The Adventure Life with Steve Casimiro Swimming with Sharks
Text and photos by West Coast Editor Steve Casimiro
The first time you swim with sharks should be dramatic. There should be storm-tossed seas, fang-like Farallon Islands jutting from the water, hungry great whites thrashing as the first mate chums stinky fish guts overboard. You’re shivering into your cold chain mail shark suit as the grizzled sea dog captain growls, “Arr! Don’t be a-worryin’, lad! I’ve only lost three customers to the sharks—this week, harhar!”
Yes, that would be a great shark story.
But it’s not my shark story. For me, there was no “arrr”. Just three six-foot grey reef sharks–and me in my underwear.
It’s not much, I know. But it’s a start.
THERE’S A LOT MORE TO GALAPAGOS THAN LIZARDS AND ROCKS, but on the southwest side of Isla Isabella, near Punto Moreno, there are dozens of square miles of nothing but lava, and the rocks have the place to themselves. This isn’t Icelandic lava, eroded to dust and soft underfoot, but fresh pahoehoe lava, jagged, thick, razor wire with shards of glass epoxied to it. The few brave cacti to have put down roots seem surprised to be standing alone, their nearest neighbor a half-mile away, and not a little dismayed.
An hour hike across this carnivorous landscape felt more like a drunken stumble, and my shoes were shredded by the time I reached the large seawater pool not far from where we’d first landed in a small panga boat. The guide said the pool was connected to the ocean by lava tubes, and sure enough, looking 15 feet down on water the color of a melted Coke bottle, I saw a puffer fish the size of a basketball. And that was de-puffed.
We had three guides. Two were rule followers. I stuck closely to the third. The group split and began the panga panga shuffle back to the mother ship, but guide number three had a twinkle in his deep brown eyes and he lingered knowingly at the lip of the pool. As soon as the other guides were out of sight, he slipped a dive mask from his daypack. “Here,” he whispered. “Be quick and be quiet. There are Galapagos sharks hanging out in the shadows, right beneath this overhang. If you are gentle, they might come out. But they are very shy. Don’t spook them.”
Um, hello? Sharks?
But you know, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world and maybe the coolest, too. I slipped off my shorts and shoes and tiptoed across the pahoehoe to the edge of the water. If someone tells you, “Tomorrow you are going to swim with sharks and you will be wearing nothing but your underwear” you might, oh, lose sleep over it. You might spend the whole day with elevated heart rate and the Jaws theme in your head. You most certainly would put on clean, dark underwear. Maybe even board shorts. But me, I felt about as nervous as walking out to get the morning paper. All I could really think about was not scaring the sharks.
Funny how that sounds. “Don’t scare the sharks.” Roger that, Houston.
The water was still, although it wasn’t as clear as it appeared from above. It was murky, dark. I tried not to ripple, tried even harder not to slice my foot on lava. I was relieved when it was deep enough to float, because I could lie face down, almost inert, and propel myself with flickers from my hands.
The puffer had vamoosed.
Gliding beneath the overhang, I couldn’t have been more comfortable or at ease. Instead of being amped or worried or vulnerable, I felt calmer than I’d ever been. Whether I saw the sharks or not, I recognized this as a gift, a chance to share with them not the open ocean, but this secret cavern, a pocket hollowed out in rock every bit as sharp as the pelagic’s tooth.
I floated and stared through the mask into the darkness. My eyes wavered, spun circles as they bored into the deep green. Was that one? Or that? Did I see motion or imagine it? Did they smell me? Were they even there?
And then I saw it, a bit of movement, a ribbon of lighter grey moving from left to right. The fin. And then it was gone.
I didn’t move a muscle. And it came back, just on the edge of the light, deep in the shadow of the overhang, like a dream that fragments on waking. Was it real? Yes, there was the eye, and the unmistakable silhouette.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
The single shark resolved into two, then three. They lurked under the protective rock and if I lifted my head to breathe too quickly, they went deeper, out of sight.
I wanted more, but two of my friends were standing barefoot beside the water, waiting for their chance, so I didn’t linger. I backed gently toward the center of the pool. And then, when I wasn’t blocking the light or the entrance, when I gave them space, the sharks followed, all three of them. They didn’t move fast, but were deliberate, like they wouldn’t deign to move in anything but long, sinuous arcs.
As the last one swept past me, I gave a kick, not caring about ripples, and caught up to glide next to it for a second or two. Barely a foot away, it was a longer than I, its dark grey skin and triangled limbs so purpose-built, so simply awesome. I reached out to touch it, I could have touched it, I could have caressed its side or its fin or its tail but I didn’t. I’d been given, and it wasn’t right to take.
The sharks made a slow cruise around the pool. I swam toward the side. Crab-walking through the shallows, across the submerged lava, I took off the mask and extended it toward my friend’s outstretched hand.
“Well?” he asked.
I looked back over my shoulder for a fin.
“Just don’t scare them,” I said. “They’re shy.”