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Taking the road less traveled Spending a year in five continents to embrace my "inner turtle", to live simply, and to avoid being shark bait!

I "Trashed" the Ocean

ECUADOR | Monday, 23 July 2012 | Views [519]

The whales we encountered on the way to my first dive

The whales we encountered on the way to my first dive

Scuba diving isn't part of the "responsibilities" at my current volunteer project in Puerto Lopez, so I would need to book diving excursions on my own.  Luckily, the other two volunteers and the local coordinator, C, are all certified scuba divers and wanted to dive, so we convinced the expert free diver, L, who works with us at Equilibrio Azul (and happens to be a divemaster with connections to a local dive shop), to take us out.  It would also be cheaper than going with a local dive shop, since we can use some of Equilibrio Azul's dive equipment, borrow the rest through his connection with the dive shop, and hire a boat and skipper.

On a gorgeous, clear, and sunny day (such a rarity in Puerto Lopez in the winter), we left in the morning for two dives.  It felt great to return to the routine of prepping for a dive, even the "laborious" tasks like carrying tanks and weight belts to the boat, and (worst of all) putting on a wetsuit.  Pancho was our skipper for the day, a jolly guy with  a small powerboat that you could tell he took great care of; as soon as he saw sand or puddles of water inside the boat, he would immediately wipe clean.  On our way to the first dive site, we crossed paths with three or four humpback whales, who were no more than 50 meters away and happily swimming alongside us; we slowed down to enjoy their presence until they dived down and were out of sight.  We kept sailing, and after about 40 minutes, arrived at Isla Ahorcados, which translates to Hanging Island.  The name was given because back in the days, indigenous people were hung there by invaders; the island has these pointed and tall ridges that could be used to hang ropes. 

We assembled and got into our gear, not easy to do inside a small boat with a decent amount of current in the sea.  A first for me was the gauge that showed the amount of air in the tank; I've only dived with gauges that measure air pressure in bar, but this gauge used PSI (pounds per square inch), and I had no idea how much PSI  means "I'm low on air" nor how to indicate with my hands underwater the amount of air in my tank (a full tank is around 200 bar or 3000 PSI, and the signals to indicate hundreds are different from thousands), so I quickly got a lesson from C (ugh, it's time to standardize these systems worldwide!)  We entered the water by rolling backwards from the boat (glad I did plenty of those in Mozambique) and then popped back up onto the surface to give an OK signal, and when everyone was ready, descended at the same time.  Now there were a few other things that I wasn't used to besides the air gauge:  I was wearing a thicker wetsuit which meant more buoyancy, and also more weights on my belt to compensate for the extra buoyancy; maybe it was psychological, thinking I was more buoyant, but I had a harder time than usual descending; before I knew it, everyone else had descended and I was still bopping up and down on the surface, WTF!  My BCD was completely emptied, and I tried to relax and use my breathing to help me descend, but it was not happening.  So I turned upside down and kicked to swim down, which started working but I could not see anyone else (visibility was not so great).  I kept kicking, all the time scanning around, and finally saw bright yellow fins that one of the divers was wearing (I think divemasters should be required to wear something bright so they can be easily spotted underwater).  I heard later that L came back onto the surface to look for me but couldn't find me, and by the time he descended back, I had made it; that was how long it took me to descend compared to everyone else!

I wasn't sure what to expect at the dive sites around Puerto Lopez; I know the the marine wildlife isn't like the Galapagos nor even nearby Isla de la Plata, and I am definitely spoiled by the rich and amazing marine ecosystem in Tofo.  Compared to the dive sites I've dived before, this was maybe half as good; it probably didn't help that it is middle of winter now, so at certain spots, the water temperature must have been no more than 15°C (the coldest water I've been in up until now was around 22°C, so 7 degrees less is a lot).  We saw turtles, stingrays, trigger fish, butterfly fish, moray eels, surgeons, scorpion fish, all species I've seen before so I could recognize them despite some differences.  But the corals weren't nearly as full of life, and the colors on the fish were not nearly as vibrant.  During the dive, I discovered a few other discomfort: my BCD was slightly too big so the tank was not tugged nicely against my back (and caused much shoulder pain the following day), and my booties and fins did not fit well so I was kicking funny and tired out my shins.  I guess that's the price I pay for a "friends and family discount" dive!

We dived for about 40 minutes and then ascended.  Once on the surface, we were on the other side of the island, so L whistled for Pancho to sail the boat around to pick us up (I was surprised that as the divemaster leading a dive, L did not have a bright, orange floating device which normally all divemasters have on dives; during the ascend, the divemaster would put air in so it floats to the surface, indicating divers are below for all boats to see).  Once arrived, we climbed into the boat and rested; in order to have decent amount of bottom time at the second dive, we would require a certain amount of surface time in between the two dives, truly a "mandatory rest period"!  We snacked, enjoyed the warmth of the sun, discussed the second dive site, and then sailed there, about 20 minutes away.  We needed to prep early; the current at Isla Salango was strong that day, so Pancho would simply slow down, pause just enough for us to roll out of the boat, and we must quickly descend or else the current would drift us away rapidly.  Fortunately, my descent this time was better, and I was able to spot the other divers the whole way.  Oddly though, the four of us got to the bottom but our divemaster was nowhere to be seen!  We looked and signaled to each other "where is he?  no idea!" and thought about ascending after what felt like minutes (but was probably closer to just a minute); luckily, L appeared out of nowhere (that's how poor the visibility is) and we started the dive.

This site was barely as good as the first; two more turtles (think the "up close and personal" encounters with turtles from the Capturas have spoiled encounters with turtles during dives), more stingrays, butterfly fish, scorpion fish, and moray eels.  The water temperature felt even lower this time, and I kept having to pull the BCD close because the tank felt so loose.  For perhaps only the second or third time ever, I actually wanted the dive to end, just because I was cold and not that comfortable with my gear.  The drift was very strong, and instead of going in its direction, we were going against it, so we were all kicking furiously but barely moving; it was a great workout but not what I was hoping.  After changing direction and another 20 minutes, we ascended.  The conditions were difficult at the surface: lots of waves and wind, and we had to hang on to the side of the boat as we removed our gear before climbing in, or we would drift away quickly with the current.  Think between my wanting to remove my gear ASAP and the rough conditions, I was not nearly as careful as usual, and despite something in my head telling me I should wait to remove my weight belt to hand to Pancho, who was busy getting gear from the other divers, I did not listen.  I removed the weight belt with both my hands (I had on 8 pounds of weights), and once the buckle was undone, I lifted my left hand to hang on to the boat while the right hand grabbed the end of the belt; I lifted my right arm to bring the belt out of the water, but with the strong current and my carelessness, the belt slipped and dropped back into the water.  SHIT!!!!!!  I've had over 40 dives by now, and I have NEVER lost a weight belt until now.  I said a few choice words and got the others' attention.  Once we were all back in the boat, L returned to the water with what's left in his tank to search for the belt; he came back a few minutes later (no belt), changed to another tank with air left, and tried again, but still no belt.  It'd have been a miracle for him to find it, and I felt horrible!  I kicked myself for not listening to that tiny voice in my head to wait, because now I've lost an expensive equipment and I've polluted the ocean.  UGH!!

It was about a 20 minute boat ride back to shore, and we were all too tired and cold to speak much about the second dive on the way back.  Frankly for me, both dives were just passable, but overall it was made worse by my losing the weight belt.  I still have 3 weeks left in Puerto Lopez, and C and I already decided that we would dive again but with one of the local dive shops, so hopefully next time will be better.  If there's something I got out from the day, it was certainly a stark reminder that we should respect the ocean more for its power and unpredictability; never fight it, just go with the flow.

Tags: butterfly fish, isla ahorcados, isla salango, moray eel, puerto lopez, scorpion fish, scuba dive, surgeon, turtle, weight belt

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