June 18, Baltra Island
We’re standing at the dock, waiting for the pangas to take us to the boat. The benches are inscribed with “Welcome to the Galapagos” but we cannot take a seat. They are all occupied by the local population of sea lions, too sleepy to care about this latest arrival of turistas. We find them charming. A delightful welcome indeed.
Later Ruly gives his first of many briefings. He concludes by saying he hopes that the islands will sprinkle some of their magic upon us. We hang on his words, eyes shiny and bright as children on Christmas Eve.
Dive #1 Baltra Straights — A quick skills check and then we are off to enjoy the calm, cool water. A sea lion whooshes by. A white tip shark hovers just out of camera range. Lots of unfamiliar fish … we’ll be studying our ID books later this evening. A bright blue sea star waves its leg as I glide past.
June 19, Isabela Island
We woke this morning to the boat rocking full speed ahead towards Marshall’s Cape. We’ll be diving off this island three times today. The water is gray and choppy — exactly what we expected. The topography of Isabela is untamed and mountainous, scarred with deep lava flows: this land is still evolving. Everything is different, wonderful, and carved from another world.
Dive #2 Cabo Marshall — Right at the start, a magnificent yellowfin tuna, easily five feet long. Another sea lion whizzes by. Lots of beautiful blue, yellow, and red sea stars. We drift into a school of bluestriped chub, so large it blocks out the sun.
Dive #3 Cabo Marshall — We descend through another huge school, this time amberstripe scad. These are new to us; they resemble small wahoo. A marbled ray nestles in the sand below while a spotted eagle ray floats out towards the blue. We see more sea stars: blue, bright orange cushions, and chocolate chip.
Dive #4 Cabo Marshall — The now ubiquitous sea lions bark at us from the rocks above. We are overwhelmed by the abundance of life. A clam peeks up from a rock, a Mexican hogfish swims straight towards my mask, guineafowl puffers, both the yellow and black & white phases, are everywhere. Wahoo float above our heads. We spy a bravo clinid camouflaged against the rocks, orange triggerfish whir by the Galapagos pikeblennies suspended on the wall.
We return to the boat and gather on the second floor sundeck. We consult our ID books and compare photos. So many new fish … we repeat the names awkwardly: “loosetooth parrotfish, gringos, leather bass.” “Ok” Wil says. “Now we write.”
June 20, Darwin Island
Dive #5 Darwin’s Arch — Backwards roll off the panga, kick down down down and grab on to the rocks. The current is so strong it threatens to tear our hands away. A lone Galapagos shark silently floats by. Our senses are overloaded. Massive schools of creolefish are everywhere. I nestle into the rocks and glance around; a moray eel is nibbling on my fin. A green sea turtle hangs above me, a long fishing line dangling from his mouth. One, two, then three scalloped hammerheads appear out of nowhere, their bodies silhouetted against the surface. A big tuna passes, followed by a pair of wahoo. Suddenly Ruly shakes his rattle: a whale shark! At 40 feet she’s as big as a school bus. She barely notices us as she swims by.
Dive #6 Darwin’s Arch — We can’t wait to get back into the water. Another adrenaline-charged descent and before we’re even to the rocks we drop through a school of Galapagos sharks. They ignore us. We back into the crevasses and watch as a parade of hammerheads passes by. They are curious; many look our way. One tank is not enough … too soon we begin our ascent. At 25′ another whale shark, this time so close I could touch her with my fins.
I climb into the panga. In broken Spanish I say “sin palabras, muy bonito.” It’s too beautiful; I am speechless. Words are superfluous in the face of such raw nature.
Dive #7 Darwin’s Arch — The schooling Galapagos and hammerhead sharks begin the parade before we’ve even settled on the rocks. The currents are stronger than this morning, with lots of particulate in the water. I’m afraid our photos will not be as clear as our memories. A school of bluefin trevally surround us. We are escorted by wahoo on our safety stop while big Galapagos sharks circle below us.
Dive #8 Darwin’s Arch — Current like nothing we’ve seen. Hang on for dear life and watch the show! Schooling hammerheads drift along, seemingly motionless in the fierce current. A sea turtle flies by. I look beneath me: a spotted moray eel lies coiled like a snake in the rocks. A trumpetfish swims above me, reef cornetfish hang out with the schooling creolefish in the blue. I glance to my left: a school of butterflyfish with one king angel in their midst.
Our first day on the Arch has been incredible. There are more fish than one can ever imagine — every direction we look our senses are overloaded. There is such variety we don’t even bother with the commonplace — there is too much to see, too much to absorb. We can’t check off our ID lists fast enough. We have many “money shot” photos. Dolphins and sea turtles escort us to and from the dive sites, foretelling what is to come. Back on the boat, sea lions play in the water beside us. We are giddy; the magic of the Galapagos is upon us.
June 21, Darwin and Wolf Islands
Dive # 9 Darwin’s Arch — Same dive plan as yesterday – totally different dive. The currents are strong. We wonder: is that Ruly’s rattle or sand scraping across the rocks? A few circling hammerheads and Galapagos sharks drift by. We swim out to the blue looking for “her.” But the whale shark does not answer us this morning. We head back to the rocks and I am caught in a rip current. My group disappears in an instant. I am surrounded by nothing but blue and bubbles as I am pulled down in tumbling somersaults. I am confused, at first I don’t recognize the down draft. At 80′ I am suddenly heading back up, too fast! I slow my rate and ascend safely. A panga following my bubbles is there to pick me up. Later the rest of the group surfaces far from the boat. It takes the pangas over 20 minutes to find them.
Dive #10 Darwin’s Arch — The plan is simple: head to the rocks and stay put. The current is the fiercest yet. Barnacles pull off in our hands as we try to hang on. A massive school of bigeye trevally swims by. We see turtles, morays, and Mexican hogfish. Ruly signals us to move so we let go and fly past fish safely tucked in the rocks. A fin in front of me bumps a scorpionfish. I can almost hear the “ha-rumph” as he resettles. We finally stop at The Theatre — another dive site on the Arch. We’re barely there when a manta ray drifts silently and majestically above our heads. As he disappears a lone hammerhead rises from the depths. We are again escorted by wahoo on our safety stop.
We’re pulling anchor and heading to Wolf Island. After two dives with rapidly deteriorating conditions, the decision has been made to move on. A few divers are disappointed — hoping for another glimpse of the whale shark. But by moving now we stand a better chance of getting two dives at Wolf this afternoon. I, for one, am thrilled. Two whale sharks, multiple schools of hammerheads, Galapagos sharks, turtles, dolphins, sea lions, and every fish in the book! And then, on this last dive, a manta ray! How much more do we dare ask for?
We arrive at Wolf. The basalt rock cliffs rise dramatically above us, up to 600 feet. Frigate birds and boobies soar over our heads. Dolphins and sea lions plan along side the boat, popping up to look at us before moving on. The wildlife is abundant and amazing.
Dive #11 Landslide, Wolf Island — We have dubbed this dive “Turtle Mania.” They are beside us in the pangas, alongside us on the dive, and hovering on our safety stop. We drop to depth and see hammerheads and Galapagos sharks. We move out from the rocks and are caught in the current – soaring along at a breakneck pace too fast to absorb all that we see. The fish are a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes that blur as we fly by.
Dive #12 The Anchorage, Wolf Island — The last few days have been adrenaline-charged rides. Tonight is just plain fun. We giant-stride off the back of the boat and drop down. A turtle, then a slipper lobster appear in the darkening water. Ruly says if we see one redlipped batfish we will see many. We see one, then another and another. At one point we trying to take a picture of five together. We climb back on the boat. Soon after, a batfish surfaces next to the dive platform. Those who passed on the night dive get to see this shy fish after all. Chuck exclaims for everyone “Check!“
June 22, Wolf Island
The dives have been challenging – with fierce currents, strong surge, cool temps, and low visibility. Many in our group are having ear trouble. We understand now why they say that the Galapagos is not for the novice diver. But what wildlife! We’re checking off our ID lists as fast as we can dive.
Dive #13 Landslide, Wolf Island — Strongest surge of the trip but not much current. We stay close to the rocks and let the water push us forward. A big ray drifts by, then a lone Galapagos shark. We look around the rocks beneath us. They are alive! Eels everywhere, tiny crabs peeking out beside sea urchins. A lobster covered in jewels. Fanged blennies using their fins as feet. A squadron of five Moorish idols. I grab a rock to get closer to a banded sea star. Oops, it’s a stone scorpionfish. I jerk my hand away in time. The surge moves us along as schools of tiny rainbow wrasse dance underneath us.
Dive #14 Shark Bay, Wolf Island — Fast current again. We cling to the rocks and wait for the parade of hammerheads. They school in front of us but we can barely make them out in the particulate-filled water. A turtle heads towards the blue. AJ is in her path. I laugh as she bumps him and he jerks back in alarm. She does not alter her course.
Dive #15 Shark Bay, Wolf Island — Lots of strong current but turtles turtles everywhere! We never thought we’d say “just another turtle!” Two hammerheads swim close overhead, as they pass they split and go their separate ways. A school of Galapagos sharks glides in front of us. A spotted eagle ray appears out of the blue. We cling to the rocks, careful of the pencil urchins and watch the turtles floating in the current. As we ascend I look down. Is that a turtle or a ray nestled in the rocks? We are up and away before I can say for certain.
Dive #16 Shark Bay, Wolf Island — Once again we are speechless. The dive started as all others: ripping currents, clinging to the rocks for dear life. We skip along: eels, angelfish, puffers, clams, and butterflyfish all tangled in our vision as we fly past. We find another spot to hang on. A lone hammerhead swims past. A turtle swims out towards the blue. Without warning, the symphony begins. Hundreds of hammerheads drift past us — far too many to count. We watch, amazed. One leaves the school and approaches me. She’s curious about my blonde hair. She’s so close I can see the whites of her eyes. I hope that someone gets a picture. We stare at each other for an eternity. Finally, unnerved, I put my beanie back on. She swims away. The parade ends. And a lone turtle swims back from the blue.
We have crossed the equator twice as we journeyed to Darwin and back. Late one night we climb to the top deck. Rees has promised to show me the Southern Cross. It is there, high above the horizon. It looks like a tilted kite.
June 23, Santiago Island
Dive #17 Cousin’s Rock, Santiago Island — Easy current after the heart-pounding rides of Darwin and Wolf. Just as we descend a white-tipped shark silently glides out from underneath a rock ledge. We’re looking for seahorses and frogfish. We spy many seahorses in the tall sea grass. The corals look like beautiful flower gardens. A blue octopus focuses into view. We ascend to sea lions and fur seals snoozing on the rocks above us.
Dive #18 Cousin’s Rock, Santiago Island — Still hunting for the elusive frogfish we see several more seahorses. A huge scorpionfish lies on a ledge. We ascend to 20′ and a sea turtle indulges me. Together we pose for the camera until he gracefully swims away.
June 24, San Cristobal Island
Our last day on the boat. Tomorrow we fly to Quito before heading home. We need at least 24 hours to gas off so no diving today. We take a bus to the tortoise sanctuary. Ruly talks above the conservation of the islands before we head out to watch the giant tortoises at the feeding station. One crawls over the low rock wall and stops on Dave’s foot. Ruly says “don’t move, even if she bites.” Luckily for Dave she does not.
We drive up to the top of El Junco, a crater lake. The highlands are so different than the arid land at the coast: lush, green, and cool. A light mist covers the morning sunshine.
We pile into taxis and head to the beach. The waves are crashing against the rocky shore. Sea lions are everywhere. I get too close to a bull and his harem. He roars at me to back off. “Sorry!” I cry and move away. Further down the coast we find marine iguanas, their bodies as shiny and black as the rocks they sit upon. Sally lightfoots scurry about. We are told that the crabs were named by English sailors, after a beautiful woman who danced all night.
Our gear has been rinsed and is scattered about the boat, drying. A baby sea lion as crawled up onto the dive platform. She is sleepy but has treated us to as many photos as we wish. Bookends of the trip: sea lions welcomed us the first day on the pangas and now a sea lions has climbed aboard to say farewell.
Special thanks to dive buddies and fellow travelers: Edward, Simon, Rees, and Wil for providing all of the underwater and most of the topside photos used in this blog.