Welcome to Hammerhead Heaven

The Galapagos Islands of the eastern Pacific, whose unique animal life attracted Victorian scientist Charles Darwin, is a place where hammerhead sharks gather in their hundreds. John Liddiard went there to see them, and had whale sharks thrown in as a bonus.

Galapagos, the volcanic group of Pacific islands which inspired evolution theorist Charles Darwin, is famed for its rare and unusual wildlife, both above and below the water. Spanning the equator, 1000 miles off the coast of Ecuador, their remote location makes an extremely exciting destination for divers.
I had elected to take a trip there in November. In terms of visibility, its not the best time of year - April or May are better - but for marine life, and big pelagic fish in particular, you cant go far wrong. Before my trip, I had heard that Wolf and Darwin islands at the north-west side of the Galapagos were the places to see hammerheads. From the evidence of my first dive at Wolf Island, I had heard right. Almost immediately on entering the water, a trio of large scalloped hammerheads appeared from the blue. They swam towards us, checking us out, before passing overhead and continuing along the slope.
As we continued drifting along in the current, we came across several groups of three or four sharks, from 30m into the shallows. They often swooped in to within a couple of metres of us. At Darwin Island, the most northerly of the Galapagos, we descended a vertical wall at Darwin Arch. We spotted hammerheads cruising beneath us straight away. Dropping for a better view, we found more hammerheads passing above us and around us. It was hammerhead heaven! There seemed to be one enormous shoal of hundreds of hammerheads cruising up and down the wall.
As the dive continued, the number of hammerheads seemed to grow. It often took several minutes for the shoal to pass. Towards the end of the dive, we just held position at the edge of the reef on the top of the wall and watched it pass us in one direction, before turning and coming back the other way.
Small groups would regularly break off from the shoal and swim up into the shallows to a cleaning station. When ready for cleaning, they would stop swimming, turn on one side and allow angel fish and wrasse to peck away at their skin. They were much more cautious of divers while being cleaned, whereas on the reef wall they would swim quite close.
The shoal was still there on the next dive and, with the equatorial sun high in the sky, the light for photography was superb. Over the next couple of days we repeated the dive several times - the hammerheads never let us down.
Mating is one of the main reasons scalloped hammerhead sharks form such enormous shoals. The females manoeuvre for position in the middle of the shoal - with the biggest in the centre. By being in the dominant position, the females make themselves more attractive to the males.
The variety and colour of the fish and other marine life in the rich sea surrounding the Galapagos would have made good diving even without the hammerheads. There were wrasse and angel fish galore on the reef, jacks swimming off the wall and huge shoals of creole wrasse forming a cloud which stretched out about 20m from the wall. We also had fun with friendly sea lions and turtles on most dives.
What was surprising was that none of these creatures seemed to mind the sharks. Perhaps because the sharks feed at night, the fish had nothing to fear during the day. This was also one of the reasons we did not dive at night. The other was the current.
For divers who become lost in the sea around the Galapagos, the chances of being found again are pretty slim. A one-knot current runs constantly northwards, the nearest land is a few thousand miles away, and there are no helicopters to come looking. It is also a good two days travel to the nearest recompression chamber. Good navigation and lots of safety stops are therefore essential. The diving in the area is really only suitable for experienced divers.
Hammerheads were not the only type of shark we encountered. A few days into the trip, we dived at Roca Rotunda, a site famous for large numbers of Galapagos sharks. Although named after the Galapagos, these sharks can, in fact, be found in most equatorial waters and gained a reputation for eating shipwreck victims and ditched pilots in the Pacific during World War Two. However, there have been no attacks on divers in the Galapagos.
Unfortunately, a fishing fleet had virtually cleaned them out a couple of weeks before our arrival. The area is supposed to be a marine reserve, but there are no resources to enforce fishing restrictions and illegal fishing is a constant problem. Apart from a few reef fish, a turtle, and a handful of sharks, this site had been stripped bare.
It was at Darwin Arch that I came across my first whale shark. One of the divers came back from his dive with a video of a whale shark on the top of a wall in 12m. On my next dive, I decided I was going to look out into the blue and wait for the whale shark to show up.
The hammerheads were doing their usual thing, cruising past in an enormous shoal, posing for silhouette pictures. A shoal of creole wrasse hung just off the wall, forming a second living wall which parted only to make way for the hammerheads. After 45 minutes there was still no sign of a whale shark. The hammerheads were still cruising past. The constant shoal of creole wrasse was still there. A hogfish had been cleaning me, nibbling at my equipment and at my fingers.
Just as my air was down to 80 bar and I was thinking of swimming up for a few minutes safety stop, I saw it. I had been expecting to see the shark in the distance, but it came close along the wall right in front of me. It was so close I could have reached out and touched its pectoral fin from where I was waiting. And it was huge: around 10m. I was so surprised I forgot to raise my camera. It was almost past before I recovered from the shock and started to move and swim after it, exhausting myself while reeling off as many exposures before the shark left me in its wake. It was an unbelievable experience! On my next dive, I was just mellowing out and watching the occasional fish swim by when, out of the blue, came another whale shark, swimming straight towards me. I couldnt believe my luck! It wasnt the same one. This shark was bigger, female and very obviously pregnant. Underneath it, a small shoal of jacks swam close to its belly.
Only two dives previously I had been bubbling about shoals of hammerheads being my ultimate diving experience. Now I was bubbling even more about whale sharks.
The members of our group refined our methods for meeting a whale shark. The sharks tended to follow roughly the same route backwards and forwards along the reef, at any depth between 5m and 20m. They were usually too far out to see from the reef wall, but close enough to see if we swam out into the blue and waited with the reef wall just in sight. We would swim out as a group through the ever-present shoal of creole wrasse, spread out, and swim into the current to hold our position. By our reckoning, sooner or later a whale shark would swim by.
Because of the current, we had to be careful not to follow a whale shark too far away from our starting point. We pushed our luck a bit, though. Often, we would be out of sight of the wall when we left a whale shark, having either to surface immediately or swim back in on a compass bearing until we sighted the shoal of creole wrasse which told us we were close to the reef.
The waiting could be quite interesting in itself. There were always the creole wrasse to look at, plus hammerheads, the occasional turtle, sea lions, and a variety of big fish passing by. A dolphin gave us a quick inspection, but moved on too fast for anyone to get a picture.
On one dive we were following a whale shark when it started to turn and circle round us. I thought it was trying to get a closer look - until I turned and saw a second whale shark circling just behind me. They must have just been saying hello to each other.
  • John Liddiard travelled aboard the trimaran Lamar Law with Sure Dive (tel. 01704 573714). Prices for a 10-day trip start at around£2220.

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