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Diving in the Galapagos

26 Dec

If someone invites you on a dive trip to the Galapagos, there’s only one answer, right?  A trip to the Galapagos wasn’t on our radar until about three weeks ago when our friends from the Dominican Republic called and said, “Hey, they are running dive boats again and no one is down there—wanna go?”  It took an incredible feat of logistics, given the dearth of flights and the COVID test requirements (we were tested three times before we arrived in Ecuador), but it all came together and suddenly we were hugging our friends in Quito, about to board a flight to the Galapagos.

Alessandro, Kamille, Michaela and Mark

What’s the big deal about Galapagos? Well, a pretty famous guy named Charles Darwin spent a few weeks there in 1835 and brought home some finch specimens that eventually helped him understand and discover the laws of natural selection, the nuts and bolts behind evolution.   Part of the reason he found such interesting specimens is due to Galapagos being a unique archipelago of islands six hundred miles off the coast of South America.  These islands were never settled by indigenous people, and thus, the creatures there had thousands of years to adapt and change without human interference. In addition, most Galapagos species don’t have a natural fear of humans, thus it’s a lot easier to get close to them, to study and enjoy.  That’s what brought us to the Galapagos…..to enjoy these amazing animals close-up.

When we told Mark’s dad we were headed there, he sort of pooh-poohed the trip, claiming, “Well, there’s not much there, it’s mainly just pile of rocks!”  I laughed and shook my head, but as we were about to land, I looked down and indeed, it was a brown, desolate island, devoid of color and full of rocks!  Was he right? Well, yes and no. 

It’s true that topside of the Galapagos is a barren environment. Almost no mammals were there until Europeans (whalers, pirates, and eventually the Spanish and English navy) brought goats and boar and house cats.  But what you DO see are some extremely unique reptiles, lots of beautiful birds, and some very interesting flora.  For example,  this is where you can meet, up-close and personal, the largest tortoise in the world, the Galapagos Tortoise.

You can also spot marine iguanas, the only ones in the world that dive dozens of feet underwater for algae. 

An archipelago made up of many islands, it’s also an incredible place to learn about volcanoes and geology, and literally see with your own eyes how these islands were formed. However, topside is not why we went. We went to go diving.  As we learned from our truly fabulous naturalist/dive master Eduardo Mahuad, the unique location of the Galapagos serves as a meeting point between three currents: the Humboldt Current coming up from Antarctica, the El Nino Flow coming from Panama, and the Cromwell Current from the west.   This confluence of currents brings rich nutrients for small fish to eat, and the small fish bring bigger fish, and so on and so on.  Thus, if you want to see a lot of pelagic action (i.e. big stuff like sharks, whales, etc.) this is where it’s at!

Mark and I have done a lot of diving over the last ten years, but most of it has focused on “macro” diving, which is small stuff on coral reefs.  He has taken some beautiful photos of things like teeny tiny sea horses and colorful anemones, and I think he is the master of patience and light, but this type of “out in the big blue” diving was not his photographic specialty.  Plus, his camera sort of fell apart during the trip.  Thus, we don’t have too many amazing photos to share. But boy do we have stories!

Ok, first let me tell you about the crew on our boat, the Calipso. We were taken care of by an amazing crew including the head steward Hugo, the nicest man you ever met.  Although he has a family and grown children on the mainland that he visits on his vacation days, he has lived full time for the past thirty years on Galapagos dive boats, so he has seen pretty much everything, both from his vantage on the boat and underwater (he joins the guests diving whenever he gets the chance).    He greeted us off the panga after every dive with a warm towel, he left us creative towel inventions every morning, he shared many stories of life in the islands, and he helped me rack up an incredibly high bar tab!  He even found us on the deck one day in the jacuzzi and brought us impromptu snacks of french fries and chicken wings. And that’s just Hugo.  There were seven other wonderful crew members that kept us fed, safe, happy, and giggling.

Then there were the guests. We had the incredible luck to be diving on beautiful Calipso with only seven guests, less than half the occupancy.  Besides Mark and I and our good friends Alessandro and Kamille, we were joined by a really cool couple from Alicante, Spain, named Brenda and Luis. They were about 15 years younger, and full of energy and enthusiasm, and we loved getting to know them and diving with them.

And then there was Dennis. Let me tell you about Dennis.  He was quite a guy.

A single diver from Quito, Ecuador, he was pumped to finally be diving in the northern islands of Wolf and Darwin, his first time up there.  Dennis claimed he had 85 dives logged, and that he was certified as a rescue diver. But I think his definition of “rescue diver” means he has to get rescued a lot!  He was friendly and entertaining and definitely made the trip unforgettable, but he was a terrible diver. 

Our divemaster/naturalist Eduardo’s main job was to keep us safe, and on the very first day we all jumped in for a “check-out” dive. This was a super chill dive spot where Eduardo could make sure we all had the right weights on, and we knew how to follow instructions.  Well, we all did, except for Dennis.  Eduardo spent about half of the dive holding onto Dennis, adjusting his jacket, weights, tank, mask, hood, and everything in between. I didn’t know a diver could need so much attention!  Eduardo would “release” Dennis and he’d either go shooting up or rapidly sinking down.  I was confused but figured, ok, he’s getting used to all the gear.  Truth be told, this was the first time any of us had worn such thick wetsuits (7mm), along with hoods, and a ton of weight. It definitely took some getting used to.

When we surfaced I looked at Dennis to see if he was upset or anything, but he was smiley and normal. He had no idea that he was such a desmadre underwater! 

The next day we did two more fairly mellow dives at Mosquera island, and Dennis was the same.  Totally clueless of where the group was, going up and down without realizing it, running out of air, staring at his go-pro when we were all making noise to get his attention, etc.  Eduardo talked to him after that dive privately, and told him, “Look, I don’t blame you, you have had bad instructors. I’m going to teach you how to dive. I just need you to listen to me. Don’t get distracted with your camera. Look around and watch the other divers. This is a great chance for you to learn.”  Apparently none of it really sunk in for Dennis, though. All Dennis got out of the entire lecture was, “So I can’t take my camera?”

The next day we sailed to Wolf Island.  Wolf and Darwin are the premiere dive sites in the Galapagos because this is where the currents meet, so there’s a ton of action. Of course, there’s also a ton of current.  Current requires divers to be more cognizant and more aware, because if you are not paying attention, the current can take a diver quickly off the rocks and away from the island.  This means that when you surface, your panga boat driver may not be able to find you right away.  In Cozumel this is no big deal because there are hundreds of boats passing by, and you have 40 miles of island to float by before you are out in open water, so most likely someone will find you. In Wolf and Darwin, more than 100 miles away from the main Galapagos archipelago, that’s not the case.  These islands are really just a couple of uninhabited rocks with no dry landing sites. Each is about half a mile long, and once you get swept off that, you won’t see another one until maybe Tahiti. So…….this is big-boy diving. We were all sort of wondering if Dennis would survive. 

The night before we arrived at Wolf and Darwin, Eduardo gave us a very detailed briefing. He explained the danger of currents and the isolation of these islands.  He gave us each a GPS beacon to keep in our dive jacket, and instructed us to deploy it in the unlikely scenario of getting lost at sea. He also laid out an incredibly specific dive plan, and the whole time we were all looking at Dennis, hoping he was getting this.  We were to do a negative entry off the panga boat, meaning that we would fall backwards into the water with no air in our jacket, and sink down as fast as possible to the rocks at 60 feet. There we would grab onto a rock, and hold on while we waited for everyone to group up. The currents could be very fast, and Eduardo even warned us that the current come from the side and knock off our mask or regulator, so he reminded us to face the current directly to avoid this. 

Our faithful Captain Paul navigated the Calipso 14 hours overnight to Wolf island. We awoke at dawn, excited and nervous.  We nibbled on toast and sipped coffee, as Eduardo kept giving Dennis gentle reminders about the dive. Dennis seemed unfazed as usual. Then we geared up on the big boat and each of us climbed onto the panga.  Our panga driver Hector motored us over to Shark Bay point, and Eduardo studied the water to select our entry spot.  He made sure we were all ready, regulators in mouth, masks on our face, and then did a countdown, 3-2-1, and we all rolled in backwards.  Just as I hit the water, I heard Eduardo yell, “Dennis!!! You forgot your fins!!!”   Luckily the current was not as strong as Eduardo had feared, so Eduardo jumped in and swam over to Dennis with his fins while the rest of us waited below on the rocks.

Even without a crazy strong current, man, the dive was amazing!  Right at the beginning some sea lions swam down to us, and playfully greeted each diver.  We tried to play and swim with them, and wow they are fast. But they kept coming back to us, teasing us to chase them. It was amazing.

Then, we just sort of turned around and started looking at the big blue, and realized, omg, sharks!  We had already seen a handful of hammerhead sharks at Mosquera Island the previous day, but that didn’t prepare us for the massive amount of sharks here at Wolf.  Holy smokes!  The entire 50 minutes of the dive we could always see at least five hammerheads swimming above, below or right by us.  They were beautiful and elegant and powerful.  Occasionally a Galapagos shark would swim by, and his “sharky” build was impressive as well.  The pure bulk of life was overwhelming. There weren’t just occasional schools of fish, but rather massive amounts of fish nonstop.  Once in awhile a larger group of hammerheads would cruise by, and the feeling was just incredible.

We had an awesome four dives at Wolf Island and Dennis survived. Frequently Eduardo had to herd him back to the group, and once he had to give him his extra tank because he ran out of air. Besides air consumption, with four dives a day, all of us had to monitor our dive depth and time to avoid a decompression dive. The more you dive, the more nitrogen you have in your system, which means the less time you can be deep. Our computers tell us when we are running out of non-decompression time, and if we get close, we need to spend extra minutes at 15 feet before we surface. Anyway, it takes at least a little bit of awareness to avoid going into Deco, so it seems like Dennis MUST have gone Deco a few times without realizing it. Luckily he never got decompression sickness, but none of us are sure how!

The next night we sailed to Darwin, the sister island just 20 miles away.  Darwin is a place where divers can find very large whale sharks, although we were about two weeks past the season.  But we were hoping to get lucky though, and we did. The whale sharks that come to Darwin are pregnant females, which means these are big mamas.  Whale sharks that visit Mexico are usually male juveniles, about 20-30 feet long.  But the ones at Darwin can be 40 feet or larger.  That’s really big.

The first 6am dive at Darwin, we jumped in and held onto the rock for about 20 minutes.  Of course we were dazzled by large schools of hammerheads, occasional giant tuna, eagle rays, and so many turtles you definitely stopped pointing them out!  The visibility was poor, and you could only see maybe 20 feet (which apparently is good for Darwin). Anyway, we are looking out into the big blue and Eduardo starts yelling and shaking his noisemaker.  I squinted into the darkness and suddenly I could see white dots dancing in the dark. It was a whale shark.  She was so big she seemed unreal.  I couldn’t see all of her at once, and as she slowly went by I was blown over by her size.  It reminded Mark of when you’re sitting in the front row of a movie theater and have to keep swinging your head to see the whole screen. That’s how you had to view this whale shark. Hammerheads swam around her, like tiny little guppies. Eduardo estimated she was 45 feet.  It felt like a massive train was going by.  We were all thrilled!

It’s very hard to see her, but here’s the moment. (You might expand this video full screen, but it’s still pretty hard to see.)

As we surfaced we were all super pumped about the whale shark.  We each climbed into the panga, taking off our gear and laughing.  Eduardo stayed in the water an extra five minutes, keeping alert for anything (that was his modus operandum each dive, as if he couldn’t bear exiting the water).  This time it panned out, and he called out, “Put on your masks and fins! Whale shark below!” I was impressed how everyone managed to jump right in, and we all snorkeled with another beautiful whale shark for a few minutes before we lost sight of her. 

This is a different, smaller whale shark we saw later that day, estimated at 25 feet long.

Then we climbed back into the boat, one by one. Suddenly Eduardo dove right back in the water. Was it another sighting? No, it was Dennis!  Apparently he can’t swim!  He had jumped in without his dive BCD (i.e. flotation device) and now was basically drowning.  Luckily his wetsuit kept him close to the surface, and Eduardo saved him and brought him back to the panga, lifeguard rescue style.  Oh, Dennis!

We did two days at Darwin and were lucky to see two more whale sharks, but none a big as her.  On the way back to “civilization” (i.e. the southern islands), we stopped for a last late afternoon dive at Wolf island.  Two of our divers skipped the dive due to not feeling well, so it was just five of us plus Eduardo.  Just as Hector was about to dump us in at Shark Bay Point, we spotted dolphins swimming nearby on the surface.  Mark and I have been dreaming of diving with dolphins—we’ve tried many times but they are so elusive. So we cheered and crossed our fingers that they would stick around when we jumped in. They did.

We settled around 60 feet, grabbed onto the rock, and watched the hammerhead show, when after awhile Eduardo heard the dolphins. I still don’t know how he knew which way they were, but he led us away from the rock and into the big blue. There the dolphins greeted us, maybe a dozen of them, with one tiny newborn baby!  They were incredibly beautiful and graceful, and for the first time I could hear them singing and clicking underwater.  They kept coming and going (one moment they were there, and next they were gone—so fast!) and we enjoyed them for about five minutes.

Then we swam back to the rock and just as we returned a massive school of barracuda went by.

Then, suddenly, a huge bait ball of jacks came flying by. This was the biggest, fasting moving bait ball I’ve ever seen, and on the outside of it were some tuna.  We watched the bait ball frantically dance and spin and then suddenly, like dust, it blew up and disappeared. It was like a magic trick. Then came the dolphins, chasing after it. It was incredible.

Again, this is hard to capture on video, but the moment was thrilling.

Next Eduardo led us out into the big blue again to follow the dolphins, and we found them.  We delighted in playing with them, and just as it was time to start heading up, Eduardo pointed down. The largest school of hammerheads we had seen so far was about 40 feet below us, maybe 200 of them?  We all went down, and of course Dennis sank like a rock.  We watched Eduardo shoot down to 120 feet to collect him, and after we all enjoyed the sharks, he motioned that it was time to head up for our safety stop. 

I looked up and noticed that our ever-vigilant panga driver, Hector, was not hovering above us like he usually was during all our safety stops.  That’s odd.  Knowing we had been swimming back and forth in the big blue during this dive, I knew there was a chance he had lost sight of our bubbles. I also noticed that surf chop had increased a lot, and looking up I could see white caps breaking above us.  Ugh.  I surfaced as soon as I finished my 3 minute stop and started looking for Hector. The waves were bigger now, about 3 or 4 feet, and it was hard to see over them. I could see we had drifted to the far end of the island and were continuing to drift, almost past it now.  I realized this was a situation where we needed to get found as soon as possible, with no time to spare. Mark and Kamille surfaced next, and I told them Hector wasn’t here and we needed to start blowing our whistle.  They were oblivious, and just started giggling with each other about how awesome the dolphin encounter was.  I interrupted them and said, “Uh, guys.  Seriously. Tell me where my whistle is on my jacket,” because I was fumbling for it and couldn’t find it. Yeah, I was a bit panicky.  Mark said, ”It’s on your inflator.” I grabbed the “little” whistle on my strap, and started blowing it. They both started cracking up, because the whistle was so soft and airy.  Kamille asked, “Are you trying to call the dolphins?” They both cracked up again.  “You guys, this is serious! Start blowing your whistles!”  Mark started blowing his big whistle, which was actually an airhorn, and duh, it was connected to his inflator just like mine. This made a pretty loud noise, and for a moment I thought I heard Hector send a whistle back.  But unfortunately it was just the echo from the island cliffs. 

Then the rest of our group surfaced.  Dennis popped up right by us and Eduardo and Brenda a little ways away.  Eduardo had his bright pink SMB inflatable up, and I told him, “Can you hold it higher? Hector might not be able to see it because of the waves.” I’m sure Eduardo was thrilled to have advice from me, but he did it.

Mark was a few feet away from us, and he stuck his head in the water out of curiosity. To his surprise, a silky shark was about 10 feet below us.  We hadn’t seen these sharks the whole dive, and they are known for being one of the few aggressive sharks.  They are not huge, maybe 6 feet, but this one was circling.  Mark looked up and then looked down again. Now there were three silky sharks. Then six silky sharks.  He watched them swimming around him, and as one approached him, he pushed out his fin to scare it, and it jumped back. It was clearly interested in him.  Mark realized he was the “lone” diver now, and perhaps was being singled out by the sharks. All of a sudden Mark was right next to us.

He didn’t mention the sharks, but when I said we should all hold onto each other, he grabbed Kamille’s hand. She held onto me and suddenly I felt Dennis grab my other hand. 

Now it had been about five minutes.  I pulled out my flag and started assembling it.  I have to admit, it looked ridiculous. Made out of PVC pipe, assembled it was only about 2 feet tall, and very flimsy looking. I held it as high as I could to attract attention, and I did get attention. A booby flew right over and landed on top of it.  Kamille and Mark started giggling again, but I thought it was good luck.  Maybe Hector would see the booby?

We were drifting further away from the island, and the waves seemed bigger.  I had been on the surface for about eight minutes now, and was definitely getting panicked.  Dennis leaned over to me and asked me, “Has this ever happened to you?” I said, “You mean, not get picked up? Well, no, not permanently.”  I stared into his eyes and tried to figure out how scared he was, but I couldn’t read him. He did hold onto my hand very tightly though.

I called over to Eduardo, “Don’t you think we should deploy the GPS beacon?” He said, “Yes, I’m doing it now.”  He pulled out the beacon and pushed the button he had told us not to push unless of emergency.  We waited a few more minutes, and then, was that the panga I could see over the waves?  I had to wait for another wave to lift me up and then, yes! It was Hector!  Seeing him come to us and wave confirming he saw us was quite thrilling, I have to admit!

Dennis didn’t let go of my hand when Hector showed up, so I held onto him and dragged him to the panga, lifting his hand to the rope. I said he should probably be the first one in the boat, and he didn’t argue.

This is a shot from Dennis’ go-pro just before Hector arrived in the panga.

It was quite an adrenalin rush, man.  We got back to the Calipso and spent about two hours rehashing it.  Turns out that a series of events caused the delay in our pick up. First, we had swum out to the big blue twice, thus getting pushed by the current much further than we had planned. Next, because Dennis had gone down to 120 feet, we had to do a longer deco stop in the big blue, again pushing us out further. Next, the sun was setting behind us, so Hector couldn’t see as very easily.    Luckily all the precautionary safety measures worked to get us found.  Ten minutes before we were supposed to surface, Hector started heading south of the spot where we should have been, but couldn’t see our bubbles.  So he returned to the planned pick up spot and waited.  Our captain on the Calipso radioed him and asked if the divers were up, Hector said no. The big boat decided to move out to get a better vantage point to assist Hector in spotting us.  Then the captain received the GPS beacon signal. He radioed the location to Hector and Hector jammed down to us in a just a couple of minutes.  So everything worked, albeit a bit frightening for a few minutes!

When we got back I got a few ribs from everyone about my panicky voice, but I still claim I was the only one who thought to blow the whistle and assemble the flag.  Ha ha, ok, I guess I was close to panicking! Mark admitted he didn’t want to tell anyone about the silky sharks because he was afraid we’d panic, but each of us had already looked down and saw the sharks. To tell you the truth, the sharks didn’t make me nervous at all. I had just read too many stories about divers getting lost at sea, and I while I hadn’t given up hope, I was gearing up for what may be a long “wait” for our rescue. Luckily within a half an hour we were drinking beers on the top deck while the Calipso made way for the southern islands. What a day!

It was a fabulous week for me, and while Mark admits this is not his kind of diving, I think he had some great moments, too.  The cold water diving (ranging from 59 degrees to 72, depending on where we were) was challenging.  But the Calipso set up made it a lot easier, with hot showers on the deck and warm drinks and snacks right when you get off.  And on a couple of days we were able to enjoy the jacuzzi on the top deck. It was incredible to be diving with sharks at one moment and then ten minutes later find ourselves soaking in a jacuzzi cruising the Pacific.

Although it did take four days to get home, we are already talking about our next trip to the Galapagos, maybe in the summer season so we can spot some whales.  Orcas are still on our list!

Thanks for reading! If you still want more, here’s a video I put together of the best photos and videos.

 
4 Comments

Posted by on December 26, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

4 responses to “Diving in the Galapagos

  1. duff5000

    December 27, 2020 at 3:29 am

    Great blog michaela! So well written.

     
  2. Kathy

    December 27, 2020 at 3:55 am

    What an amazing adventure. I was transported under the sea with you and enjoyed every moment of the trip. Everything was so real especially those silky sharks!

     
  3. cmwphn

    December 27, 2020 at 8:15 am

    What an absolutely amazing story, Michaela. My heart was in my mouth as I read about your time spent awaiting the arrival of the panga although I knew there had to be a happy ending. More, more! Dal and I have always enjoyed your dive stories and photos and videos and we live vicariously through you.

     
  4. Diane

    December 30, 2020 at 6:53 am

    This is just fabulous, Michaela!!! I love your writing, descriptions, explanations, detailed history and humor!! I could so easily feel swept away in your stories and feel like I was there. Such a thrilling adventure!!

     

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