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Galapagos Islands

Galapagos Islands map

written by Lee Johnson – Perth Scuba Manager (images by Joey Pool)

Part 1

During August 2012, Lee and Joey led a group of Perth Scuba Divers to explore the world famous Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos Islands are one of the few places in the world where you are guaranteed to see schooling hammerheads and whale sharks when scuba diving – and this was the reason we wanted to explore! The islands are a giant marine park where fishing is strictly governed to a level that is very sustainable (only hand fishing to a small number of vessels is permitted).

Our tour kicked off in Guayaquil, Ecuador about 1000km away from the Galapagos Islands. Guayaquil is the largest city in Ecuador and we were completely unprepared for the sheer scale of the city with a population of approximate 3.5million people! After a 24 hour journey from Sydney to reach Guayaquil (via Auckland New Zealand and Santiago Chile) we were all very happy to slip into bed at the Macaw Hostel on our first evening. After completely bombing out we awoke to the sounds of Guayaquil the following morning – now it was time to hit the town and EXPLORE! Guayaquil is loaded with old buildings including enormous cathedrals, grand parks and outdoor art galleries. It’s a feast for the eyes – but watch out – while you’re looking at the sights there’s some kids closely watching your pockets. That’s right, we had a fascinating experience at the Iguana Park, watching the kids give you big doe eyes until you turned around and they madly scouted out what they could pinch before you knew it. Our crew was very switched on and had no problems with the pick-pockets and watched bemused as they tried their luck on other tourists – no successes whilst we watched! After a day of exploring the sights it was time to hit the hay ready for our early flight to THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS!

The Galápagos Islands are a group of volcanic islands located around the equator in the Pacific Ocean, about a 4 hour flight west of continental Ecuador. The islands are geologically young and famed for their vast number of endemic species, which were studied by Charles Darwin. His observations and collections contributed to the inception of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

We landed in San Cristobal in no time – one of THE Galapagos Islands – yippee!!! We’d finally arrived after LOTS of flying!!! It was a beautiful sunny morning and after pouring out of the plane we waited patiently whilst ONE – count them ONE – person unloaded the plane… Finally, after the customs doggies had sniffed everything it was time to grab our bags and get out to the waiting arms of our guide Juan Carlos! (JC) Juan quickly loaded us into the bus and drove us down to the marina where we were greated with a dozen sealions lazing across every surface. This included park benches, boats, ramps, rocks (which you’d expect), footpaths and low walls. Anywhere there was a spot of shade, you’d find a sea lion lounging and snoring… What a life! Scroll down for more about our Galapagos Islands dive tour…

We loaded our dive bags onto a zodiac and followed our luggage to the vessel “Humboldt Explorer”. From a distance the Humboldt appeared smaller than some of the other vessels but upon arrival it was clearly big enough for everything we needed.

After a briefing from JC about how everything worked and how the trip was going to run, we headed out for our first “check out” dive. (This was just a dive to make sure all of our equipment was working and to show the crew that we could all dive.) The water temperature at San Cristobal was a balmy 16 degrees! We were all starting to question what we had brought in the way of wetsuits and rashies as we sure weren’t expecting it to be that cold! We were told later that this was the coldest place to dive and that as we got further north into the Galapagos Islands the water would get up to 24 – 26 degrees… Whew!

The water was very clear and the Sea Lions were very playful with us on the dive but keeping them interested was difficult. After all how do you compete with an animal that can zip arouns at a hundred miles an hour, turn back on it’s own axis and spin and twirl at a rate of nots? We tried. One of our guys had his head nibbled on because he wasn’t paying attention to the sea lion above him who wanted to play… very cute and very funny to watch.

Dive over and with the dive crew happy that we knew what we were doing, it was time to dry off and make for the better diving of the Galapagos Islands.

During the evening JC told us of the exciting things that lie ahead and a bit about the Galapagos Islands. We were sure in for a treat! We were all asked what we would like to see and were all promised that we would see what we wanted… a tall order but if JC could come through with the goods, everyone would be happy.

The crew on the boat were introduced to everyone on the trip and very quickly the banter started between guests and crew. It was going to be a fun trip.

After steaming all night we arrived in the early hours at North Seymour Island. After a quick breakfast we worked out who was going to be in the A and B team of divers and kitted up accordingly. Group A was ready within a minute and champing at the bit to get into the water. After lots of cameras were handed down to our “Panga” including Joey’s Praying Mantis, our driver hit the throttle and headed out toward our first real dive site. A short briefing from our Dive master (JC) on how to exit the Panga all at the same time without giving the diver next to you concussion and we were ready on the count of 3.

1… 2… 3 it must have looked funny from a distance as 8 divers all rolled back at once from the boat leaving the driver from a full boat to empty in 3 seconds. We hit the water, settled ourselves and clipped everything into place, then descended into the cool but clear waters of North Seymour Island.

The water temperature was now 19 degrees so it was (as promised) getting warmer. The visibility was around 20 metres and the marine life was already starting to show us what we could expect on this awesome and much anticipated trip.  Sharks, Eagle Rays and fish everywhere! we sat in one location and took it all in before moving with the current along the steep and barnacle encrusted reef wall.

Joey’s strobes were firing madly – it was like a disco and the go pro cameras were all chasing everything that moved on the reef.

The anticipation was high and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The massive Eagle Rays cruised by us flexing against the moderate current an arms length away from us and they stayed along side us for 10 minutes, almost as if they were checking us out as much as we were them. With lots of photographs and videos taken it was once again time to lift up and move along the reef. This time we swam into a school of Giant Trevally which herded and barrelled through us. there would have been hundreds if not thousands of them… the welcoming party had arrived! with the stampede over after a few minutes the water cleared and there was once again fish of every species zipping around getting in the way of every photo opportunity of a shark or larger fish. We encountered our first Galapagos Shark on this dive and countless other critters which would surely make this trip one of the best dive trips ever… We ascended after an hour and were welcomed by our driver who was waiting to take our cameras and assist us back onto the panga. With the first real dive down, it was going to take a long time for the smiles to wear off this group of divers faces. 3 more dives at North Seymour Island and then we headed towards the equator for our equator party… and of course the best dive sites in the world… Darwin and Wolf Islands.

Part 2

We departed North Seymour Island and headed up across the equator to Wolf and Darwin islands. These islands are what we came here for and the Humboldt Explorer is one of only 2 vessels which venture that far. The ocean was uncannily flat and smooth like glass as we headed towards the equator. It was 3pm and there was a massive pod of Dolphins jumping out of the water in every direction you looked. There must have been thousands of them and they seemed very happy to put on a show for us as we prepared ourselves for our equator party. The day was perfect. The sun was out, it was around 26 degrees and the water was clear. The crew was preparing for our party and the countdown had begun for our arrival at the equator. Everyone had a drink in hand as we all watched and waited and took in the awesome sights around us. The distant islands coming up steeply from the ocean floor looked sharp and inhabitable. This was the result of some serious volcanic action millions of years ago which made up the Galapagos Islands.  As we reached the equator the loud horn sounded in a series of bursts to let us know that we had arrived. There we were. Most of us had never had a chance to be on the water at the equator so it was kind of cool to know that you were there. Not that to most people it meant a lot – they just knew it was great to be there and the drinks and nibblies that the crew had put on for us were a great way to spend the afternoon. Being on the equator was very calm and there was not a breath of wind. Just the sound of the water slapping the hull of the boat and the squawks of a few sea birds which had hitched a ride on and above our boat as if they too knew they were going to somewhere very special was all that could be heard. It was one of those moments where you just looked around and took it all in and thought to yourself… wow! Here I am. Something I had dreamed about since I began diving almost 17 years ago, The Galapagos Islands… The diving equivalent of the Holy Grail has been on the top of my list of diving destinations since day one. So much had been said about this place and so many documentaries had shown why the Galapagos Islands were so special and we were right there experiencing all of that first hand. No one I know had ever been there and everyone I knew had talked about it at some stage. Having a chance to think about that and how it had all come about after 3 years of planning and organising on the calm ocean that day is something I will always remember. The people who were on the trip were great, the crew were fantastic and the weather was all we could have hoped for… the anticipation on what we would encounter over the next three or four days was very high. Eight days was never going to be enough in this fantastic place so we were going to make the most of every second.

Lots of drinks and conversation later we headed off and prepared our cameras and equipment for the  next day and headed off to bed.

The next day we arrived at Wolf Island at the break of dawn and the hum of the motors stopped just as the daylight hit our cabin windows. After breakfast JC gave us a good run down on Wolf Island and what we could expect to see there. It would probably have been easier to say what we wouldn’t see on this briefing because if there was ever going to be a dive site where you would have the potential to see everything… this was it! One of the big things JC prepared us for was the strong currents which are the reason the Galapagos Islands are so abundant with marine life. A whole bunch of different ocean currents meet here bringing cold and warm waters together and massive upward currents from the deep which bring with them the nutrients that keep feeding the millions of fish and other marine critters. These currents, we were warned CAN be dangerous and WILL be strong. We were all given a diver EPIRB which we attached to our BCDs and had a quick lesson on how to use them should we become separated from the main groups which we were diving with. They were really neat. Each had a radio switch to speak to the boat captain and another switch which gave an exact location just in case they can’t find you with your radio call. I asked whether they had used them often… “last month” was the response. “But the currents then were soft… we have a full moon now. The currents are the strongest they get”. GREAT! Well we did choose this time of year for a reason and that is that all of the underwater creatures come together at this time of year because of the currents, season, water temperatures and the full moon. (That’s why we had to book the boat almost 3 years in advance).

By the time we had completed the briefing on the dive site and the epirbs we were really buzzing about what we might see. This was going to be our first encounter with Hammerhead sharks. One of the guaranteed sightings we were told of and one that Joey and I have chased around the world to try to capture on the camera. There had been 2 times we had seen them before, once in Christmas Island where we saw a Great Hammer Head Shark which was no less than 4 metres long. It was huge and as surprised as we were when we came face to face with it. None of us were able to get a good photograph at the time as we were completely taken by surprise. It was a case of… if you can’t get a good photo, don’t try… just enjoy the moment. (Excellent advice from great underwater photographer… Shannon Conway). In that case, we did enjoy the moment and this time we were going to get that damn photograph!

We jumped onto our Panga with cameras in hand and headed out for our fist dive. Wolf Island is a strange looking place…  just a massive rock which comes up from a couple of kilometers of ocean with some greenery in top and a million birds precariously balanced on the edges of the steep cliff faces. This is where you can see Blue Footed Boobies and Frigate birds which seemed hell bent on making sure the boobies could never relax as they constantly defended their young from aerial attack. It’s the kind of place you want to make sure you wear a hat to avoid an aerial bombardment of the sloppy kind.

The waves around Wolf Island were reasonably big which gave us an opportunity to watch as the white water crashed up the cliff face and back upon itself. It looked inhospitable at first but when you glance further back from the white wash you could see how clear the water was and why this place was going to be fantastic.

We pulled up in a protected area about 15 metres from the wall and knew it was going to have to be a pretty quick entry as the Panga was bouncing around and drifting strongly towards the wall. On 3 we all rolled back into the water and were pleasantly surprised at the 25 degree water temperature. A big change from the last dive we had done. A quick check by JC and everyone was ready to descend. Divers started to vanish one by one leaving just a bubbling surface which resembled the hot tub on the boat. Once you got your head under the water it was very clear… 25 – 30 metres visibility and that was sure to improve as we got away from the wall. JC guided us straight to the bottom where we were all placed strategically between barnacle encrusted boulders and reef in a line about 10 metres from the bottom and 15 metres deep. It looked like JC had set us up for a movie showing ensuring that every one of us had a good view without obstruction from any other diver. After settling in and allowing for the surge which was very strong as promised by JC earlier, we started to scan the ocean in front of us. Now I really don’t know how to explain what we saw. I can only try to put this into words and unfortunately words will not do justice to the Galapagos Islands I can promise you. The first thing that you notice here is the amount of fish. WOW! There are literally thousands and thousands of fish scarpering all over the reef. In front of us there are tiny fish, bigger fish, huge fish and then… Hammer head sharks! This sight was awesome! We had travelled a long way to see these sharks, 36 hours by plane and another 50+ hours by boat. There we were… looking at a dozen or more Hammer head sharks. They were around 2 metres long and didn’t seem to care at all that we were invading their turf. They cruised by cautiously having a bit of an extended look as they ventured past. A couple of them doubled back to have another look at the strange new creatures that had just joined their environment. It was difficult to get a good photograph at that point even though they sat in front of us due to the sheer number of other fish which just seemed to get in the way. What a terrible dilemma to have right?

Once things had settled down a bit, (us actually)- we moved up the reef a bit further and again set ourselves up for another show. The surge at this point was funny to watch. Some of our crew held on for dear life making sure that they weren’t torn from the reef while others let go off the reef and swung left to right along with the surge without any dramas at all. Joey and the praying mantis were one of those. Ever tried to stop a camera that weighs the same as a car from moving from side to side? It worked for Joey.

As we settled in again we were greeted by a couple of large Eagle Rays which hung around for a while and then our fist Galapagos Shark! It was huge. At first glance from the sheer size of it I started to wonder if we’d come across a Great White. No one ever told us we’d get them here! But no – to my surprise, this very curious and very large new visitor was happy to swim along checking us out. He cut across the group to get a closer look and then continued on his journey as if we weren’t there again. Turtles, Hammerheads and Eagle Rays… Giant Trevally, a school of Yellow Fin Tuna, more Hammerheads and still millions of little fish kept us amused for the entire dive and before we knew it, JC was pulling us off the wall to move to our safety stops. What a dive! And this was just the beginning…

To be continued next week.

 

 

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