by e-mail. Not only were the captain and his boat nowhere to be found, his wife hid when we knocked on their front door.When we came around the back of the building we spotted her through the window hunkered down behind her desk.
There are half a dozen shops in town, and the last outfit [DIVE SHOP] on the strip, Iguana Divers, agreed to take me out for two dives. Their luxurious high-speed dive boat had already left for the day, but they did have an old wooden punt that could do the trick.
The boat was too small and too rickety to get us out of Academy Bay and into the ocean proper. "However," promised shop ower Marhias Espinosa, "we can explore a lava tube - it's always filled with white tips."
The lava tube led from a long-extinct volcano. Its roof had collapsed into the sea, so the small wooden boat easily made its way into the black-rimmed channel. A hundred metres into the tube, the captain of the punt cut the engine, put on a dive mask and stuck his face in the water. He claimed he could often see the sharks from the surface.
No such luck. In fact, the waters were so turbid, the captain said he couldn't even see his nose. Meanwhile, strong seas were pushing in on the lava tube and the captain's mate had his hands full making sure our boat wasn't dashed against the wall.
As storm clouds rolled in and the seas mounted, the decision was made to make a dive alongside a stone point that jutted out into the bay near the tubes. The black rocks of the quay were home to a healthy population of Sea Lions. The cows had just given birth and the pups were taking their first swims in the water.
Four of us went into the water. Our captain went with a Swiss psychiatrist. This was her first dive in years, and he wanted to make sure that she was comfortable underwater. I went with the captain's son, a university student who spoke no English but smiled a lot.
In fear that the waves would rip apart our boat if we dropped anchor, we jumped into the water and the mate drove the boat to a point in the bay where he figured we would probably surface in an hour's time.
Hitting the water, my buddy [THE CAPT'S SON] and I were instantly separated from the other two. At a depth of 12 metres, the water was extremely turbid. I could barely make out the yellow flippers of my dive guide, a few strokes ahead.
Although I was wearing a full suit, the water was punishingly cold. The cold didn't stop the sea lions from taking a look, though. One young pup swam under my arm, another tugged at my flipper. An adult swam up and glared in my mask as if to warn me not to touch her child.
Suddenly, there weren't any sea lions in the water. And my dive partner was nowhere to be seen.
I looked up and down. I scanned left and right. Where was my dive guide? I stopped worrying about him when the first big shark moved in. Coming out of the gloom, its snout passed within a foot of my shoulder. So close was its passing that I could examine its cold, passionless, unblinking eye as it slowly glided by.
The visibility was so poor that, looking backwards from its eye, I couldn' immediately see its end. I held my breath and waited to be bitten as the mature grey Galapagos shark went by.
Larger. Wider. Toothier than me. Make no mistake, I was just five feet from shore, sharing the water with a shark that was quite capable of eating me.
As the dorsal fin passed under me, I started breathing and swimming again. I expected the beast to turn and come back at me from behind. Still, when I felt a large thump on my tank I began shaking with both fear and surprise. Something had my aluminum tank in its grips. It didn't thrash like a shark would; it felt more like an octopus had latched on to my kit.
No time to stop and disengage, I had another problem coming in off the port side. A second Galapagos shark was on target, and this one dropped its nictitating membrane - you know, the membrane that protects the shark's eyes during feeding.
Time stopped. Again. As the shark came near my head, it veered slightly toward the open seas and passed without making contact. As the beast swam by, I meditated on what I knew about the Galapagos shark.
Technically the shark is the Carcharinus galapagensis and is often called the Grey Reef Whaler shark. With two rows of 14 razor-sharp teeth, theGalapagos shark has recorded several human kills. Living in coastal and pelagic waters of the Caribbean, Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Galapagos shark likes to hang near islands that have clear waters, rocky beds and uneven coral. The Galapagos shark can reach a maximum length of 3.7 metres.
I was not on the menu that day. With seal pups in the water and reduced visibility, the Galapagos sharks were going for take-out.
When the sharks had left my field of vision, I started to look for my dive guide. It didn't take long for me to figure out where he was - hanging on to my scuba tank!
Coaxing the fellow down, we agreed through sign language that the best course of action would be to swim in the opposite direction from the sharks and surface when we got low on air.
It was a sound philosophy and one that the two other divers in the water followed. Fifteen minutes after our encounter (you breathe heavy when you meet Mr. Jaws) we surfaced scant feet from the dive captain and his buddy. We sounded our air horns and within minutes were back in the boat, all in one piece.
For our next dive, the captain moved the boat to the leeward side of an island out in the middle of Academy Bay. While huge rolling waves smashed against the breakers, we swam in a zone of calm water. Turtles. Sea Lions. Fish schooling in the thousands. Our second trip underwater was shark free. Good. Remembering that adage to be careful what you wished for, I wisely kept my mouth shut.
As published by the National Post 2000