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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!

The Poor Man's Galapagos

ECUADOR | Thursday, 2 August 2012 | Views [1305]

View of Isla de la Plata from our dorm room

View of Isla de la Plata from our dorm room

I've been eager to visit Isla de la Plata since arriving in Puerto Lopez.  I first learned about the island from Marine Megafauna Foundation, the org I worked with in Mozambique; they've been traveling there to tag and study the manta ray population in the area in recent years.  On my current project, Equilibrio Azul also travels to the island but to capture and tag turtles.  I didn't care how to get to the island or what I would be doing, just wanted to go!

Isla de la Plata is located northwest to Puerto Lopez, takes about an hour to sail there from Puerto Lopez.  The island is a national park and is recognized as a protected area for the many marine birds, turtles, and other marine animals; it is also known as the "poor man's Galapagos" because it offers a small portion of similar species that reside on the Galapagos, but without the price tag.  Visitors may visit only with a licensed tour operator, and only day trips are allowed.  Fortunately, Equilibrio Azul has coordinated with the Ministry of the Environment so the group can stay overnight on the island to perform our work.  We travel to the island with the park rangers and stay in their dormitories.  During the day when visitors are present, we aren't allowed to hike around the island; however, once all visitors have left, the island is all ours to explore.

After six weeks in Puerto Lopez, I still have not gone to the island, either with Equilibrio or on my own on a dive.  It's rather difficult to arrange a boat ride there with the park; the rangers seem to change their mind constantly when they will go, how many days they'll stay, and how many people they can take.  During my fifth week, we were told we may go and needed to be ready on a moment's notice; however, the trip never happened.  The following Monday morning at 9 AM, our coordinator C got a call that the rangers would be leaving in an hour and could take four people for one night.  I ended up being one of the four (there were six of us total), great!  We quickly packed, purchased food (we have to bring our own food to prepare, but can use the kitchen in the dormitory), and was ready to leave.  We ended up waiting for three hours, and then the rangers changed their mind and decided it would only be a day trip, returning in the afternoon.  I barely sat foot on the island, had some lunch, and immediately got into a fisherman's boat docked at the bay to capture turtles.  Within the two hours in the water, we captured four turtles, all returnees with tags, always a good sign.  

Friday of that same week, C and I arranged to have the day off so we could scuba dive with a local dive shop at two Isla de la Plata dive sites.  The excursion that day had only myself and C as the experienced divers; the rest of the group were four newbies enrolled in a "Discover Scuba" course, which is for non-certified scuba divers who want to try it first before committing to the Open Water course.  Of the four, three were siblings in their teens, whose  parents sent them to the course on their own; the fourth was a Canadian gal traveling the country.  For both dives, the divemaster Gustavo would take the Discover Scuba students into the water first to practice some drills; after about 15 minutes, C and I would descend to unite with them.  Neither time worked out as expected though.  On the first dive, the four students all struggled just getting comfortable in the water with the scuba gear; it was a beautiful, sunny day, but the water was quite rough, especially for someone who has never dived before.  Once they became somewhat comfortable, the students struggled to descend; while some descended, others couldn't, and the girl of the trio siblings began to panic and gave up to return to the boat.  It would be another half hour before the three students and the divemaster finally descended.  When I finally descended, I had no trouble descending but the mask didn't fit properly and kept filling with water; it would take almost half the dive before the mask finally felt fine.

The site had excellent visibility though the water temperature was the coldest I've experienced, only about 15 degrees Celsius.  As soon as C and I united with the rest, I saw a disc-like object in a vertical position out of the corner of my eye; I was eager to see a manta ray and thought maybe I imagined it, but it couldn't be a manta ray because it would have to be swimming on its side vertically.  I swam closer and the object moved at the same time; luckily we both turned right so I could now clearly see the "disc" from the side instead of from the front, and I realized it was the elusive Mola mola, or ocean sunfish!  I've never seen one before, and now here it was, mere meters away from me, within minutes of the dive, how lucky I was!  The sunfish's body was flat laterally and gray, with fins at the top and bottom.  I tried to signal to the others but I didn't know the hand signals for this fish, and Gustavo was clearing his mask so he didn't even see me signal to him.  Within seconds it swam away, but I still couldn't believe my luck.  I pumped my arms back and forth to show my excitement, but the others didn't know what I was so excited about.  Oh well!  We dived quite shallow so the dive lasted over 40 minutes, and saw many more species:  moray eels, butterfly fish, parrot fish, turtles, and stingrays.  There were spots that were so cold though, I had to keep swimming to keep my body warm.  

The second dive site was not far away.  After a short rest and change of tank, we repeated the same scene: the four students would go first, C and I after.  This time though, two of the siblings either decided not to enter the water at all or just couldn't descend, so only two students stayed with Gustavo.  We were all in the water together, and somehow our signals crossed.  C and I thought Gustavo told us to wait while he went with the students to practice drills, so we stayed put and waited; after more than 5 minutes though, they never returned.  C initially suggested we swam in the direction they went, but my instinct and experience convinced me we should ascend (that is the first rule of separation:  wait, look for a minute, and then ascend).  We got back to the surface and they weren't there either, so we waited some more, thinking Gustavo would come to look for us, as all divemasters should do if part of your group was lost.  He never came for us though, and by now the water was very cold, so we returned to the boat.  Half hour later, Gustavo ascended with the students.  He never bothered to search for us, even though as the divemaster, it was his responsibility to do so if the group separated, WTF!  He was kind enough to take C and I back down for our dive though, even though it was past 4 pm by then.  The dive lasted about 45 minutes, and honestly towards the end, I was eager to ascend, the water was unbearably cold!  We returned to the boat close to 5 and headed back to Puerto Lopez.  On the way back, I saw the most spectacular whale breaching to date; the whales were not far away and breached so far out of the water, it was amazing!  I wished I wasn't so cold and wet and miserable, else I'd have enjoyed the scene and the sunset much more.

My third time to Isla de la Plata was with Equilibrio Azul, this time for a 2-night stay.  The turtle captures would take place in the evenings (when the turtles are more active?  Not sure why).  The first night, a park ranger took us out in the park's boat, and we captured about 7 turtles.  It took a bit of adjustment to work in the dark, with only our headlamp and the light on the boat, but I noticed the turtles were also calmer when it was darker when they were out of the water (or the turtles in that area are just calmer).  The second night was more interesting; we worked from a fishing boat that was anchored not far away from shore, but we had to swim to the boat.  A night swim in the bay with no light, my first time!  I was feeling a bit nervous; I actually haven't swum in a while (swimming while scuba diving is very different from swimming at the surface), and I had to carry my waterproof bag that contained my camera (not waterproof) and everybody's clothes, which I was afraid of losing.  Plus I was not wearing a wetsuit, just a rash vest and shorts over my swimsuit.  Oh well, this is what I signed up to do!  I got into the water (actually not so cold at the surface) and started swimming, grabbing the bag tightly in my right hand.  Despite not having done laps in a while, I got to the boat rather quickly, surprising even myself!  It turned out to be a very productive night, 14 turtles captured, 12 of them not tagged.  When done, we swam back to shore; thank goodness it was low tide!

Before heading to work on the second night, we hiked one of the trials, which was such a treat since there was no one else besides us, we were on the trials all by ourselves!  It was amazing how unafraid the birds were of humans; they would be in front of us on the trail, not scurrying away when we slowly walked pass them, with less than 1 meter of space between us as we crossed paths.  These birds are not threatened by humans since the island is protected, so they haven't learned to be afraid.  Some of them even made their nest right in the middle of the trial, with the mother sitting on top of the eggs; in that case, we actually turned around instead of passing them.  I could not wait until the Galapagos, the animals there are supposedly just as unafraid as these!

I felt fortunately to have gone to Isla de la Plata three times now, although the boat ride to and from the island becomes progressively worse every time.  Also, when we stayed on the island overnight, there was no shower; the dorms have no running water, so in the kitchen is a large tub filled with bottled water that's used for cooking and washing dishes.  I think I've determined my limit is two nights of no shower and only "washing" by baby wipes; had we stayed a third, I may have to protest!  There are facilities with flushed toilets and sinks for the visitors, which we also used, but the sink uses water drawn from the sea so it's salty, not what I really want to use to brush my teeth.

I was quite impressed with how well kept the island was; the trials were free of rubbish, the visitor facilities were clean and adequate, and of course the scenery was breathtaking.  I imagine the Galapagos, the "rich man's" island, better be hundred times nicer!

Tags: galapagos, isla de la plata, mora mora, scuba dive, sun fish, turtle capture

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