Romance and Hammerhead Sharks Ninety Feet Below the Surface

I stared at the skeleton of a long dead volcano that protruded out of the churning Pacific Ocean and felt a powerful combination of excitement and intimidation.  Three massive grey rocks were all that I could see of the gigantic crater but I knew the wonder that lay below the surface of the dark blue water.  It was my second time at the famous Gordon Rocks dive site and I couldn’t wait to get in the ocean.  The last time I had been there I saw Galapagos sharks, black tip reef sharks, sea turtles, rays and a pod of dolphins but I had missed out on the huge schools of hammerhead sharks that made Gordon Rocks the most famous dive site in the Galapagos.  On my previous dive I ran out of air and had to go up five minutes before the dive master and another diver discovered a gigantic school of hammerheads.  The opportunity to dive with dozens of hammerhead sharks had been my main motivation for visiting the Galapagos.  I had been so close but I had missed it so I had returned for redemption.

The surface of the water flowed and rippled like a swollen river.  The current brought small sea creatures and nutrients which fed the large beasts that I was there to see.  But the current also made diving much more difficult.  The violent battle between the water and the massive rocks gave the dive site its nick name “The Washing Machine”.  Most dive companies would only take divers with 30 dives or more to Gordon Rocks.

We arrived early in the morning and I hadn’t gotten much sleep but my enthusiasm dominated and banished my fatigue as I hurriedly put on my wet suit.  I looked around the small boat at my fellow divers and hoped that they were almost ready.  There was Marco, a German whom I had met in my hostel the day before, as well as Steph and Sean a friendly Canadian couple.  Oscar, the dive master, completed our group.   I knew him from previous dives.  He was my favorite dive master in the Galapagos because of his passion for wild life and technical skill.

Once we were ready Oscar directed the captain of the boat to maneuver as close as possible to one of the colossal rocks.  We sat on the edge of the boat and did a final check of our gear.  I inhaled deeply from the mouth piece of my oxygen regulator while I looked at my gauges.  The familiar sheeeh, sheeeh, sheeeh of the air cleared my mind and relaxed my nerves.  “One, two, three, go.” Oscar shouted.  I took a deep breath from my regulator and leaned back.  I fell a few feet and the world became light blue liquid.  I relaxed and waited for my body to naturally right itself and float back to the surface.   My head emerged from the bubbling and churning water and I saw my dive buddy, Marco.  We swam to the back of the boat and found the rest of our group.  We all flashed the okay sign to each other and started down together.

I released the air from my buoyancy control device and smoothly sank into the massive crater.  The world became quiet.  I slowly spun around and took in my stunning surroundings.  The grey rock walls that sloped a hundred feet down to a white sand bottom were covered by red and purple coral.  Gordon Rocks was a perfect open water aquarium.  A special and unique ecosystem suspended in the deep blue water of the Pacific; miles from the Galapagos and hundreds of miles from anything resembling a reality that I had ever known.  Even in the Galapagos, which possessed some of the strangest and most incredible habitats in the world, Gordon Rocks was especially magical.

As soon as we descended into the crater the current’s irresistible pull took us.  If we didn’t do something we would have been pulled out of the crater and into the open ocean in a matter of minutes.   Oscar signaled for us to grab on to the rocky slope of the crater.  I found a good hand hold and tried not to bash the coral with my tank and fins as I twisted in the current like a wind sock.  We watched as several white tip reef sharks patrolled around us.  White tips tended to be the most timid of the sharks in the Galapagos but on that day they maneuvered their streamlined bodies confidently around us.  Their graceful movements were captivating but after several minutes it was time to move deeper into the crater to continue the search for the hammerheads.

We descended twenty feet down the slope and almost immediately Oscar rattled his metal shaker to get our attention and excitedly held a fist to his head, the sign for hammerhead sharks.  We paddled down to a large boulder and held on.  Several large hammerheads glided effortlessly against the powerful current over the white sandy bottom right in front of us.  As they swam their strange heads swung from side to side.  The shape of their heads was ridiculous, powerful and sleek all at the same time. Unlike all the other sharks in the Galapagos the hammerheads had thick bulky bodies.  They were elegant and primitive beasts of a design that had been proven innumerable time over tens of millions of years.

We saw two or three at a time.  They passed in front of us and then melted into the rich blue water.  I looked up and saw four more hammerheads swimming above us.  Their unmistakable shape perfectly silhouetted by the sparkling blue early morning light.

I had seen hammerheads on several other dives but never like that.  Before they had always been just barely in sight for a few seconds before disappearing into the murky water but now I was surrounded by them and I couldn’t have been happier.  We held on to a boulder and watched the sharks appear and disappear and reappear again until we were low on air and then we turned and slowly swam up the contour of the crater towards the surface.

We made our way to 15 feet below the surface and then paused for three minutes, an extra precaution against decompression sickness.  We floated near coral covered a rock wall that formed the South side of the crater and waited for the time to pass.  The water at that relatively shallow depth seemed especially bright and clear after the darker and cloudier water near the bottom of the crater.  One of the other divers made the hammerhead signal and pointed below us.  A seven-foot long hammerhead emerged from the dark blue water and swam towards us.  In the bright light every detail was crystal clear.  I could see the texture of its slate grey skin.  I could pick out subtle bumps and ridges on its head.  He cruised from below up to our level and then higher as he made a lazy circle around us.  Then he swam back under us and with no sense of urgency gradually disappeared into the deep blue water.  Swimming with sharks is a unique and awesome experience but most times when the sharks notice you they become uncomfortable and leave and you are always disappointed and want to follow.  But when the sharks check you out and they show no fear or hesitation suddenly you become the one who is uncomfortable.

After the safety stop we slowly ascended.  The moment we hit the surface we took out our oxygen regulators and excitedly began talking about all the stuff we had seen as we climbed into the boat.

Back on the boat we relaxed and continued to describe in great detail everything we had seen while we ate our breakfast of yogurt and granola out of disposable plastic cups.

Earlier in the morning when we had first put on our gear I notice that Sean, one half of the friendly Canadian couple, had a wrist mounted writing slate.  It had several layers so that multiple messages could be recorded.  I notice the top one, the only one that was visible, had a picture of a hammerhead shark drawn on it.  My naturally cynical mind immediately thought; that thing looks useless, why anyone would need that?  But during breakfast while Steph was in the bathroom Sean leaned over to the dive master and said something I didn’t catch.  Then he lifted the top pieces of slate and showed the dive master the message written on the bottom piece.  I turned and looked interestedly at the exchange.  Sean showed me the previously hidden message.  I knew before he showed me but when I saw it all I could think was, bad ass.  It said “Will you marry me?”

I gave him a big smile of approval and then went back to putting on my gear and my poker face as Steph came out of the bathroom.  Later I found out that he had bought the diving writing slate for his girlfriend for Christmas knowing full well that it would be too big and that he would then be able to use it four months later as part of his proposal.  I had to give the guy credit for forethought and planning.

On the second dive we started outside of the crater on the North side.  We dropped into the water and sank down 30 feet and held on to the rocks to keep the powerful current from sweeping us through a giant crack in the wall and into the crater.  Outside of the crater the bottom was over 300 feet deep.  We swayed in the current and stared into the never-ending blue.  Hundreds of silver, yellow, blue and purple fish swirled around us as they too fought the current.  After a few minutes it was obvious there was not much to see on the outside of the crater so Oscar signaled for us to let go of the coral and let the current take us through the large crevasse in the crater wall.

I let go and turned towards the crater as I accelerated on the rushing water between the two massive rocks.  I was weightless and floating through a beautiful blue world.  No I wasn’t floating I was flying.  I put out my arms like a child pretending to be an airplane.  I was submerged in a sense of surreal joy.  I was propelled by the power of the sea through its sublime beauty.  I laughed with near hysterical joy into the oxygen regulator and celebratory air bubbles floated toward the surface as the guide turned and took a picture of my aeronautical prowess with his underwater camera.

After we shot into the crater we descended lower and grabbed ahold of some rocks on the inside slope of the crater near where we had first seen the hammerheads.  I looked down into the murky blue water toward the white sand bottom where we had seen the sharks on the previous dive.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw a pack of big hammerheads patrolling above us.  They were close together and moved with a militant sense of purpose and organization.  I excitedly signaled and pointed towards them.  They were the biggest ones that I had ever seen.  After a few seconds they moved out of sight to wreak death on a multitude of weaker sea creatures.

Oscar rattled his shaker and pointed toward the sandy bottom as he made the hammerhead signal again.  He motioned for us to follow him lower.  We moved down to the original bolder that had provided us a stable view of the hammerheads on the bottom on the first dive.  The hammerheads were still there but now there were 20 or 30 and they were much closer to us.  They smoothly moved from our right to our left over the white sandy bottom against the brutal current.  They were 12 feet long and had thick powerful bodies.  They looked like aquatic pit bulls.  Their grey skin with its granite and black shading made them appear elegant and sleek despite their mass.  It also made them fade in and out of sight in the swirling sand at the bottom of the crater.  They were ghosts; massive, silent, rock solid ghosts that materialized and then dematerialized right in front of us.

Oscar signaled for us to move even closer.  I got as low to the ground as possible to avoid the worst of the current and hand over hand pulled myself on whatever small rocks I could find.  The hammerheads were so close and they knew that we were there but they didn’t care.  We were visitors in their world and they were tolerating us for the time being.  My adrenaline which had already reached what I mistakenly thought was its maximum level kicked even higher and I found a new level of exhilaration that I didn’t know was possible as I strained to get insanely close to the amazing beasts.

I finally reached the edge of the sand and checked my depth gage.  I was at 95 feet; much deeper than I was supposed to go as basic diver.  With all the excitement I was in no state of mind to make calculated decisions but at the time and in hind sight it was safe.  I had been diving with Oscar before and unlike some dive masters that I had worked with around the world he was extremely professional and diligent about safety.  Also I had been diving nearly every day for over a week and my skill and confidence had increased greatly.  But even if these mitigating factors hadn’t been there I still would have crawled down to that depth.  The thrill was just too great.

I held onto the few rocks that I could find and watched the sharks as the current, a gale force underwater wind, tore at my gauges and regulator making them flutter like a scarf on a stormy winter’s day.  Occasionally a gust of current whipped up the sand in front of me and it swirled like snow in a blizzard.  At the edge of the sand I saw a sea turtle that was as close to the sand as it could get and it was struggling to move against the current.  It was so close to the sand that its flippers were kicking up clouds of sand as it went.  Seeing this normally graceful creature struggling made me realized the true intensity of the current.

The only things that were not affected by the power of the water besides the rocks themselves were the hammerheads.  They arrogantly glided through the current with subtle strokes of their scimitar shaped tails.

After several minutes of holding on against the current and being completely enchanted by the massive sharks right in front of me I looked at my air gauge and realized that it was time to go up.  I turned to Oscar but he was ahead of me and signaled for us to slowly swim up the wall of the crater.  I took one last look at the spectacular creatures in front of me and then turned and glided over the coral covered boulders towards the surface.

The spell of the sharks had been broken and as I ascended I remembered that Sean was going to ask Steph to marry him.  Shit, did that happened? I thought.  I looked at the couple and noticed that they were swimming especially close together.  At the 15 foot safety stop they posed for pictures and held hands.  Apparently she had said yes.

Since we had gone so deep we took an especially long safety stop.  We comfortably floated in the bright, clear water.  The morning light became stronger as I relaxed and looked down into the azure water that now obscured the sublime beauty of the crater.  One last hammerhead swam out of the deep blue giving us one final encounter.  I savored every second that it swam around us and then said goodbye as it descended and disappeared.

I reflected on what I had just seen and remember six months before when a new friend had told me about the Galapagos and that it was possible to dive with massive schools of hammerhead sharks.  Finally I had done it and it was beyond anything that I had ever imagined.

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1 Response to Romance and Hammerhead Sharks Ninety Feet Below the Surface

  1. John says:

    I thought I’d let you know I first saw Hammerheads in Sharks Bay in Egypt (name should have been a clue). I was snorkelling. I nearly pooped myself.

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