By Julie Mogenis
It all began in the spring of 2015. My team and I were scheduled to go to Nepal and at a minimum, trek to Everest Base Camp .We were all trained up so to speak and nervously ready to go. But just 2 days prior to our departure our destination got shut down. The Kathmandu area was rocked by a devastating 7.8 earthquake and after shocks, which collaterally caused a huge avalanche near the Khumbu icefall on Everest in the Himalayas. The city of Kathmandu was broken, Base camp was buried and unfortunately there were too many deaths and thousands of casualties to the unsuspecting locals, guides, and climbers.
Needless to say my crew and I were very shocked, disconcerted and felt awfully mortal. I originally planned to go a few days earlier. We were relieved we were safe yet then believed that we should still go and assist in some way. But there was no runway at the airport in Kathmandu and traffic into Nepal was limited to only legitimate and mountain rescue trained first responders.
So time for a Plan B. or Plan Belize. That was the new destination we agreed upon and it was ever so easy to ditch our duffels filled with boots, puffers, and expedition gear for smaller floatable bags stuffed with rash guards, shorts, and wetsuits. I was ecstatic. Unfrozen water and laziness was now on the agenda……… Life Unscripted
We planned to go “remote”, a smaller island, less touristy, and leave only baby carbon footprints. We wanted to take advantage of every aspect of our beautiful oceanic environment. Golf carts, bikes and bare feet on land got us around on Caye Caulker… everything else was swim up, including the bars.
It was on the second day that we hired a local boat captain to wet some lines. It was a hot super sunny day on clear turquoise blue water. It was such an awesome detour from Nepal. We all were in a Zen like trance determined to catch our supper and defy the sun. First off, I caught a South African Pompano that put up a cool fight, flashing silver rays as it surfaced and then dove again. I was euphoric. While fishing we drifted towards another boat that was chumming the waters and dropping off snorkelers. Our captain said we should seize the moment and he jumped over with a mask to spear fish. In my inner peace, I decided to just snorkel. This too was incredible as the water was so clear, there was no current to battle and the sea life near the coral reefs was more colorful than the houses and cabanas on shore.
I started my underwater adventure by snapping pics of yellow striped cichlid looking fish – possible kin to those I swear I once had in my aquarium. There were schools of them now swimming frantically in a whirlwind as some of the chum remnants from our neighboring boat dissipated into our vicinity. Seemingly from out of nowhere or rather from somewhere else in the deep blue, several 6 foot gray masses sped past me. So close and so powerful that I could feel their under water wake. As I sized up what had just tagged me, several other gray masses swam next to me. Again so close that I believed I was being considered as a possible menu item. Holy crap batman and stronger expletives were being forced into my snorkel as I back paddled my way to the boat. I kept my eye on these guys and retreated hoping our neighbors wouldn’t run out of chum. I guess everyone on board had heard the profanities emitted from my snorkel as they all laughed while helping me back into the boat. “Those are only nurse sharks”, the captain said. “Its safe to swim with them”. He continued and explained that the sharks with dorsal fins and the pointier and/or hammer like faces and jagged teeth are the “worrisome” ones.
Yes, that was the beginning of my shark weak ……. Life Unscripted.
So, Now flash-forward to last fall. A year and a half later, I’m with my same group of friends, and we have decided to go further south to experience Ecuador and Peru. We’ll spend a week in the Galapagos Islands and then travel our way to Peru to trek the Inca Trail in search of the Lost City. Righteous. Again water activities would be mandatory in our itinerary. We would kayak, fish, do a little hiking and a lot of snorkeling. In anticipation of all the underwater scenes, I purchased a SeaView 180 built in snorkel mask. It’s designed so that you can breathe through your nose and has a Go Pro mount so your hands can be free to punch a shark. Basically this mask would provide me with less anxiety on clearing snorkels, no sore jaws and way more visibility than a standard mask. It performed great in my pool and I was excited to sea test it. I was determined to be at ease underwater.
The Galapagos Islands are a province of Ecuador. The varied yet isolated terrains shelter a diversity of plants and animal species some endemic only to the Galapagos …yes, found no where else earth. Charles Darwin first visited the islands in 1835, a trip which inspired his theory of Evolution. No matter your religious beliefs as to the beginning of man, the evolution of certain species to each different island is evident and it was amazingly interesting to witness. I’m not really a bird watcher but it was cool to learn for example, there are thirteen different variations of the same type of finch, each with adaptive coloring and size to the terrain of the island they live on. Some of the islands are lush and jungle like while others are more barren with lava dust and volcanic mountains as their only landscape. Like the finches, there are other species on the islands that have evolved to their surrounding. There are seven different lava lizards. The Marine Lizard is black and is very Godzilla like in appearance. They are so plentiful on one island that you literally have to find a place to step.
Human access and traffic on the island is very controlled. All visitors are chaperoned by a licensed naturalist and it became quickly evident that animals have not learned a fear of humans. This made it easy to observe them but also was a little dicey at times….. especially near the water. Of course, an added note, the sharks have evolved as well.
So I decided to just stay focused on all the other cool animals in the water that I wanted to interact with and hoped that any sharks native to whatever island we were snorkeling around would be lured away by a neighboring boat chumming the water. I just wanted to swim with penguins, sea lions, sea turtles and fur seals. And film the marine iguanas. Sharks? Not so much, or not at all. I did however agree and went to go see the shark canals from a bridge on Punta Estrada on the island of Santa Cruz after swimming with sea turtles. The operative words are “from a bridge” . It was Crazy creepy to see near a hundred sharks appearing to be swimming on top of each other as they slept in this one canal.
Immediately upon our arrival to the Galapagos, we drove from Baltra airport to a dock where we kayaked across a channel like water at San Cristobal while our luggage and gear was transported to a hotel where we were to overnight. Cool way to defeat our jet lag. We followed the guide to a cove where the water was very still and we glided near the bank so we could see the overgrown, intertwining network of roots of the mangrove trees. According to our naturalist, many species from fish to birds hide their young in these roots. It’s a safe zone from most predators. Very interesting I thought. However, there on my right were some large gray masses (now also identified as sharks) slowly circling, almost mysteriously swimming under water. They were evidently experienced with this baby housing development, very patient and hungry. Apparently not all babies listen to their mothers and some stray from their roots. I became a very excellent kayaker in this area and was ever so glad no snorkeling was on the itinerary.
We encountered some similar trees in an area we snorkeled in the next day. No sharks. However on another side of the island there was a bit of a current and small white cap waves were breaking near the shoreline. It was very picturesque, we jumped in and we saw many starfish, lots of funky colored fish like the Sargent Major Fish, Hawk fish, Yellow Tailed Surgeonfish, and even a number of Manta Rays from the boat when we departed. Additionally, while still snorkeling…. dun dun dun dun, we encountered the White Tip Reef Shark or Tintoreras Shark. Yep this one had the dorsal fin, rounded but the pointier nose and the visible teeth. It was as our ole Belize boat captain said, clearly one of the “worrisome ones”. I was what seemed, at that moment, too far away from the others. Would they see me? Could they help me? How did I get in this position? Was I inattentive? Its not like you can hear them swim towards you, but with my new SeaView mask, I could now see them very well. At least four of these gray masses were in a 10-foot radius around me and my camera. At first I started to panic but remembered that I should not frantically swim away. That’s how you get eaten. I had to extricate myself in a non “bait like “ fashion. I had to deal with this. So I froze, took a few pictures and then screamed to myself “Holy Shit” as I was touched on the shoulder. My camera even took a selfie of me as I aerated my wetsuit. I surfaced as if I had been given a nitrous boost, only to see my guide grabbing my arm. He wanted to assure me everything was all right. We swam calmly to the boat. I really wasn’t that scared. I had dealt with it. Right.
Turns out that the Tintoreras Shark has its own story of evolution. The white tip on the fin allows the shark to camouflage itself on the surface a bit in the white caps of the waves. The better to hunt babies with. Impressive. But when I got back to the states I googled that sucker and discovered that the Galapagos sharks have some other unique characteristics. According to Wikipedia, the International Shark Journal and a book called The Private Life of Sharks..The Truth Behind the Myth, White Tip reef sharks are nocturnal and rarely aggressive except when hunting for food. One article continued and noted that “important predators” of the White Tip reef shark include the Tiger Shark and the…… wait for it…… Galapagos Shark. . We did not snorkel at night and there are plenty of horror fish movies made about the Tintorera Shark …close, but not that evolutionary shark that I swam with.” Yes, I’d do it again. …Life Unscripted