“The Galapagos islands?”, a prospective visitor muses… “Ah yes, the land of Giant tortoises, iguanas and Darwin’s famous finches…” are likely the most common associations made. But lesser known, yet almost equally common wildlife encounters while in the islands will be with sharks.
“Sharks?!? I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that!” is the usual response to an invitation for a swim with these fabled killers. But rest assured, the sharks in Galapagos are a docile lot, not prone to biting. For most novice to casual snorkelers, their first Galapagos shark encounter is usually an experience never forgotten. You have to calmly set aside the hype that has been ingrained into your subconscious from years of horror movie / media sensationalism, and face this fish with calm nerves. After one or two encounters, the Galapagos visitor will usually develop a certain cavalier bravado the next time they see one.
This is not to say you should be chasing down and harassing the sharks. As is the case for all animal encounters in Galapagos, National Park regulations require you to maintain a distance of at least 2 meters from any animal (a little over 6 feet). Getting any closer to a shark will likely result in its quick departure from your immediate vicinity – it just doesn’t want to be bothered by you.
Most typically, you’ll encounter a white tipped reef shark during your snorkeling sorties. These timid sharks rarely exceed 1.6m (5 feet 2 inches) in length. They usually rest during the day and hunt at night (fish, octopus, crabs).
If you’re very lucky, you’ll get the chance to spot the iconic hammerhead shark. Though they tend to be most common around Darwin and Wolf Islands (only visited by dedicated scuba diving cruises), they are present in the rest of the archipelago. Hammerheads in Galapagos can grow to 5 metres or so (15ft) – and often congregate in large schools.
If you are VERY lucky, you’ll even spot a whale shark. This very large (up to 12m / 40 ft) has no teeth (thankfully), and relies on plankton for its nourishment. More common in the northern islands of Darwin and Wolf where they are a major attraction for scuba divers, visitors on a non-scuba cruise can get lucky and spot one. Fingers crossed.
Only 8 Galapagos “shark bite” incidents have been recorded in the past nearly 60 years. Only 2 of these involved visitors on a snorkel outing – the others involved surfboard enthusiasts and fishermen. You have a greater probability of being bitten by a neighbourhood dog than by a shark in Galapagos.
So, rest easy and enjoy the show. When you get back home, you can tell your family and friends that, yes, you swam with sharks and enjoyed every minute of it.
Marc Patry is Co-owner of Cultural Natural Heritage (CNH) Tours. CNH Tours provides an unmatched personalized service in helping people organize a Galapagos holiday best suited to their particular interests.
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