Scuba Diving with Sharks Is the Most Relaxing Vacation I’ve Ever Had

Nothing quiets the mind like a swim with 100+ hammerhead sharks.

Seventy feet below the surface, I clung to slippery, algae-covered rocks as a fierce current whipped by. The sharks here looked as if they were swimming in slow motion, lazily wagging their bodies in a hulu-esque dance. I watched slack-jawed as one beautifully alien creature drifted in front of me—and then another. And another. We stayed for 30 minutes, watching at least 100 sharks pass. And this was just the beginning; I had a whole week of diving to go.

For some people, diving with 100-plus sharks sounds like a nightmare straight out of a summer B movie. But on a recent liveaboard cruise in the Galapagos Islands, the first school of scalloped hammerheads appeared more like something out of a dream. I’ve never felt so simultaneously excited and relaxed, a bit like celebrating Christmas morning on Zoloft.

Liveaboard boat charter
Galapagos Sky

Despite my borderline obsessive passion for scuba, this trip on Galapagos Sky was my first liveaboard experience. Purpose-built for diving, liveaboard charters grant exclusive access to remote destinations, like Palau and Indonesia’s Raja Ampat, that remain relatively untouched by overfishing, pollution, and other destructive human activities. This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore a far-flung corner of the natural world (the waters of the Galapagos) is initially what attracted me to Galapagos Sky. As a kid, I pictured the ocean like a giant aquarium, but increasingly you have to go off the grid to see healthy marine life.

During our one-week itinerary of non-stop diving, we stayed three full days at Darwin and Wolf, two extinct volcano tops that rank as the most secluded islands in an already isolated archipelago. A biodiversity hotspot and one of the sharkiest places on the planet due to cold, nutrient-rich currents, this marine sanctuary offers bucket list sightings like whale sharks, orcas, sea lions, sea turtles, fur seals, tiger sharks, dolphins, and—yes—hundreds of hammerheads. The islands themselves are uninhabited by humans, belonging to vast colonies of birds like Nazca and red-footed boobies, as well as the aptly-named vampire finch, which uses its sharp beak to pierce and drink the blood of its unsuspecting, feathered neighbors.

Scuba divers with whale shark
Galapagos Sky

After a couple days on board, I fell into the rhythm of boat life. I began to realize an unsung benefit of diving far, far away from the mainland: You become totally, blissfully unplugged. It isn’t only that most liveaboards lack internet, although going cold turkey on social media certainly helps you disconnect from civilization. Rather, diving four times a day leaves no physical or mental space for anything else. How can you worry about a deadline when you pass out in your bunk, completely wiped, at 8 pm? Do you have the energy to think about your mortgage or Britney’s latest Instagram post with only 30 minutes to shower and squeeze into your wetsuit again? Absolutely not. For seven days, I dove, slept, chilled on the sundeck’s hammock, shoved empanadas into my face, and ignored all of my land-based responsibilities. It was the ultimate escape from reality.

So much diving also proved to be restorative—like a visit to a natural spa I hadn’t even noticed I needed. As someone diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and depression, I’ve personally found that time underwater quiets my runaway thoughts like prescription drugs, therapy, and listening to Fiona Apple on repeat never have.

Sea turtle
Galapagos Sky

And I’m not the only diver who thinks this way—In fact, it’s become common, cliché even, for people to describe the sport as “meditative.” Similar to yoga or meditation itself, scuba requires presence of mind and deep, diaphragmatic breathing that helps calm the parasympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight response. (Granted that second bit is a bit more mission critical when you’re inhaling and exhaling compressed air out of a regulator.) While I had already experienced this first-hand, and always suspected a week of sustained diving would be much more gratifying than a few quick day tours, there’s a big difference between knowing what’s good for you and actually doing it. Finally taking the leap led to the most relaxing vacation I’ve ever had.

Research shows that spending time outdoors can lower stress and improve our mood, that something inside us seems to respond to the beauty and wonder of nature. Maybe it’s because the wilderness helps us connect to something deeper and more primal. Perhaps these moments give us perspective, allowing us—and our problems—to feel smaller than the world around us. After a week in the Galapagos, I’d argue that diving straight into nature is the best thing you can do for your spirit. Hanging out with 100 hammerheads or swimming into a pulsing bait ball of blacked-striped salema is a great way to grasp just how insignificant you are.

Scuba driver watching a shark
Photo by Alexandra Owens

Regardless of the reason, I often found myself hypnotized by the beauty of the Galapagos, whether lost in a maze of jacks and barracuda, exploring a garden of vibrant sea stars, or watching reef sharks get their teeth cleaned by wrasse with dentist-like precision. Many dives ended in the company of the islands’ resident sea lions and fur seals who, much like puppies, wriggled in excitement, begging to play. With them, I briefly forgot who I was, my human status momentarily beyond my grasp as I twisted and turned, clumsily responding to their invitations. As the seals wove through the waves, I struggled to keep up (a losing battle), belly laughing into my regulator whenever one snuck up on another diver to nip their fins or popped their whiskered face into my stream of bubbles. Each time I reluctantly returned to the surface, I couldn’t suppress a single all-encompassing thought: This is freedom.

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Alexandra Owens is a contributor for Thrillist.