Our first glimpse of the Banda sea's hammerhead sharks happened quite unexpectedly. It wasn't that we didn't know they were out there in the blue - we did, but the dive sites the previous days had been plagued with bad visibility, and now we didn't dare hope for much.
As we rigged up on the boat that morning though, there had been a buzz of energy amongst the dive guides and crew. It was like they knew something we didn't. Hammerheads, they urged. There's a good chance of seeing them here!
People tend to think that it's quiet underwater, but in reality it's not. When you're near a reef or a wall of rocks, you can hear barnacles popping. Parrotfish make an audible crunching noise when they chomp on coral. And when the current picks up, there's an eerie kind of howling that undulates in the background, if you pay attention past the sound of your own breathing. Jared put it down to the mermaids. It does sound a bit like a chorus of murmuring voices if you use your imagination.
It was against this acoustic background that we descended deeper down the reef. Our dive guides ventured out into the blue every few minutes, checking to see if the sharks were lurking just beyond our periphery. When the current picked up or switched direction, we collectively scrambled to keep close to the wall and hook ourselves in. At first it was relatively warm. But then we hit a shimmering pixelated wall of cold water - a thermocline five degrees colder than its surrounding - and the chill spread slowly and unforgivingly right into our cores.
Really, there's so many things happening simultaneously on a dive like this that your senses get overwhelmed. Looking back at it now, it feels like it was all a dream -
The frantic clanging of someone's pointer against his tank - the current ripping against your mask and regulator as you struggle to turn and locate the source of the sound - the mermaids' murmur heightens to a roar - then shark!, you scream in your head, as you follow his gaze and see the silhouette of a hammerhead, then two, three, an entire school, appearing silently from the gloom.
We returned to the boat after the first dive, cold but triumphant.
In total, we did ten dives at this site, and we always saw them. Sometimes it was a few swimming over our heads onto the reef, and other times we were floating in the center of a whole maelstrom of sharks. We even had one particularly close encounter when the sharks came face-to-face with us, less than two arms' length away, but our camera (and perhaps our nerves too) failed at the most crucial moment.
Downward current that took us past thirty-five metres in the blue, I wrote in my dive log at the end of the day. The wall of sharks circled us the entire time. What a day!
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