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dannygoesdiving This is a blog & photo journal of the trips that I (Danny) and Jo (wifey) have taken over the past few years.

Ecuador - The Galapagos Islands

ECUADOR | Sunday, 6 September 2009 | Views [821] | Comments [1]

Wow - amazing

Wow - amazing

The Galapagos have been on my diving wishlist for many years, but it has never seemed feasible, mainly because if you want to dive the most famous islands of Wolf and Darwin then it has to be by liveaboard, and you normally have to book a place at least 12 months in advance and pay lots of cash. However, at the last minute I was advised of a cancellation on the Peter Hughes boat 'SkyDancer', I thought about it for 2, maybe 3 seconds then booked - hell its not cheap, you'll need to sell you granny - on the otherhand, its rated as one of the best diving destinations in the world, (plus granny has had a good life and it would mean no more hand knitted ill fitting jumpers to endure each Xmas !).

With the Galapagos booked, the rest of the holiday was worked around it and a 3 week trip to Ecuador was born.

So.......... a little background on the islands. 

The Galapagos Islands were once called Las Islands Encantadas (Bewitched Islands), they actually take their name from the saddleback tortoises that are found there. These tortoises are among the world's largest.

Exactly 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador (This is the country to which the Galapagos islands belong) The Galapagos archipelagos is composed of five major islands -- Isabella, Fernandina, San Cristobal, San Salvador, and Santa Cruz. There are also eight other large islands and over forty islets and smaller rocks with official names, together they embrace some 19,500 sq miles of ocean. The landscape of the Islands is relatively barren and volcanic, but beautiful nonetheless.

Perhaps no other place has had a greater impact on the way we understand life, made famous by Charles Darwin, the Galapagos offer an extraordinary array of flora and fauna. Charles Darwin was 26 when he first saw the Galapagos Islands (whilst aboard the HMS Beagle). His 5 week stay and observations about life on the islands eventually led to his famed theory of evolution. His On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published in 1859.

During the four and a half centuries since their discovery, the islands have had a rich and varied history. Buccaneers, whalers, fur seal hunters, scientists, the military, convicts, fishermen, farmers and homesteaders have all left their mark on the islands.

The Islands are World's Second Largest Marine Reserve and were declared a Marine Reserve in 1986, Whale and Shark Sanctuary in 1990 and World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2001. It is rated as one of the top diving destinations in the world with 17% percent of Galapagos fish species being endemic to Galapagos.

Day 1:

A couple of hours flight from Quito (capital of Ecuador) saw me landing at St. Christobel in the Galapagos islands and from there a transfer to the liveaboard 'Skydancer'.  There were 15 guests on the liveaboard from all parts of the world (UK, USA, Oz, Spain, France & Switzerland) and of all levels of experience.  We all introduced ourselves, and were allocated cabins - I ended up on the upperdeck with a cabin to myself - a real result.  The boat was pretty luxurious (as you would expect considering the cost), with friendly staff and most importantly free booze (it just kept getting better).

Dive 1: Isla Lobos (sealion island). 16ft, 32 minutes. 72F

We did a 'check out' dive at Isla Lobos (sealion island).  I didn't think it was an ideal depth to do a check out dive and several people seemed to be struggling, visibility was not great and the area was pretty barren.  What made the dive was having maybe a dozen sealions swimming and diving all around you, chasing your exhaled bubbles and generally playing with the crazy underwater breathing humans.  It was obvious that they were used to  divers and seemed to enjoy the attention.   It was not really a dive, more of a 'kneel', but pretty good fun.

Back on the boat we were greeted with hot showers on the diving deck and warm towels to dry off with.  Hot drinks and snacks were handed out (this became the norm after all dives).

The evening comprised of a sit down 3 course meal, complete with wine.  The food was pretty good all week and the service impecable.  Stories were swapped as we all started to learn about our companions for the next week.  It seemed to be a good mix, with couples and individuals from varied walks of life.

Day 2:

A pretty restless nights sleep, an early breakfast and briefing and we were ready for our first real dive.

Dive 2: North Seymour Island. 77ft, 53 mins. 68F

Much was promised, so much was expected and to be honest, little was delivered !! It was the standard backwards roll entry from a rib and then into the blue (brown).  The visibility was pretty limited, the currents very inconsistent and the thermoclines were incredible.  The topography was similar to Stoneycove (for you Brits out there), a wall with a sandy/rocky bottom.  We followed the wall and there were a number of cool things - I just think the dive briefing had set expectations too high (don't harp on about hammerheads if its unlikely they will be there).  I saw a couple of marble rays (which I hadn't seen before), eagle rays, hunting sealions and a large number of sleeping whitetips all piled up on each other in a small cave.  Towards the end of the dive the current picked up and we held onto rock outcrops, watching large shoals of fish swim by.  It was an OK dive but I was glad to be out the water as it was f***ing freezing !!!

We raised anchor and headed to Bartolome Island which was a couple of hours away.  This was to be our only dive of the day which was really frustrating as you are really geared up to 'dive the Galapagos'.  It also didn't help being confined to inside the boat for 2 hours whilst they fueled.  I cursed alot (and not so silently) and prayed that the Galapagos were not going to be a disappointment.  As we approached Bartolome we saw the distinctive Pinnacle rock, which is the most distinctive feature of the island.

Snorkelling - Pinnacle Rock

Lets get one thing straight - I hate snorkellers & snorkelling - why snorkel when you can dive is my belief (I am not going to bitch all the time, please bear with me).  Despite this I chose to jump into the cold and murky water for 45 minutes or so.  Saw a whitetip when I first jumped in which was cool, then a variety of colourful starfish and shoals of fish.  All very pretty, all very same and all very tedious after the first 5 minutes.  I perservered though and was rewarded in the last 10 minutes to a couple of sealions playing together and best of all galapagos penguins chasing shoals of fish.  The penguins were one of my top 'must see' things and it was a real highlight - now put some penguins at the Turks & Caicos snorkel sites and I might volunteer a little more often.

Land Tour - The Sumit

We set foot on Bartolome and walked the half hour or so up to the volcanic cone, which is the sumit of the island.  We were told that this island offers some of the most beautiful landscapes in the archipelago and they were not lying. The island consists of an extinct volcano and a variety of red, orange, green, and glistening black volcanic formations.   The view from the sumit was truly spectacular, looking across the island and down onto the distinctive pinnacle.  On the way back down we saw a number of marine iguanas, as well as both sealions and penguins in the water.

Day 3:

We sailed overnight for 12 hours to reach the island of Wolf.  It is both this island and Darwin where the diving is meant to be at its most spectacular, I tried not to build up my expectations after what I had encountered so far.  The diving around these two islands is tightly controlled, only 4 liveaboards can visit the islands, they can only do a total of 6 dives at each site and on very specific days of the week so it is not overcrowded.  The result of all this was thay we were the only boat here.

Dive 3: Wolf Island.  61ft, 60 mins.  73F

The dive briefing was simple enough - negative entry into the water, swim to the wall, hold onto a rock (strong currents) and watch the action.  As we climbed aboard the rib, there were pods of dolphins swimming around us, leaping out the air and generally showing off (as dolphins do), the sea was pretty much flat calm and the excitement was tangible.  We had been promised eagle rays, galapagos sharks, hammerheads and silky sharks and I wanted them all !

We dropped into the water, it was warmer and cleared which was a good start. The general topography was  a gently sloping wall to a ledge and then a drop off.  There were big volcanic boulders, with occasional hard coral and no soft coral.  I found my spot and settled down to wait ... and I didn't have to wait long.

I can only describe it as the most amazing dives of my life (and I have a couple of thousand dives under my belt), I literally had tears in my eyes as I watch the spectacle before me, feeling so privaleged and humbled to be there, it really was like a show on the Discovery Channel. 

Almost immediatly there was a school of eagle rays, then what I had come all this way for - a hammerhead, followed by further small schools of hammerheads (max of 15 in a school), then galapagos sharks .. and repeat all over again.  During the dive there were always sharks in site and as we hung in the blue doing our safety stop , a school of silky sharks swam around us.

Breaking the surface, with a grin the size of a plate, I was surrounded by dolphins playing in the water.

I was already made, I love hammerheads, I think they are amazing, I have only ever seen 4 before now (2 great & 2 scalloped, in both Egypt and Turks & Caicos).  On this dive alone I saw well over 100.

Although I saw more of everything on subsequent dives, to me this dive will be my resounding memory of Galapagos, when the dream became reality and my mind was blown apart by what I saw.

Dive 4: Wolf Island.  59ft, 55 mins.  74F

And so continued the pattern of the next 3 days.  The current had lessened and we enjoyed watching big shoals of fish swim by.  There were more eagle rays and turtles than on the previous dive, but fewer sharks.  That said we still saw more hammerheads, Galapagos sharks & silkies.  We drifted more with the current on this dive, covering more ground and as I looked up a manta ray lazily swam towards and over me.  I tried to follow and keep up, its only then you realise how effortlessly they move through the current as you pant and wheeze to keep up :)

Dive 5: Wolf Island.  73ft, 57 mins.  74F

We reverted to the first plan of the day and knelt down on the sand and basically spent half an hour watching schooling hammerheads.  We drifted again at the end - further hammerheads, galapagos sharks, eagle rays - I am sure you get the picture by now.

Dive 6: Wolf Island.  77ft, 54 mins.  74F

This was our last dive of the day and the light was beginning to drop, giving the water a darker more eirie feel.  We were treated to the odd hammerhead, but nothing to compare to the previous dives.  We dived shallower and closer to the island until we came to a colony of sealions and fur sealions (very big eyes), and relaxed as 20+ of them dive bombed us.

The evening was spent drinking beer, talking about the day and generally marvelling at what we had seen.

That evening we headed towards the island of Darwin.

Day 4:

I awoke, looked out my cabin window to see the famous Darwin's Arch - we were here.  As the sun rose the island became alive with the noise of thousands of birds, dolphins circled the boat and even a turtle lazily swam by - this is meant to be the best dive site in the world - well we would see.

This time of the year is meant to be the best time to see Whale sharks, with an almost unpresidented 100% guarantee !!! 

We were warned that currents here can be very strong (5 knots), the dive brief was negative entry , find a rock and hold on and wait for whale sharks - then when you see them swim out to them and try and keep up as long as possible - when exhausted swim back to the reef wall and repeat - sounded like a plan to me.

Dive 7: Darwins Arch.  85ft, 59mins. 75F

I had barely got myself settled when we had our first whaleshark. I swam like a lunatic to get alongside it and swam with it for as long as I could - looking up I saw a school of hammerheads above  me, looking down there was another school below me - not only that but I was swimming alongside a whaleshark !!!

Back to the ledge and repeated the proceedure twice more - now I had seen 3 whalesharks and it was the first dive here.  We finally swam out into the blue, being constantly surrounded by hammerheads, including the largest school so far, approximatly 100 in total.  I was just starting my safetystop when I look down and in the distance I saw a fourth whaleshark approaching.  Sod the safety stop! down I went to watch it approach me, I then let it glide beneath me, before I turned and swam alongside it, I was close enought to touch the damn thing - and this one was easily 10m in length.

Job done - time to exit, grin and blither alot (along with everyone else).

Dive 8: Darwins Arch.  69ft, 58mins. 75F

The plan was the same, sadly the current had changed which is not so good for whalesharks, so had to be content with school after school of hammerhead - not a bad concelation prize.

At the surface there were hugh swells.

Dive 9: Darwins Arch.  84ft, 51mins. 75F

No point in changing a working plan !! A pod of dolphins were the first to engage us as they passed us under water, then the largest whaleshark so far approached (about 13m in length).  I swam backwards into the current as it swam towards me, then watched it glide by me (again within arms reach).  Had another school of hammerheads on the safetystop

Can you believe that 2 people sat out the dive !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Dive 10: Darwins Arch.  57ft, 50mins. 75F

As the say in Thailand - 'same,same'.  Another whaleshark and occasional hammerheads.

Oh God ........ what a day

Day 5:

Dive 11: Darwins Arch.  76ft, 45mins. 75F

Very, very strong current.  Whaleshark & hammerheads.

Dive 12: Darwins Arch.  82ft, 52mins. 75F

Final dive at Darwin.  As if to mark it we had literally hundreds & hundreds of hammerheads.  One school of 500+ tooks minutes to pass us by.  A final whaleshark at the end of the dive.

In 6 dives I had seen 8 whalesharks & well over a 1000 hammerheads - oh and there were some other fish there as well.

We were now headed back towards Wolf.

Dive 13: Wolf.  74ft, 53mins. 75F

Although the first dive at Wolf will remain with me forever, as a dive site it now couldn't compete with Darwin.  It sounds harsh as we still had galapagos sharks, hammerheads and a pod of dolphins.  I started looking around more generally and its then that you realise the profussion of other fish life, its just that it can't compete with your attention !

Dive 14: Wolf.  63ft, 50mins. 75F

The highlight was a squadron of eaglerays that hung around us for about 10 minutes.  The current was strong so it turned into a great drift dive

So long Wolf ......... gone, but never to be forgotten.

Day 6:

We had headed back overnight and arrived at our divesite early in the morning.  We were here for one reason, and one reason only .. Manta Rays.

We were briefed that the water was colder, the visibility usually poor, but full of plankton - hence the manta rays.

Dive 15: Isabella Island - Cabo Marshall. 39ft, 60mins. 70F

The brief was accurate - cold and poor visibility.  There were the most amazing blue starfish, I also saw a lone hammerhead, whitetip, golden ray and the occasional sealion.  But what about manta rays you ask ?  Oh yes ... and 5 very large manta rays. 

Dive 16: Isabella Island - Cabo Marshall. 34ft, 47mins. 70F

Not as eventful - 1 manta and lots and lots and lots of jellyfish.

That was the diving over with for the day, we upped and left, heading to Santiago island for a much anticipated land tour.

Land Tour: Santiago Island (Puerto Egas)

We arrived on the island via the RIB and landed on the black volcanic sand beach where we immediatly saw sealions. We then followed a trail to a long, lava shoreline where eroded rock formations are home to an excellent variety of wildlife. We saw hundreds of Marine iguanas bask in the sun, Sealions unwinding after a hard days relaxing, tide pools containing Sally Lightfoot crabs, and lava lizards.  The walk was about 2 hours and a nature photographers dream.

Day 7:

Dive 17. Gordon Rocks 100ft, 45mins. 70F

Gordon Rocks is a partially eroded crater at the top of a tuff cone, with 3 sections of the cone being visible above the water.

The visibility was very poor (maybe 15ft) with very strong currents.  We dropped to the base of the crater, kneeling on the sand to watch Galapagos garden eels.  We then worked our way around the inside of the crater, before exiting and working around the outer side, which was dramatic and steep.  Saw a couple of turtles and sealions.  I enjoyed the topography, never having dived a crater. I chose not to do a second dive there and so ended my diving experience in the Galapagos.

A few people did a second dive and then we headed to Santa Cruz to visit the Darwin Station.

Land Tour: Santa Cruz - Darwin Station

The main street in Santa Cruz is nice enough and runs parallel to the sea.  It is a mix of dive shops, touristy shops, bars & restaurants, enough to keep you occupied for a couple of hours.  The front is also home to a number of pelicans and sealions (especially round the fishing boats and fishmarket.

We walked to the Darwin Centre, where we learned more about the history of the islands, the hard work being done both to protect the environment (whilst allowing tourism) and the removal of non indigenous species.  We then saw some land iguanas, the tortoise breeding program at work, saw the different species, including the famous giant galapagos tortoises.

That evening a few of us chose to eat on land, where we had a great meal of sushi, lobster and steak. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

Day 8:

Land Tour: St Cristobel

Disembarked the SkyDancer and visited the Interpretation centre and then walked back into the town, stopping off at a beach to see a final few sealions.  Finally back to the airport and a flight to Quito.

I had fulfilled a dream of going to the Galapagos and in all had had a great week.  The people and crew had all been great, at its best the diving had been spectacular and there had been a good mix of land tours.

So that said and strange as it may sound, having been to the Galapagos, I do not feel the need to return to dive it again.

Enough of that though ..... next stop was the Amazon rainforest.

 

Comments

1

I'm not jealous. I'm not. Really. *sniff*

  Kes Nov 25, 2009 12:38 AM

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