Hammerhead Island

Malpelo, a bleak volcanic rock 240 miles off the coasts of Colombia and Panama, is no holiday camp. Just about the only reason to go there are its schools of hammerhead sharks By Colin Chen and Steve Beecham

Malpelo is a bleak, volcanic island. Two hundred and forty nautical miles off the Pacific coast of Colombia, and uninhabited save for a Colombian military outpost, it is an area associated with savage currents and schooling hammerhead sharks.
Our group had chartered a Colombian liveaboard, Tropic Surveyor, for six days of rigorous diving at Malpelo. With severe sea conditions, we knew that the diving there was not for the faint-hearted.
The calm ocean of a 37-hour crossing from Beunaventura, in Colombia, gives way to heavy swells around the island, where the cold southern ocean and the warmer northern currents hit the sheer walls of the island.
The only sheltered water around the island is at El Altar de Virginia. It was here we took our first dive to prepare ourselves for what was to come.
With 18m viz and 20C water, we descended a sheer cliff wall onto a rocky reef, gradually sloping away to a sandy bottom. The scenery under water was not what we had expected - it was amazingly bleak. The reef wall was littered with spiny sea urchins, and there was little in terms of colour to compare to warmer, tropical waters.
Currents of up to 5 knots can be encountered on most dive sites at the islands located around Malpelo. Consequently, the local knowledge of the dive guides, and their dive briefing, is essential.
The serious diving we had come to do was at more exposed locations. These are constantly battered by strong currents and, for safety reasons, an inflatable sausage and a whistle are essential. If the diving tender misses you, the next stop is Panama!
As a result of these currents, our dives followed a consistent pattern: we would descend rapidly to around 15m, then fin against the current, our exhaust bubbles streaming behind us. We would cling onto rocks and barnacles to prevent ourselves being swept away while grappling with our bulky photographic equipment and ask ourselves if it was worth it. Indeed it was. The reward Hammerhead sharks. Not in tens or twenties, but hundreds
As hammerhead sharks are shy and cautious of divers, we figured that the best way to get close to them was to hang onto rocky outcrops and wait. It was a successful ploy. The school would suddenly appear through the shimmering thermocline. Initially, only a few could be seen; but then, as the school come closer, there were so many that they seemed to form a wall in front of us. Sharks of up to 4m could be picked out among the pack.
Occasionally, a group would break away from the main school and swim effortlessly against the current towards us. We would hold our breath in an attempt to prevent our exhaust bubbles from frightening them. On one dive, as we drifted along with the current, passing the school of hammerheads, an 8m whale shark came out of the blue towards us. Unafraid of divers, the large fish circled us several times before disappearing into the open ocean. Other members of our group drifted straight into a school of hammerheads while decompressing in mid-water. On several occasions, while ascending and looking down, we imagined that the sea floor was moving. After staring for a few minutes, we realised that the sinuous movement was the dark outline of hammerhead sharks against a pale sandy bottom.

  • Details of the Tropic Surveyor can be obtained from: Cruceros de Columbia, Diving Cruises, Direccion: Cll 95 No 13-22, Bogota, Columbia.

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