Being surrounded by hundreds of scalloped hammerhead sharks hundreds of miles away from the mainland is either your complete and utter nightmare or your absolute dream come true. In an ocean where shark populations are hanging on by a thread, the opportunity to dive with droves of them is as unique as the sharks themselves are.
As mythical as it might sound, in the middle of the eastern Pacific Ocean is a triangle of uninhabited islands that are connected by hundreds of miles of vast underwater highways (many of which are unprotected) where life flourishes in epic proportions. This series of marine protected areas are home to some of the greatest congregations of scalloped hammerhead sharks in the world.
Hammerhead sharks aren’t the only ones that thrive around these isolated islands and seamounts though: whale, silky, tiger, reef, silvertip, blacktip, whitetip, and Galapagos sharks; blue, sperm, and humpback whales; sea turtles and an assortment of rays; dolphins and sea lions; and millions of schooling fish are bountiful here.
Jamie Watts and Damien Mauric, writers for Scuba Dive Magazine, explained that “the large-scale ecology of this region is driven by the interplay of two vast, rich ecosystems: the Costa Rica Thermal Dome north of the equator and the Humboldt-Galápagos system that reaches from South America and spreads along the equator. These systems are two of only three areas on Earth—the other being in the northwest Indian Ocean—where extensive cold water upwellings bring an abundance of marine life to the open oceans of the tropics.”
Without these prolific upwellings, the eastern Pacific Ocean would be a vast blue desert. It’s the cold upwellings that bring trillions of plankton and other prey animals from the depths to the shallows where millions of sharks and other pelagic fish, marine mammals, turtles, and seabirds can then feast on them.
Scalloped hammerhead sharks are solitary night hunters, but during the day, they gather in huge schools to rest, socialize, and even enjoy a skin exfoliation from small fish that hang around the seamounts. It’s this behavior, mixed in with the upwellings that bless the triangle, that make it possible for divers to enter the water and observe these fascinating beings in substantial schools. It also makes these sharks particularly vulnerable to illegal shark finning.
Sadly, an estimated 1.3 to 2.7 million scalloped and smooth hammerhead sharks are brutally maimed every year for their fins. The demand for shark fins (which have no nutritional value or taste, and are chock-full of mercury) for shark fin soup are wiping out shark populations at an alarming rate. Not to mention the millions that are caught as by-catch by industrial fishing operations, along with other shark species, rays, turtles, and marine mammals.
Since scalloped hammerhead sharks gather in large numbers, when a shark finning vessel encounters them, an entire school can easily be caught and their fins cut off on the spot so fast that the finless sharks are still alive when they’re thrown back into the ocean.
Sharks are the guardians of the sea. According to Smithsonian Ocean, sharks keep the ocean ecosystem balanced. Not only do they eat sick, injured and weak marine animals, they also help keep marine mammals, fish, invertebrates, and even algae populations in check. Without healthy populations of sharks, the health of the ocean would rapidly decline and could eventually enter a state of disrepair. And, when the ocean dies, so does life on the planet. The value of shark lives far exceeds any price tag.
To help protect the sharks and other marine species that depend on these three particular sites, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Colombia declared them as no-take fishing zones. Prior to them being declared national parks, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and no-take fishing zones, all three areas were heavily targeted by fishing vessels due to their abundance of sharks and other commercially-valuable fish.
Unfortunately, once the sharks leave the no-take zones, which many do on a nightly and seasonal basis, they are highly vulnerable. One proposed solution is to increase the size of the no-take fishing zones and protected area perimeters. Migramar, a coalition of shark research institutions is working tirelessly to see that this happens sooner rather than later by studying and providing scientific evidence on the effectiveness of these no-take zones and the migratory patterns of the animals that frequent these areas. Ultimately, the coalition wants to be able to provide policy makers with an efficient conservation policy that can be implemented to extend the reach of protection for the marine animals of the eastern Pacific Ocean.
You don’t have to be a shark scientist or influential policy maker though to do your part in protecting the sharks. There are plenty of little things that tourists can do to make a big difference, including donating to shark conservation initiatives, participating in coastal and open-water clean-ups, educating yourself and others about smart seafood choices, avoiding products that contain shark, reducing your single-use plastic consumption, and writing to your local legislation and signing petitions in advocacy of saving the sharks.
And all this passion and advocacy could start with diving with the sharks. Diving expeditions offer the chance for people to face fears and learn to regard sharks as highly intelligent, evolved creatures that people can coexist with. And it’s also really cool looking.
While you can fly into the Galápagos Islands, the only way to access the scalloped hammerhead hot spots in the triangle is via a liveaboard boat, offered by different companies. Each liveaboard dive excursion has different boats and itineraries, but all expeditions include their own set amount of dives per-day or tanks of air, scuba equipment, and of course, a team of highly trained and certified dive masters and crew to ensure that your experience is not only safe, but sensational.
So don’t worry, you’re not just boarding a boat, traveling hundreds of miles out into the middle of the ocean, and being thrown over the bow into a pit of sharks! Because these dive trips take place in protected national parks, regulations are in place for your protection and the protection of the sharks. Each trip costs around $500 and requires advanced scuba diving experience. You’ll need the time, money, and proper training, but if you’ve got this trifecta under your weight belt, you can expect an experience unmatched by any other.
Six hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador, a chain of 19 islands make up the Galápagos Islands. While the islands are part of Ecuador, the next closest land is actually Cocos Island in Costa Rica, a mere 470 miles away.
Wolf and Darwin Island are the two most famous islands for diving with crowds of scalloped hammerhead sharks. What’s additionally special about this tiny blip in the eastern Pacific Ocean is that pregnant whale sharks have recently been observed gathering around these islands, which has led shark scientists to believe that this could possibly be a whale shark pupping grounds and nursery, as well. Between January and May, you will have the chance to marvel at walls of hammerhead sharks, several rows deep. The average length of a liveaboard here is 8 days. Some possible liveaboard excursions include My Blue Spirit, Humboldt Explorer, Calypso Galápagos.
Cocos Island, located 330 miles off the coast of Costa Rica, is noted for being the most challenging dive zone of the three due to powerful ocean currents. Cocos Island is also reputed as being completely shark-infested! Dolphins, whales, rays, and turtles also frequent this point on the triangle, which only adds to the sheer magic of this remote underwater world.
Counterintuitively, the best time to venture to Cocos Island is during the heart of Costa Rica’s rainy season, from June until the end of November. It is during this time of the year that nutrient-dense upwells occur more frequently and in turn bring in the megafauna, including giant whale sharks and manta rays. The average length of a liveaboard in this area is 7-11 days. Okeanos Aggressor I and II, Sea Hunter, and Argo are all potential liveaboard excursion groups.
Malpelo Island is a tiny island 300 miles off the coast of Colombia. While the island itself isn’t particularly impressive, it’s what’s below that will blow your mind. You can expect to see thick curtains of hammerheads and other shark species, including the rare small-toothed sand tiger shark. If you want to see more sharks than you’ve ever imagined, book your trip in July or August, or sometime between January and March. The average length of a liveaboard is 10 days. Liveaboard excursions are offered by Sea Wolf and FEROX.