Luis Carlos Huertas remembers that when he went scuba diving in the Bat Islands (Islas Murciélago) on February 8, the water was very greenish, cloudy and had a strong current.
Huertas is a diving instructor, has his own company called Seakret Divers and is also a doctor by profession.
Due to his knowledge and experience, crew members called him the next day when a bull shark bit an English tourist while she was diving in that same part of the Guanacaste Conservation Area (ACG for the Spanish acronym) where he had been the day before.
An ocean current pushed her toward where a shark was swimming. The animal, seeing her coming suddenly, defended itself by biting her.
Is it normal for this to be the reaction of sharks when encountering divers? What conditions make an area suitable for diving with these animals?
The Voice of Guanacaste asked Huertas, who had first-hand knowledge of the case, and another expert about what needs to be taken into account to minimize risks when diving along the province’s coasts.
The Big Scare
The diving point where the incident occurred is known as the “Big Scare” or “El gran susto” and is one of the farthest from the Murciélago (Bat) Islands. It’s a famous area nationally and internationally in the divers’ circle because bull sharks abound. The temperature and turbidity of the water make it the ideal area for them to hunt and reproduce.
It’s the farthest and most unprotected point on the coast, so it is more exposed to currents, explained Mario Espinoza, a biology professor and researcher at the Center for Research in Marine Sciences and Limnology.
That’s why Espinoza thinks this isn’t a good time to dive there. From his point of view, it’s better to do it between the months of May and October.
“When the winds start to hit starting in November, December and January, the conditions change. Navigation becomes more dangerous, the waves, the wind and the currents cause there to be more particles in the environment and that makes the visibility change and the conditions for scuba diving are not optimal,” he explained.
He also specified that the temperature decreases because a phenomenon called coastal upwelling occurs with the trade winds. The wind displaces the surface water and causes the deep water, which is cold and loaded with nutrients and sediments, to rise to the surface. This causes it to get very cold.
We’re talking about these being the most dangerous months for navigation in the North Pacific, and the scuba diving conditions aren’t that pleasant,” he added.
That’s why he recommends that during this time of year, those who dive in that area should have more experience, not only with currents but also with sharks.
Huertas, from Seakrets Divers, thinks that areas such as Flamingo, Playas del Coco or the Gulf of Santa Elena are ideal for diving at this time of year since they are closer to the coast and have manageable currents and are more protected from the winds.
Would you like to scuba dive responsibly in Guanacaste? Here are some things both experts recommend taking into consideration:
- Dive with small groups of six people and the instructor. When diving with sharks, it is not appropriate to go with large groups. This could scare or stress them. If there are more people, it’s important to have another guide for safety.
- Never corner an animal. Always give them space and an escape route since they are constantly on the move.
- Tell your instructor what your level of training is. Tell him how many dives you’ve done and where you’ve dived so he has an idea of where you’ve experienced and what conditions you’ve been subjected to.
- Don’t touch marine animals. If you go after an animal to touch it, it might attack you as a defensive action.
- Don’t dive in front of the guide.
- Don’t separate from the group.
- Adhere to safety measures and procedures.
- If you get lost, ascend slowly, calmly, away from rock, and when you are on the surface, wait for the boat to pick you up.
Tourists aren’t the only ones responsible for their safety when diving, so we also asked them what they should be required from a scuba guide:
- Diving is a process. Instructors shouldn’t take their students down beyond their training levels.
- Guides must anticipate the environmental conditions. That will prevent them from exposing the people that they are leading to some bad experience.
- They must clearly express the risks that exist and reinforce safety. When entering an animal’s habitat, there is a risk that it will react in an unpredictable way or that it may have a slightly aggressive behavior.
- They must recognize signs of stress in an animal.
- They must offer information beforehand about the site where they are going to dive, how deep the site is, if there are underwater currents and what the temperature is.
- They must check the regulations of each dive area. Murcielago Islands is a Protected Wildlife Area, therefore tour operators must register and pay their entrance fee.
Diving Without Myths
Huertas explained that people have stigmas about sharks and that throughout history, they have been demonized.
“Our culture has created a myth about the shark as an animal that pursues blood, an animal thirsty to attack, that wants to bite when it sees a human being, and that is not true,” he affirmed.
He pointed out that in most cases when a shark bites a person, what occurs is “a mistaken identity.” In other words, the animal bites a person when it assumes that it is one of its usual prey, but when it realizes that it isn’t, it moves away.
The shark behaves in its natural way in its wild state. We are the visitors and we have to respect that,” he emphasized.
Huertas reinforced the importance that divers also get trained in first aid and in Rescue Diver, a course that trains them in emergencies that can occur while diving with sharks and how to deal with them.
According to the doctor and diver, the English tourist who was bitten by the shark visits the country several times a year to dive and knows the area very well. The accident could have been much more serious if it weren’t for the large number of dives she has done and her experience swimming with sharks.