Pristine Seas

Sharks, Sharks, Sharks

Picture of a shark
Photograph by Enric Sala

Reprinted from the National Geographic book, Pristine Seas: Journeys to the Ocean’s Last Wild Places by Enric Sala

When I ask people if they fear anything about the sea, the most common response is “Sharks!” There seems to be a widespread belief that sharks have been evolving in the ocean for 300 million years with the sole purpose of eating every single human that dares to swim in it. Steven Spielberg’s movie Jaws and the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week have not helped to change that perception. But I dive with sharks—with lots of sharks, often—and I really miss them when they are not around.

The first time I experienced a truly sharky environment was quite comical. We arrived at the wild Kingman Reef on a hot morning in August 2005. Sixteen hundred kilometers south of Hawaii, Kingman looks like a boomerang on satellite photographs. Half of the atoll barely breaks the surface, and the other half is sinking, as ocean volcanoes do after a few million years. We anchored our ship between patch reefs in the lagoon. We were in a sheltered spot, but we could hear the roar of the ocean swell breaking on the outer side of the reef. I was very impatient to dive at the wildest place I had seen in my life, and also a little nervous, precisely because it was so wild.

We did the routine check of our diving gear, made sure we were not forgetting any scientific gear or cameras, and jumped into one of our Zodiac inflatable dinghies. We sailed through a passage on the reef, between breakers, and arrived at the most exposed side of the fore reef. My friend Zafer Kizilkaya, the expedition photographer, casually got ready and did a backflip over the rubber side of the Zodiac. Five seconds later, I was about to get into the water myself when Zafer literally jumped, like a dolphin, out of the water and back into the Zodiac.

“There are too many sharks down there, and they are aggressive!” he yelled.

My companions and I looked at each other for what seemed the longest second of my life. We shrugged our shoulders, and I remember saying, “Safety is in numbers. One, two, three!” We all jumped in. As soon as our bubbles cleared, we saw a dozen gray reef sharks swimming around us. They were indeed very curious, but after a few minutes they lost interest in us—weird animals with two tails, throwing bubbles and making a lot of noise—and they went about their business.

That was the first of many such shark encounters in the Line Islands. After those dives, I became spoiled for life. Now, when I dive at a place without sharks, I really miss them.

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