I sit writing this blog from Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos surrounded by frolicking sealions, sunbaking marine iguanas, bathing pelicans and feeding sally lightfoot crabs. This really is a land of plenty, largely fed by the nutritious waters suddenly brought to the surface around the archipelago and immediately exploited by planktonic life. Obviously the islands are most well known for providing Darwin with the raw materials that culminated in his theory of evolution and the origin of species by natural selection. Visiting them today is like stepping into a world where wildlife is the master and human kind hasn’t yet managed to impress its stranglehold. I like it!
We were here for a ten day journey aboard the Galapagos Sky, a live aboard that left the Peter Hughes Fleet along with Peter himself also leaving behind its previous name, the Sky Dancer. Our extended itinerary of ten days, compared to the usual seven days, allowed us to spend a full five days at the famed northern islands of Wolf and Darwin. It isn’t the season for whale sharks, but is known for calm seas, warm water and good visibility in the south. For me the best diving was actually off Isabela. On our way north we stopped at Punta Vincente Roca on the northern tip of Isabela and on only our first two dives I ticked off most of my wishlist. You may know by now that I like the weird, wonderful and underappreciated creatures. As a result I really wanted to see the Galapagos Horn Shark (Heterodontus quoyi), the nudibranch (Tambja mullineri), Galapagos Red-lipped batfish (Ogcocephalus darwini) and of course the Pacific seahorse (Hippocampus ingens). Among these, only the nudibranch is exclusively found in the Galapagos but they are all special nonetheless!
The dives at Punta Vincente Roca are the first in which I have been both too hot and too cold on one dive. Apparently this is usually one of the coldest sites in the archipelago but due to the time of year we were very lucky to have a warm (28C/82F) layer of water from the surface down to fifteen metres. Below this the water was crystal clear but quite gloomy due to the murky layer above. The temperature was also dramatically colder at only 17C/62F! It was down in the chilly area that we also spotted a couple of Mola Mola (sunfish). The cold was definitely worth braving as the rest of my wishlist were down there too. I found a batfish on the sand at 32m and we saw half a dozen hornsharks around the rocks. There were also many Galapagos sealions (Zalophus californianus wollebacki) playing with us for most of the dives. After the last dive we pottered around the bay on the panga and visited a group of Galapagos penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus) sitting out on a rock, which were brilliant to see.
Following the dives on Isabela we sailed north to Wolf and Darwin Islands for five days of diving, travelling back and forth between the two every other day. These tiny islets are mere specs in the Pacific Ocean and have become important nesting sites for seabirds and magnets for marine life. To be completely honest I was a little underwhelmed by the diving here for the first few days. That’s just the way it goes sometimes! We had great surface conditions but beneath the waves we saw only the occasional hammerhead and no other sharks to speak of. Obviously an average dive in the Galapagos is a fantastic dive anywhere else and a pod of bottlenose dolphins did pass us on a safety stop, so it wasn’t all bad!
Thankfully, our very last dive on Wolf before sailing back to Isabela was absolute dynamite. It was late afternoon and we were all diving with air rather than nitrox due to the compressor breaking, leaving the last remaining full tanks on the boat as air. As a result the whole group were basically in a line along the reef at 15m just waiting for sharks to pass by. There was a raging current so I was hiding in the lee of a huge boulder. I did pop my head over the rock at one point and my strobe arms immediately shot over my shoulders, so I retreated. Not long after taking up our positions the scalloped hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini) moved in and we basically experienced a conveyor belt of sharks for the next 45 minutes. I was at the end of the group and extremely lucky to be at the point where they came closest to the rocks. At one time I was only a couple of metres from dozens of sharks as they swam along the reef. It made me smile that I had chosen to put myself in the middle of a huge school of sharks, but there was never any danger at all and hammerheads are actually very skittish!
After this brilliant dive we headed back to the main islands to pick up the guys who would fix our compressors. On the journey we came across a huge pod of very accommodating Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus), which rested at the surface very close to the main vessel for quite some time. There must have been 30-40 animals surrounding us! After reaching Santiago Island we did a few dives off Cousins rock and then headed back to Cape Marshall off the east coast of Isabela. These were my favourite dives of the trip. We had barely any current, excellent visibility, warm water and abundant marine life. I feel very lucky to have witnessed these sites on their absolute A-game! I decided to stay really shallow and try to get some shots of white-tip reef sharks and turtles with the backdrop of the surf. I think I must have been quite non-threatening whilst I pootled along as lots of creatures seemed drawn to me. Half a dozen hammerheads came up from the deep and one peeled off from the group and headed straight for me. I am used to them being quite nervy so I was holding my breath (don’t do this at home) and it just kept coming. It reached a point when I decided that was probably close enough so I breathed out. It still kept coming and finally turned away only a metre or so from me!
Having just recovered from the hammerhead encounter I saw a manta (a Darth Vader black Manta birotris) coming towards me and this too passed extremely closely. Over the next couple of dives the action showed no showed no signs of abating and, among other creatures, we saw more hammerheads, Galapagos sharks, sealions, a huge school of endemic black striped Salema (Xenocys jessiae), a hunting flightless cormorant (Nannopterum harrasi) and a massive yellowfin tuna also hunting (seeing this strapping beast confirmed by abstinence for eating tuna!). There were also huge schools of grunts, yellow-tailed surgeons and other fish covering the reef.
After our diving aboard Galapagos Sky was done, we had an afternoon to visit some wild giant tortoises on Santa Cruz island (Chelonoidis nigra porteri). This was a dream come true and we ended up seeing about a dozen of them wandering around. One huge individual was uncharacteristically active and charged about snacking on grass, albeit in slow motion. After disembarking from the boat we spent a couple more days exploring Santa Cruz seeing plenty of Darwin’s finches, Galapagos mockingbirds (Mimus parvulus), Galapagos flycatchers (Myiarchus magnirostris) and lava lizards (Tropidurus albemarlensis). We also hiked to Tortuga beach where there were many marine iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus hassi) and I even managed to swim with a couple!
We booked our trip through Deep Blue Adventures who were brilliant in arranging our domestic flights, transfers, land tours and our couple of days after the diving. I would definitely recommend contacting them. Terri really knows her stuff!
IMAGES FROM THIS TRIP CAN BE SEEN BY following this link.