Galapagos // The Crime Traveller

Swimming with sharks in the Galapagos

By Edward Prutschi

On Tuesday March 22nd, 2011

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“Lawyer swims with sharks” is no longer a metaphorical headline for me.

I had been in the clear turquoise waters of the Galapagos islands, snorkelling off a ring of volcanic rocks known as The Devil’s Crown, for a mere 30 minutes. Already, I had been surrounded by a group of playful sea lions who nosed at my fins and camera for several minutes before jetting off for deeper waters. An enormous six-foot long spotted eagle ray had glided gracefully by and I remember thinking, “It just can’t get any better than this.”

It was at that very moment when my naturalist guide tapped me on the arm, pointed to just off my left shoulder and placed his hand over his head mimicking a dorsal fin. I dove in the direction he had pointed and was immediately staring eyeball to unflinching eyeball with an eight-foot-long white tipped reef shark —the first of four of these prehistoric predators that came within mere feet of me over the course of a single hour in the incredible waters of the Galapagos.

In every other wildlife encounter I have experienced anywhere in the world, the instinctive fear that animals have of humans has asserted itself. I have crawled on my hands and knees inch by inch through the Costa Rican jungle to photograph an eyelash viper and taken dozens of painstakingly tiny steps to get within one hundred feet of an Alaskan grizzly bear.

During my time in the Galapagos, however, I was able to approach wildlife to within inches without the animal displaying anything but complete indifference or mild curiosity. I had to leap back to avoid being hit by the salt water spit of a marine iguana and was close enough to smell the regurgitated fish a mother boobie was cramming down the throat of its youngling. Lizards and birds — normally notoriously skittish and difficult to photograph — went about their business oblivious to my incredible proximity. On multiple occasions, I had to step gingerly across a stretch of beach or rock to avoid crushing an errant fin or tail. Underwater, the experience was equally magical as I snorkelled side-by-side with sea turtles, marbled rays and sharks. It became so routine to have extremely close encounters with the wildlife, in fact, that I was barely surprised when a two-week-old sea lion pup flopped over to me, sniffed my leg and promptly took a two minute nap using my foot as a pillow.

Even the potential for tragedy instead brought more opportunity, when the horrific tsunami that so devastated Japan also struck the Galapagos. Our ship, the G Adventures G6 Catamaran, was instructed by the Ecuadorian navy to stay a minimum of ten miles offshore, in deep water, where we were promised the risk would be minimal. As we motored away from the coastline, a massive pod of over 100 bottlenosed dolphins surrounded our vessel and put on a display of aerial acrobatics — leaping in front of the breakers of our twin pontoons to incredible heights. Hours later, in the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean, the wave passed imperceptibly beneath our boat before swelling to a five metre beast on land where it did considerable property damage in the main town but thankfully caused no loss of life.

If you’re looking for an excuse to escape the boardroom to experience something truly unique, the Galapagos islands will enthral and amaze you. Feel free to set your expectations as high as you can imagine — and then prepare to have them exceeded in every way.


When not jetting around the world as his alter ego, The Crime Traveller, Edward Prutschi is a Toronto-based criminal defence lawyer. Follow Ed’s criminal law commentary (@prutschi) and The Crime Traveller’s adventures (@crimetraveller) on Twitter, read his Crime Traveller blog, or email [email protected].