Big Scare Swimming Alone In A New Place

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Bob Placak went on a family vacation to the Galápagos Islands (Archipiélago de Colón) several years ago. “The ocean was so beautiful. These islands are magnificent. With so much wildlife on land and in the turquoise blue waters, the Galápagos are a paradise, especially for open water swimmers.”

During one of their excursions to Española Island, Placak was enraptured by the gorgeous water and asked his guide how far their boat was moored offshore. “About a mile and a half,” was the answer. With his goggles in hand, the founder of the RCP Tiburon Mile told the guide of his background as a competitive swimmer.

Placak recalled the conversation, “I asked her all the requisite questions about tides, currents and marine life. I asked her about sharks and if there have been any attacks. She said yes to both questions but such attacks were indeed rare.”

The allure of swimming in one of the most gorgeous marine environments in the world was too strong to ignore for the former UCLA All-American butterflyer. “I started out and the water was so crystal clear. I could see about 75 feet down. I was having a great time. I was escorted by 10-12 penguins and a few sea lions while giant turtles, stingrays and other brightly colored tropical fish swam beneath me. After a mile, I figured that I would push the pace and get a good final half-mile workout in.

As I started to get going, I came up on a reef. In the shallower water at a distance of 35 foot, I saw a 7-foot Galápagos shark. It was moving slowly. I stopped. And then another appeared. I stayed calm and kept my eyes on them, but they started moving erratically. Ahead of me, behind me, then disappearing and reappearing. I knew I was in a tough position. But I managed to stay calm and knew that I was not going to go down without a fight. But the two sharks kept moving around me, fast.

Their fins were out of the water, and then the next moment, they were diving and swimming, circling around me.”

As Placak was eggbeatering vertically, he kept his eyes glued to the sharks as they darted in and around the reef and popping up in different locations. Also almost unbelievably, he remained calm, analyzing the situation instead of panicking. “I was about a half mile from the boat. I knew it could be what would seem to be the longest half-mile swim of my life. I was about a mile offshore, so that was out of the question. So I started to wave to the boat in the hope that maybe, someone on the boat was watching. I didn’t know if they were looking my way, but I had to get help fast while I stayed calm and watching those sharks.”

In fact, the tour guide Tanya Helmig never let her eyes wander from Placak once he left shore. Placak’s wife Graciela who witnessed her husband waving without splashing the water around him recalled, “Tanya was on her binoculars the whole time Bob was in the water. Once she saw Bob waving his arms, she radioed to the boat and they immediately sent a boat to intervene.”

It was just in time to resolve Placak’s predicament out in the open ocean. “It was just me and those two [sharks]. There could have been more, but I didn’t see any. I didn’t know when or how or what I would have to do – punch or kick. I realized that I could get hurt, but this was not going to be the end of me. It was like walking down a dark street at night and suddenly you turn a corner and meet two thugs. Well, I had swum into the territory of these two sharks. I was the visitor.”

Placak did the right thing by stopping and going vertical, by treading water. He became larger relative to the shark when he shifted from the horizontal position swimming freestyle to the vertical position doing eggbeater. As shark experts have recommended, he kept his wits about him and never took his eyes off the sharks. His heart rate decreased – rather than increasing in panic – when he stopped swimming to assess the situation. Fortunately, his guides were also diligent and immediately came to his help. “They got to me within 5 minutes and I hopped in that boat and they drove me to shore. In retrospect, it was quite a lifetime experience.

But the shark encounter was not the end of his ocean-faring vacation. “Later that afternoon, I was the first one in our dive. I didn’t want this experience to stop me from enjoying what the Galápagos offers. The boat, The Integrity, and the guide Tanya are so wonderful. As a swimmer, I have traveled the world, swimming, site seeing and watching all kinds of competitions, but the Galápagos with their history, mammals and scenery, are truly something unique.”

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