Sharks get a bad rap. I blame Hollywood. There are less than 20 shark attacks in the US per year (according to National Geographic). In 1996, 2,600 Americans were injured by room fresheners. ROOM FRESHENERS.
These beautiful and graceful creatures may have way more teeth than I can understand is necessary, but they aren’t out to get you, and they aren’t going to just attack you because you’re in their zone. They are just trying to live their lives, like we are.
We weren’t meant to be in the water, which is why we don’t have the necessary physical attributes that allow us to be. We developed gear to make it possible. Sharks belong there, and the most important thing to remember is that we need to respect a wild animal’s boundaries. Just pretend the shore line is one giant “beware of dog” sign. The dogs can be friendly, playful, innocuous, or they can get a little irritated with you. You enter their yard; you’re taking your chances.
But again, remember the largest shark is the whale shark (in my mind big=scary) which can grow to 60 feet long. But does this monster attack? No, it feeds off of plankton.
My first encounter with sharks was in 2013. The Galapagos Islands provides many snorkeling opportunities with a wide range of marine life. I knew there would be sharks, but I’ve never been afraid of them for some reason. (In 1996, toilets injured 43,000 Americans. Sharks injured 13.) What I wasn’t prepared for what how close they would be, and how excited I would be.
I swam into the canal that runs through Leon Dormido (Kicker Rock), off the coast of San Cristobal island. I saw a few little electric fish, some sea stars, and then I spotted the graceful dance of a white tipped reef shark. I couldn’t move. It was beautiful. They are so different and move so much more uniquely than every other animal that was surrounding them, and there were dozens.
I gazed down, deep into the water and it was clear enough to see the bottom. My eyes focused on a different shape, and I had to come up and look around for someone to confirm what I was seeing. (Did you know you can’t talk with a snorkel in your mouth? Yep, learned that in that moment) I put my head back into the water, and it was still there. A hammerhead shark. I was overwhelmed. I popped my head up again, and another guest was right there with the same look in her eyes. We just shook our heads and went back in. The hammerhead swam away, and we moved on. I knew I needed to become a diver, right then and there. I needed to be down there, in that amazing place where the hammerheads roam.
I began to move through the canal and watched as giant sea turtles, sharks, and various schools of fish all existed in this tiny space. It was amazing. Finally, I saw the biggest creature that was in the canal that day; a Galapagos Shark. This guy was, no joke, longer than I am, and about twice as wide. He swam right below me, if I had reached out my hand, I could have touched him. I was frozen. It was one of the most incredible wildlife encounters I have ever had.
After taking some time to swim with the sharks, I am so far from being frightened of them. There’s a certain bond between you and marine life when you are swimming in their element. It’s exhilarating, not terrifying. If you have the opportunity (in a controlled environment of course), do it. Don’t let Jaws, Stephen Spielberg, or Richard Dreyfus scare you away.
I hope that I can encourage more people to learn from the sharks and respect them, rather than be too scared to swim in the ocean and fear them. Hopefully one day there will only be one thing left to say when the line forms to snorkel with the white tipped reef sharks - “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”