Galapagos Travel Report - Islands Frozen In Time
A Journal by Rick Britcher, July 2008
I have been diving since the late sixties, and the one thing that has keep me diving is the inherent sense of adventure and the lure of the unknown that it provides. No matter how many times I dive the same place, I never know what I might see or what adventure I might have. There is also the commerodary among divers. Some of my best friends are students of mine or people I've met while on dive trips. It's these things that draw me to such exotic dive destinations like the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador.
Getting there is a journey itself. Since there is only one flight each day to the islands, it takes at least two days travel time. I hooked up with a group of fourteen divers out of a dive shop in Pasadena, CA. We started our trek at LAX at 5 AM for our first leg of the trip to Miami. From there we boarded a plane for Guiyaquil, Ecuador, one of two main cities in that country. We arrived at 10 PM that night and were transferred to the Unihotel in downtown Guiyaquil, where we had booked rooms for the night. The next day we had a couple hours to kill, because the only flight to the Galapagos was at 12 noon. We decided to take a short walk around downtown. Guiyalquil is a very clean, picturesque, modern city with many parks, beautiful churches and government buildings. Across the street from the hotel was such a park and cathedral. I was busy taking pictures in the park when I saw some of the my friends frantically waving and pointing at me from across the park. I looked up in the trees above me where they were pointing and I saw at least two dozen large iguanas roosting there like some many chickens. Then I heard the SPLAT! I looked down and saw that the ground was covered with their fresh droppings. If I had taken one more step, I would have been nailed by iguana poop. My roommate wasn't so lucky. They told me he was on his way back to the hotel to take a shower.
A representative from the Aggressor Fleet met us at the Guiyaquil airport at 10 AM and handled all our check in and baggage. What a pleasant surprise! The flight took two hours and finally, after 36 hours, we were there, San Cristobal Island, Galapagos. Again, the representative from the Aggressor was there to met us and handle all our gear. We all boarded a bus for the ten minute ride to the dock in the center of town. Stepping over sea lions laying on the dock, we climbed aboard an inflatable dingy for a short ride to the Aggressor II, moored in the harbor. What a beautiful boat! The rooms below deck each had two single beds, bathroom and shower. The rooms above deck had one double bed, bathroom and shower. There was a sun-deck on top with lounge chairs and hammocks. The dining room and lounge was very plush with lots of wood and brass. The dive deck had 14 stations with a very large rinse tank for cameras and two chase boats. Lunch was ready for us when we boarded and we spent the afternoon stowing gear while the boat moved to an anchorage on the southeast side of the island for our check-out dive.
Except for the small town at the harbor, the rest of the island is uninhabited. The islands are all volcanic and look very prehistoric. We anchored in a small cove and geared up for a dive to check our weights and make sure everything was working correctly. We were told to wear our 7mm suits, hoods, and gloves even though the water temp was 79 F. The dive master said the water would be much colder at our dive site tomorrow. The islands are affected by three major currents, one from the south, one from the north and one from the west. The time of year and strength of the different currents would determine the temperature of the water at each site. So we had to be prepared for the worst and hope for the best. This first site was murky and the bottom was sand and rocks and inhabited by the usual reef fish: butterfly fish, damsels, grunts, puffers, eels, rays, etc. After the dive we stretched out on the sun deck until dinner at 6 PM. When we all gathered in the dining salon, the crew came in dressed in their white naval uniforms. They were very stunning. They greeted us with a champagne toast and a fabulous dinner. We had BBQ steak, chicken, fish, potatoes, rice and beans, seveche, and salsa. I ate way too much! As the boat motored to our first dive site, we sat up on the sun deck and watched the sunset, talked and laughed until we were too tired to stay awake any longer. Diving started tomorrow.
The breakfast bell rang at 6:30 AM and we could have what ever we wanted: eggs, waffles, cereal, fruit, toast. All you had to do was ask and the chef would make it. Dive briefing was at 8 AM and for each site the dive master drew a detailed map showing bottom contours, depths, currents, etc. The first site was called Mosquera Island, a small sand bar between two larger islands, Seymour and Baltra. We anchored on the inside between the islands and the dive was on the ocean side of Mosquera along a wall with a long sand flat on top. The wall dropped to 90 ft. and the sand flat was at 60 ft. The dive master said that this was an easy spot with no currents and we would start at one end of the wall and dive the wall to the other end. He wanted to check our diving skills to make sure we could handle what was to come. We had seven divers and a dive master in each dingy and we were dropped at the left end of the wall over the sand flat. I sank down to the sand a 60 ft and checked my computer. Visibility was only about 30 ft. and green with plankton, reminded me of Laguna Beach on a good day, except the water temp. was 79 F. I swam down over the wall and could see the shimmering layer of the thermocline at 75 ft. As I swam through it, the water temperature dropped ten degrees but the visibility opened up to about 50 ft.. The wall was covered with black coral. Moray eels and lobsters poked their heads out of the cracks. As I followed the wall, I was surrounded by the usual suspects: schools of big-eyed jacks and small tuna, grunts, crommies, angel fish, butterfly fish, moorish idles, barracuda, spotted eagle rays. I ascended the wall and swam over the sand flat to do my safety stop. On the sand were a couple of large stingrays and a big field of garden eels. As I sat on the surface waiting to be picked up I could see dozens of sea lions sunning on the beach on Mosquera. When we got back on board after the dive, one of the crew had a plate of hot cinnamon buns and hot chocolate for us. When I pulled down my wetsuit another crew member put a hot beach towel on my shoulders. Sweet!
The second dive was to be a repeat of the first and, after about an hour surface interval, we were dropped off in the same place on the reef. This time I went straight down the wall to the bottom at about 90 ft. Due to the upwelling it was still pretty chilly down there, so I didn't stay long. I came back up through the thermocline and stopped at the top of the wall and looked out over the sand flat. There, about twenty feet away was a Great Hammerhead, the largest of the six species of hammerheads. It was the biggest shark I had ever seen. It had to be at least 12 ft long. It was massive! I've swam with 12 ft Caribbean reef sharks before and they were small in comparison. It reminded me of a Great White, only with a handlebar head. It was accompanied by several other smaller scalloped hammerheads and they quickly swam across the sand and over the wall, disappearing like ghosts. There was no chance to take a picture. I looked around for my buddy, but he was down the wall about ten feet taking pictures of reef fish. He didn't see them nor did anyone else. Damn, nobody was going to believe what I saw. It was at that moment that I realized that I was in the Galapagos. I later told the dive master what I had seen and he said he had seen one there a couple of years ago. Since the island faces the open ocean, they come in to feed on the schools of tuna swimming over the sand flat. I continued along the sand hoping to see them again, but never did. Hammerheads are very skittish and don't like divers and their noisy bubbles.
A land excursion on Seymour Island was planned for after lunch. At 2 PM the dingies took us ashore and we followed the marked trail across the island. It was like we stepped back in time. The island was pristine and the wildlife was not afraid of humans. We could get within inches of nesting frigates, blue footed boobies, land and sea iguanas, orange and blue crabs, and sea lions. Richard, our dive master, was extremely knowledgeable about the history and biology of the island. It was amazing.
After a two hour hike we went back to the boat, which had just refueled at the military base on Baltra. Next stop was Wolf Island, an eighteen hour crossing. We should arrive there at about 8 the next morning. After a dinner of sauteed shrimp and rice, we sat on the sun deck and watched the sunset and talked about the day's events.
We arrived at Wolf Island on schedule escorted by a pod of dolphins riding the bow wake. Hundreds of seagulls were diving a bait ball and the dolphins moved in and attacked it as well, jumping ten feet out of the water. The first dive of the day was at Schrk-bai with the current running to the north, visibility was 50-80 ft and the water was a beautiful turquoise blue. Water temperature was a balmy 82 F and the air was 90 F. I had my 7mm wetsuit on because I didn't know what to expect. When I did my back roll off the dingy I knew right away I was going to roast. The bottom was strewn with big boulders covered with barnacles and sloped down from 30 ft and disappeared into the darkness below. I immediately swam down towards the thermocline at about 100 ft. to cool off. Out it the blue I could see the ghostly shapes of several hammerheads right at the edge of visibility. Large schools of big-eyed jacks, barracuda, and wahoo passed by. Every few minutes a green sea turtle would swim by. I tried swimming out into the blue to photograph the sharks, but they keep their distance, too far away for a good picture. By the time we finished out safety stop the current had carried us to the north end of the island where the dingies were waiting to pick us up.
The second dive started at El Derumbe (landslide) and I wore just my 5mm vest and board shorts and no weight belt. As soon as we descended we were surrounded by hammerheads, galapagos sharks and silkies. The current was a lot stronger, so I hid behind a large boulder and waited. The sharks paraded by, sometimes twenty at one time. Big squadrons of hammerheads swam into the current and they got really close. They were all about 6-10 ft in length and they came from all directions. Finally I decided to swim out into the blue and let the current take me. I swam through big schools of tangs, wahoo, jacks, and tuna. At one point I was surrounded by hammerheads and turtles. After my safety stop I had once again drifted to the north end of the island where the dingy was waiting to pick me up. We didn't have to worry about getting lost at sea because each of us was equipped with a GPS locator and a 10 ft flag. I never had to use them because the dingy drivers were excellent at keeping track of everybody. We had BBQ for lunch and we had a rainstorm pass through that cooled things off. The rain stopped just in time for dive number three.
Because we had so much action at El Denumbe, dives three and four where exactly the same. The water was warm, the current was strong, and the sharks were everywhere. It was almost too much for one day. How could we top this? We anchored on the north side of Wolf for the night and we were moving to Darwin Island the next morning. It was only a two hour crossing and we could actually see the island off to the north.
When we woke the next morning we were anchored off of Darwin Island with Darwin Arch off to the left. There was a large thunderstorm to the north and a rainbow appeared between the arch and the island, a good omen of things to come. The first dive started at small inlet in the middle of Darwin Arch. The water temperature was still 82 F and the visibility was 80 to 100 ft. with the thermocline at about 70 ft. There was a mild current and there were lots of groupers, jacks, wahoo, trumpet fish, moorish idles, angels, eels, and turtles. The current carried us around the arch to the flat shallow area in front of Darwin Island. There we saw a squadron of hammerheads in about 35 ft. of water. The dingies picked us up there and it was back to the boat for hot cinnamon buns and hot chocolate. We were so spoiled!
The second dive started at the west corner of the arch and we were to hang out there to wait for the action. We dropped down to just above the thermocline at 70 ft. with no current and watched as the hammerheads and turtles cruised in out of the blue. A couple of spotted eagles rays sailed by along with a huge school of big-eyed jacks. We went back for lunch and then returned to the same spot for dive three. When I dropped in this time, conditions had changed a little. I looked down and the boulders on the bottom were whizzing by. The current had to have been at least 3 knots. It's what us old timers call an E-ticket ride. I quickly swam down to try and grab onto a rock. The current was so strong I couldn't hold on and I couldn't even hold my position no matter how hard I kicked. So I just went with it. Swimming into the current was a huge school of jacks followed by a group of hammerheads. I drifted for a while at 90ft. until the bottom disappeared, all the time surrounded by sharks. I surfaced after my safety stop and found that I had drifted about a half mile past the east side of Darwin Island. I did a quick 360 and saw that the chase boat was only about 20 yards away. He knew right where I was the whole time. These guys were great! I am definitely taking my reef hook on the next dive.
The current was still ripping when we jumped in for the fourth dive. I had my reef hook this time, but it took several attempts to hook up. The hook keep popping off the rocks. After I was finally secure, I started taking pictures. I quickly discovered that it was going to be more difficult than I expected. The current keep bending my strobe out of position and my mask kept flooding. I was whipping back and forth on the reef hook and banging my bare knees against the sharp barnacles that covered the rocks. I decided to unhook and just drift with the current. This turned out to be a good idea because I passed through a couple of big groups of hammerheads swimming into the current. I shot all my film and surfaced in about the same spot as the last dive.
The next day we were returning to Wolf Island, but we had a chance to do two more dives at Darwin Arch if we got up early. We boarded the dingies before breakfast and motored over to the arch. There was no current and the visibility was at least 100 ft. A couple sea lions played with us and we could see a school of hammerheads out in the blue. An enormous school of jacks surrounded us and we could hear dolphins squeaking and clicking, but we never saw them. On the way back to the boat the dolphins showed up. We quickly jumped in with our snorkels and swam with them for a while. What a blast! After breakfast we went to the same spot for our second and last dive at the arch. We could still hear the dolphins but we couldn't see them. They got louder and louder and then six big bottle nose dolphins came in out of the blue. They circled us a couple times, checking us out, and then they took off.
We arrived at Wolf Island at noon and two dives were planned. We were diving the landslide again and the current was so strong that the surface looked like rapids in a fast moving river. It was intense. We were immediately swept away. It was hard to hang on even using my reef hook. There were sharks everywhere: 6-8 ft. hammerheads, galapagos, silkies. They just keep coming and they were all eating tuna! When we surfaced we had drifted around the end of the island a half a mile past Schrk-Bai. Since we had so much action, the second dive was at the same spot. Conditions were the same except the water temperature had dropped to 75F. The current must have caused a cold upwelling. It got a little chilly with no wetsuit. Again we were surrounded by sharks. This time the green sea turtles were there in force. I counted nineteen turtles on the dive, seeing five at one time. As soon as we boarded the Aggressor II, we pulled anchor and headed south for the main island group.
We arrived at Santiago Island the next day at noon and we had time for two dives at Cousin Rock. It was a small rocky island with a long wall to the south. The water was green with plankton and visibility might have been 10 ft. at the surface. Water temperature was in the low 60's and it looked like we were back in California water. It was time for 7mm wetsuits again. The wall went down to 100 ft and visibility was better down deep. The wall was covered with black coral and thousands of aquarium fish. We saw turtles, mobla rays, white tip sharks, and seahorses. We followed the wall south and surfaced on the backside of Cousin Rock. While on the surface, a couple of big eyed fur seals came over to play with us.
Following our two dives we headed for the anchorage at Bartolome Island for a land excursion. This is the most famous location in the Galapagos Islands and there were a half dozen boats at anchor. The beach we were going to was one that was featured in the movie “Master and Commander”. As we approached we could see a couple of small penguins standing on the rocks and swimming in the water. They were only about 12 inches tall. We walked down the sand beach as dozens of red and orange crabs scurried into the water. We could see trenches all over the sand dunes where sea turtles had laid their eggs, some just the night before. Sea iguanas perched on the rocks like gargoyles. The island was a volcano that erupted only 150 years ago and the fresh lava flow looked like a moonscape. We hiked to the top of it and the view of the islands was amazing. As the sun set and the mosquitos attacked, we made our way back to the dingy. Back on the boat we were treated to a roast turkey dinner and everyone joked that it was really a pelican that the crew had caught.
During the night we had moved to Plazas Island for another land excursion. This island looked very prehistoric because it was covered with prickly pear cactus trees and hundreds of land iguanas. The iguanas main food source was the cactus and there was no shortage of either. As we walked around blue foot bobbies squawked at us and we had to step over sea lions sleeping on the trail.
Our last dive was at Gordon Rocks, nicknamed the “Washing Machine”. It was a collapsed volcano that had currents coming in from all sides and we would be diving inside it. Visibility was much better than yesterday, 50 to 100 ft, depending on the currents. There were many submerged pinnacles and the currents were fairly strong between them. We started on the far right side and swam around the pinnacles to the left and ended up on the outside. There was a large school of barracuda on the inside of the crater and when we reached the outside on the left a group of manta rays greeted us. Right behind them was a bunch of eagle rays. What a great way to end the last dive!
Our next stop was the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island. This is where they breed and house the various species of land tortoises that inhabit the Galapagos Islands. Each island has it's own distinct species of tortoise. Early sailors and explorers slaughtered thousands of them for food and several species have become extinct. On the island of Pinta there was only one left and his name is Lonesome George. He now lives at the research station where they are trying to breed him in order to repopulate his island. Another island had only 12 left and through a successful breeding program there are now over a thousand. The station has hundreds of baby tortoises and dozens of adult ones up to 100 years old. They collect the eggs from each island and hatch them. Each tortoise is numbered and they raise it until it is five years old. Then they release it on its island of origin. We spent all afternoon at the station.
We returned to the boat at 5 PM for a well-deserved nap. After resting for a couple of hours we all met in the salon for a farewell toast with the crew. They were all dressed in their whites again and we all agreed that they did a fantastic job of taking care of us. Then we headed back to town for dinner at a local restaurant. We ate, drank, and talked until 11PM and then went back to the boat for our final move to San Cristobal. The next day we boarded our flight for Quiyaquil, where we spent the night again in the Unihotel. We were back home the following night.
It should be noted that diving the Galapagos Islands is not for everyone. It is definitely advanced diving. You must be comfortable diving in strong currents, cold water, with no bottom, surrounded by big sharks. However, if this is the kind of adrenaline diving you are looking for, then you must put the Galapagos Islands at the top of your list of exotic dive locations. I am glad I did.