White Tip Sharks in the Galapagos


By Stacy Cohen


            Upon arrival in Puerto Villamil on Isla Isabela I immediately spied a million places to explore with our kayaks and I knew this would be the most interesting stop during our two weeks in the Galapagos archipelago.  The anchorage here is mostly protected by a bunch of islets formed from volcanic lava. The only challenge to enjoying the scenery and wildlife with the kayak is to stay out of the breaking white-water waves that would make any surfer’s heart skip a beat. Isla Isabela is the largest island in the Galapagos, but less touristy than the other islands we visited. The roads in the main village are still dirt and there is not a t-shirt shop to be found.

            After talking to a our friends on sailing vessel ‘Beacon’ we found out about a spot close by where we could see white tip sharks. So the next morning the four of us from Ladybug loaded ourselves and our snorkeling stuff into the dinghy. I wasn’t quite sure why we needed snorkeling gear if we were going to watch the sharks, but I went along with it.

As we searched for the sharks we explored a few of the tiny islands formed out of volcanic lava. We had a lot of fun climbing on the reddish volcanic rock. I was very glad I had remembered to wear shoes, as the formations were extremely sharp and jagged in some places while quite smooth in other places. The unique rippled surface in some areas indicated that the top layer of the volcanic lava cooled first while the layer below was still moving liquid. We found a lot of wildlife in spite of the rugged terrain. There were bright red crabs that kept scurrying for shelter and marine iguanas soaking up the sunshine. One iguana was considerably larger than the rest and had a very menacing look. Was he the ‘king of the hill’?  There were also many birds to entertain us and we even watched one bird consume an entire red crab, shell and all!

Finally we found the location described by our friends. We tied up the dinghy and climbed up the stone steps. We followed a narrow gravel path until we saw a small lagoon. We proceeded a few more steps to find a 50 foot long crevice formed of volcanic rock on the inside of the lagoon. The crevice was about 15 feet wide and 20 feet deep with about 10 feet of water at high tide. I seriously doubted this was the shark spot so I was just enjoying the scenery. This water seemed far too restrictive for fish as large as we were hoping to see. Needless to say I was quite shocked when Jo spotted a white tip moving down the narrow channel of the crevice. I looked closely and sure enough, plain as day was a white tip shark about 5 feet long!

We stayed and watched several sharks swim up and down the waterway. Wow, I thought, this is so cool. I was thoroughly entertained and content to watch the sharks from our safe haven far above the water.  To our surprise we saw another couple approaching on the path that continued down to the lagoon. As we greeted the couple, we realized a local guide accompanied them. The guide promptly encouraged us to go snorkeling down by the mangroves that lined one side of the lagoon for a better view of the sharks.

Then I realized why we had brought our masks and fins! Dave and Guy quickly went back to the dinghy to collect them. I may be crazy… but I’m not going to miss this, I told myself as I waited for their return. Once we were all in the water I asked Dave to hold my hand for encouragement. As we approached the mangroves, I began to squeeze his hand quite firmly. To my surprise he let me do just that, he even gave me a solid squeeze back. Then we saw the first shark right next to me. The visibility was about 10 feet and he was less than 4 feet away from me. As soon as the shark saw us it quickly changed direction to avoid us. His movements were efficient and graceful.  I suddenly realized I was massively hyper ventilating into my snorkel, and I was probably squeezing Dave’s hand hard enough for him to lose all blood circulation. But it was so exciting I couldn’t pull myself away. Soon, we saw a few smaller sharks, and another large one all at the same time. Boy, this was getting really exciting.

Not only did we get to swim with numerous white tip sharks of all sizes, we were also able to see a ‘squadron’ of about 15 rays swimming together in deeper water in the middle of the lagoon.  By the time we got back to the shore we were a little chilly from the water but thoroughly energized by the excitement of the day. I did not let go of Dave’s hand until we were safely back to the beach where we entered the water. Only at that point did I realize that facing something that scared me with someone I loved and trusted could be so romantic and exhilarating all at the same time.

Later in the day, as the sun began to set, Dave and I discussed our experience over a quiet dinner with a bottle of wine. We both agreed that the shark encounter had been very exciting, as anyone would expect. But, the feeling of intimacy is what amazed us. I guess the cruising life is always full of surprises.