GALAPAGOS - A MISSION AND A HALF

Ever since I was a small child, when I first learnt about Charles Darwin and his discovery of so many weird and wonderful creatures, I had a hankering to go follow his example and explore the many corners of the Earth. After learning to dive in 1998 that hankering increased, mainly fuelled by my curiosity for encountering the different marine life around the world.

The one ultimate destination for me had always been The Galapagos. I would absorb myself in books, documentaries, articles, films and photos.......anything I could find about these mystical islands.  Stories told by other divers of their incredible visits, the extreme diving, the amazing marine life, or of it being their favourite dive destination, had made a visit to these islands the top of my bucket list. For one reason or another, though, they had always been that one step to far for me to get to. 

But, finally, with baited breath, and nearly 40 years of dreaming, they came within my grasp.  As part of a more extensive trip, I was able to arrange to spend two weeks in my ultimate dream destination - one week on land, one on a liveaboard, traveling up to the most northern and desolate islands of Wolf and Darwin. 

My mission began in the middle of June.  I had travelled from Mexico first.

After experiencing the diving and snorkeling pleasures around Cozumel and Cancun, with their warm, clear water, requiring little more than a rash guard, the cold waters of the Galapagos would be challenging. There are only two places to fly from to The Galapagos, Quito and Guayaquil in mainland Ecuador. I had flown to Cancun from London with British Airways, then on from Cancun to Quito via Miami with American Airlines. The flight from Quito stops in Guayaquil on the way, so I had decided to fly direct to Guayaquil from Cancun to spend a couple of sightseeing and downtime days in the largest, but not the Capital, city in Ecuador.

My first shock came when I went to exchange some £’s for US$, the current currency used in Ecuador. I normally wait to arrive in a country to exchange my money, as the exchange rates are usually much better. With very little Spanish in my language arsenal, I managed, after visits to five banks, to find out £’s are not accepted for exchange anywhere in Ecuador - in fact, no foreign currency is able to be exchanged!

Having only around $40, and knowing that The Galapagos were expensive and charge a whopping 10% on any credit card transactions and that I needed to pay a park fee and entry tax of $110 in cash just to get into The Galapagos, not to mention the charge I knew I would have to pay for excess luggage, I was forced to go to one of the black market money exchangers who hang around on every street corner.  Bargaining with a calculator, I managed to get a very respectable rate.  Feeling extremely apprehensive I counted out notes, constantly keeping my eye out for muggers or police, I breathed a sigh of relief when the transaction was completed and I now had the hard cash I needed. Note to self....exchange money in the UK before the next trip!

Money sorted, sights visited and excess paid for, the mission continued as we boarded a LAN flight for the short 1hr 20 minute flight to one of the most southern islands in the chain, San Cristobal, the capital island of The Galapagos, with great anticipation and excitement. 

The Galapagos islands were discovered in 1535, but because of their inhospitable terrain, weren’t populated until the 1800’s. European and North American settlers began to arrive in the 1920’s, as well as mainland Ecuadorians, who came to farm and fish.  Tourism didn’t hit the islands until the 1960’s. Four of the islands are inhabited, with most of the 30,000 population living on San Cristobel and Santa Cruz.

Because of the unique location of this volcanic group of islands - centered on the convergence of several major Pacific Ocean currents - both cold-water and tropical species can thrive there.  The Galapagos harbors an extraordinary range of distinctive marine habitats and species, around 50% of which are endemic.

Arriving at the small airport in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the tiny and only town in San Cristobel,

we soon realised the protocol for getting a taxi......jump out in front of the first approaching cab (they are all pick-up trucks), and throw your luggage in the back.  It is very much who dares wins!  A quick 10 minute journey brought us into town and our hotel. Signs of the uniqueness of the place were glaringly obvious by the amount of Galapagos sealions taking over the run of the main street.  Barking, burping and farting, looking for all like they had been out on the town the night before and were still quite squiffy, they had no compunction about taking over the public benches, walkways, playground, and even a kid’s plastic tube slide into the ocean! 

For the next part of our mission we were to join the Humbolt Explorer liveaboard for a 7 night cruise up to the remote Northern islands of Wolf and Darwin.  After boarding late, due to passengers arriving that day on a delayed flight, we did an extremely quick, 6 minute check dive, with about 1m visibility, no marine life and cold, cold water. We wondered why we had travelled so far to dive in a place so reminiscent of the UK. So far, not so good.  After all the anticipation, everyone went to bed disappointed and dispirited.

The next day, we had moved on to the island of Santa Cruz, situated right in the center of the groups of islands. We were to do two dives at Punta Carrion. A wake up call at 6 am, saw us blearily putting on our various layers of wetsuits, hoods, gloves and boots.  After the previous days dive, none of us was particularly excited about the prospect of jumping into the cold, 18 degree water, at that time in the morning, especially as the day was really overcast and quite chilly - a feature of The Galapagos between June and November. Carefully negotiating the 1m swell whilst transferring into the rib, silence ensued. As the rib sped to the dive site, the wind making our eyes water, I wondered what I would find.

Back rolling off the rib, the cold water took my breath away momentarily,

before I gathered my senses and descended in about 10m viz, to a white sand bottom interspersed with large lava rock boulders covered in a multitude of different coloured corals.  Large jewell like starfish of so many kinds, dotted the landscape. King angelfish regally swam around the reef, different colour guineafowl pufferfish sat, fat and proud, amongst the rocks. Starry grouper, camouflaged against the backdrop, hid in every nook and cranny, whilst male, female and juvenile mexican hogfish followed us around, ever curious. Surfacing, I pondered on my mantra - if I dive then I am happy, but if I see something new on a dive, I am very happy. On that dive alone, virtually everything I saw I had never seen before!

The second dive saw even more of the same, but with a white tip reef shark and a fleeting glimpse of a 6m long juvenile female whale shark! From July to October, female whale sharks are known travel to the northern islands of the Galapagos. This glimpse held promise of an early start to the season. 

Next came the long journey north, up to the remotest islands in the group, Wolf and Darwin. Leaving just before lunch, it was hoped we would arrive around 5am the next morning, so we could begin several long days of 4 dives per day.  We were lucky enough to have arrived just after the government of The Galapagos changed the law of only being able to do 2 dives a day to 4. This would mean very early starts, as the last dive had to be completed before 4.30pm, when the sun starts to set.

We were going north to dive with large schools of hammerhead, Galapagos sharks and silky sharks.  We would not want to be caught out at dusk - feeding time! We also wouldn’t want to get lost at sea at night, in one of the remotest parts of the world. Mooring in a quiet bay at Wolf Island, the sheer cliff walls seemed to breath with the amount of birdlife.  Rare and indigenous blue and red footed boobies swooped around our boat, interspersed by frigate birds dive bombing into the ocean in search of food.  

Too excited by the dives to come, we were all up and ready way before the dive briefing.

We were given Diver Alert air horns and GPS radio devices to attach to our BCD’s for safety, as the currents around The Galapagos can be fierce and unpredictable.  We wouldn’t want to get separated from the group and end up on our way to Asia, without having contact with our boat. 

Rounding the corner of Wolf Island in the RIB, we realized the bay we had been moored in was completely protected from the wind and weather. Bouncy high over 2m white capped swells, we held on tightly as the RIB positioned us close to a towering cliff face. On the count of three, we all back rolled simultaneously, some of us falling far further than others. After a quick ok sign and grab of my camera, we descended into the surge below. At around 3m, after checking my buddy, I looked down to see two large scalloped hammerheads crossing paths just below me. My heart began to beat fast, as they disappeared just beyond our vision. With only 10m visibility, I knew they weren’t too far away, and probably watching my every move.  

Settling in at 24m on a rock on the edge of a precipice that drops down to 1100m below, I was surprised by the lack of current. Huge swathes of fish battled for space before me. Holding on to the rock with my gloved hand - we were not allowed to use reef hooks - I watched constantly for one of the multitude of moray eels that swim freely around the rocks, feeding. The show was about to start. Gradually, as my eyes became more accustomed to the milky murkiness, huge shapes materialized. Five, ten, fifteen......more hammerhead sharks than I could count swam lazily by, the odd exaggerated side to side motion of their heads making them look as if they were doing some kind of swaying, trance like dance. Interspersed between them bronzed backed 3m long silky sharks, their sleek and streamlined bodies a stark contrast to the hammerhead, swooped into the large schools of fish, working together to herd them towards the surface, then attacking at great speed.  Two huge, bold Galapagos sharks, instantly recognisable by their large, tall and fickle shaped dorsal fin, similar to an Oceanic White Tip,  dared to come close to us, making our hearts pound as they would suddenly appear from nowhere, then disappear only to reappear a few moments later from the other direction.

Surfacing through this maelstrom of bodies and teeth, keeping in a close group, was very intimidating, especially, it seems, to all the male divers who pushed in front of me to get back on the boat first! Not only was I the only woman in the group, I also had a large unwieldy camera, and, with the swells still as big, was very shocked at their reaction. 

Once I was back on board the liveaboard, the air was alive with gasps of amazement and excitement, everybody trying to tell their own version of the dive.

The other group had also seen a large mola mola. Jumping into the very welcoming hot tub on the back of the boat, to warm ourselves up, guesses of how many sharks were there grew ever bigger - 20, 40, 60.  In reality, schools of over 200 sharks can be seen at these northern most islands on a regular basis. Once I had downloaded images from my camera, I actually counted 49 sharks in one photo - not bad for 10-15m visibility!

The following three dives that day saw the surge and current increase underwater. Even more sharks appeared, swarming around us like bees.  A school of six cownose eagle rays hung off the wall in the current, whilst a green turtle made a run for it’s life from the reef to the surface. Our dive guides would take us down onto the edge of the reef, where it became increasingly difficult to keep a grip on the reef. We would wait for 10 minutes to see if there was any action, before moving along the reef to another location.  It seemed the sharks move along the reef into the current in their large schools, circling back out of view, before making the pass again.

The next morning the mission continued. We were to do two more dives at Wolf Island before making the 2 hour crossing during lunch to Darwin Island, the most northerly island in The Galapagos.  The weather when we arrived had deteriorated overnight - the winds had picked up and the swells had increased, and that was only in the protected bay.  As we made our way in the RIB to Landslide, the dive site, the waves crashing into the side of the cliff cautioned us to a difficult entry and exit, as well as a strong surge underwater. Descending as quickly as possible, we fought our way to the edge of the reef.  The visibility had decreased down to 8-10m, making an eerie like scene in the early morning. Shadows and silhouettes of sharks, large and intimidating, came ever closer whilst we were tossed back and forth. Thankful for my gloves as others who had forgone them had small ribbons of green emanating from their unprotected hands as the reef tore into them, I worked my way slightly away and upstream of them, wary of the blood in shark infested waters. The dive was much shorter than the day before as our air was depleted in the difficult conditions. After around 15 minutes, our guide signalled for us to make our way up the reef, where we had an extended safety stop looking around the reef.  Our dive guide, William, got very excited when we spotted a rare sighting of a Meyer’s butterflyfish, normally only seen in the Indian and Western Pacific oceans. As we surfaced, we had been taken by the current around the corner of the island into a slightly calmer area. Again, and with almost every dive, the males of the group fought to get on the RIB before me. As I waited, dipping my head underwater to view the scene below me, I could here the distant clicking sounds of dolphins.  

Arriving back at the liveaboard before the other group, we quickly de-kitted and jumped into the hot tub to warm up.  We suddenly heard whopping an shouting noises coming from the others approaching RIB.  As we jumped out of the hot tub, we soon became green with envy as the others cheered over the sight of a massive 12m female whale shark.

We dived with anticipation on our final dive at Shark Bay, swimming out into the blue to try to spot a whale shark,

which cruise around the island in search of food, abundantly prevalent in the nutrient rich waters brought up from the deep by the cold Humbolt current which flows through the islands straight from the Antarctic normally during the months of July-November. We were lucky. It looked like the season had started early. Unfortunately for us, no whale shark appeared, and with only a few sharks spotted in the distance, we surfaced feeling disappointed. 

The liveaboard had positioned itself to the north of the island so it could start it’s journey up to Darwin as soon as we were on board.  This meant a reasonably long RIB ride.  As we skimmed over the swells we were suddenly joined by a group of Risso’s and Pacific Bottlenose dolphins.  Our RIB captain slowed the boat and made the sign for us to jump overboard.  Quickly donning our fins masks, we got in the water. Fleeting glimpses of the dolphins as they sped by us, accompanied by lots of clicking and a lone Galapagos fur seal, made up for not seeing a whale shark, and, of course, we gloated so much when we got back to the liveaboard only to find, not only had the other group not seen a whale shark, they had also missed the dolphins.

As we ate our lunch, the liveaboard made it’s way up to Darwin.  Shortly after, kitted up, we made our first dive on the only dive site at Darwin, located on the southern side of Darwin’s Arch, the famous arched rock just off the main island.  In the relative protection of the arch, the surge and current weren’t too strong. Immediately, as we descended, we were surrounded by sharks. They seemed not as shy as they had been at Wolf and several came very close to us. Being a small dive site, we spent the whole dive in one place, hanging off the wall.  Towards the end of the dive, we let the current take us over to a sandy area at around 16m. Here juvenile hammerheads have a cleaning station. Less wary than the adults, the juveniles came much closer to check us out. As I knelt on the sand, I heard behind me my dive guide banging his tank, as I turned a 2.5m hammerhead was only 2m away and heading straight for me. I managed to click the shutter once before it turned sharply away from me just at the last moment.

The next morning we did two more dives at Darwin. The current and surge had picked up even more, making it almost impossible to hold on to the rocks.  Our guide decided to make it a drift dive - probably the best of my life, as we were carried by the current through the schooling mass of sharks, seemingly becoming part of their group.  On our very last dive at Darwin, whilst drifting, we seemed to be heading for a huge dark shadow. The closer we got, the bigger the shadow, until, almost upon us we realised it was actually a huge 14m pregnant whale shark. At last! Back on the liveaboard we were secretly delighted the other group hadn’t seen her.

Back to Wolf Island for two more stunning dives and two more sightings of whale sharks,

before we made the very rough overnight crossing back to Santa Cruz Island, stopping on route early the next morning for two dives at Cousin Rock, one of the most famous of Galapagos dive sites. Located northeast of Santiago Island it is a tiny uninhabited, except for thousands of birds, island famous not only for pelagic encounters, but also for it’s macro life.

We had been warned the waters of Cousin Island were colder than up in the north. Donning an extra layer, we back rolled in off the RIB. Descending down to a slanted plateaux, we headed over the side to get some protection from the medium current.  Swimming along the wall, with the sandy bottom at 32m below us, the topography was like nothing else I had experienced.  Being of volcanic nature, the flat plateaux had broken away from the island leaving a vertical wall made of lots of layers of lava, with small fissures and shelves all the way along - plenty of places for marine life to hide. So many moray eels, free swimming from fissure to fissure, camouflaged bright red scorpionfish, even a small frogfish and a tiny seahorse, hid in the coral encrusted rock and wealth of soft coral and sea fans. It was a real pleasure, after so many extreme dives with huge schools of sharks, to relax and search the reef for interesting marine life.  At the sound of a tank bang, I turned to see several eagle rays gliding past. 

On our final dive, as we were on our safety stop, a large male sea lion joined us for a few short minutes, weaving in and out of our bodies and doing sommersaults all around. It’s a shame my camera battery died after only a few shots.  My final mission was trying to photograph the marine iguanas underwater on Santa Cruz Island. Being completely unbothered by humans on the land, they turned into masters of evasion underwater. Mission accomplished.........almost!