Diving the Galapágos Islands
Imagine going to a dive show and entering a Blue o Two competition and then getting a phone call four days later to say you had won a diving holiday to the Galapágos. No, it wasn’t a wind up. It was real. What amazing luck. Amazing is a superlative I will use often. The trip which I eventually went on in January 2016 was (sorry) just amazing and had always been on my wish list.
I chose my flight from Birmingham to Amsterdam and then a 14-hour flight to Guayaquil in Ecuador. The overnight hotel stop-over eased the flying stress and the onward flight was the next day to San Cristobel Island. We were met and transferred to the MV Deep Blue. The vessel is 32m long and can support 16 guests. This is 5-star luxury diving and is part of the Siren fleet owned by Worldwide Dive and Sail International. WOW…I’m finally there for my 10-days of diving.
We were welcomed aboard, had lunch, shown around the vessel and introduced to the crew. We were shown the itinerary for the trip ahead and ‘disciplined’ in timings and boat etiquette. There was a mixture of diving agency people and nationalities aboard but all were experienced divers with over 50 dives. Then the infamous ‘check out dive’. Only 10M and just outside the harbour but I found a shark’s tooth as a memento. There had been a prolonged El Nino current and water temperature was about 3⁰C above normal. I dived in a 3mm wetsuit but all my colleagues used 5mm.
In the early hours of the next morning, while we were still sleeping, the vessel set off to a point between Santa Cruz Island and Baltra for two dives. These were at Pte Carrion and Canal Norte. Here we saw our first major sightings of equatorial fish. Fusiliers, sergeant majors, angels and green turtles as well as golden cownose rays and porcupine fish. At Canal Norte there was the largest, most intense amazing eel garden I have ever seen and also our first sightings of hammerhead and white tip sharks. It was getting exciting, as I had never seen hammerheads before.
The next part of our journey needed some serious distance coverage. Darwin and Wolf Islands are isolated and lie about 200km north of the main island group, so we set off for the rest of the day and most of the night to get there.
First to Darwin Island and its famous arch. Here we did four dives a day for two days in 30⁰C waters. Serious stuff now with strong currents. Often by negative entry, we quickly back rolled off the zodiacs to ledges between 25 -30M and clung on to the rocks by hand or with rock hooks.
You watched the sharks come to you. At first, the hammerheads were in the distance. They like it cooler below the thermocline, but cautiously they ventured up towards us in singles or small groups. We also saw white or black tips and Galapágos sharks. Around us smaller fish were swarming. At the end of the dives we swam away from the rock wall and ‘into the blue’ for our safety stops and zodiac pickup (they call them pangas).
Each dive you saw more. Huge schools of jacks and yellow fin tuna in the current and also morays, wrasses and Moorish idols in the rocks around us. On a slightly different sandy bottom site the hammerheads came very close and were accompanied by silky sharks. On one occasion while returning in the zodiacs we were suddenly surrounded by dolphins. Mask, fins and snorkel were on at the speed of superman (or wonder woman) and we watched them play around the divers for about 20 minutes. On another dive we saw lovely shoals of seabream, burrito grunts and blue-gold striped snappers and our first lobster.
Then we moved on a short distance to Wolf Island, again for four dives a day for two days. This was hammerhead rush hour. They call them schooling hammerheads. I can’t think why, at school we were taught that fish come in shoals. Perhaps these were better educated. Anyway, they were an amazing spectacle. The two major sites here are Shark Bay and Landslide but the latter provided more sightings.
The currents here were even fiercer. Your exhaled bubbles flew away almost horizontally. We all dived on 32 per cent nitrox and did no-deco-stop dives throughout. Average dive time was 45-50 minutes. The second day saw stronger winds and the waves sometimes 2m to 3m high. However, these were hardly noticeable below.
As well as the large pelagics there were hogfish, snappers, angels and butterfly fish all around. Truly a delight! In between dives we got close to blue-footed boobies perched on the vessel gunnels and frigate birds on the radar dish. They showed no fear of the divers which is what Mr Darwin noticed back in the day. The night dive was shallower and nearer the island wall face. The modern bright LED torch and camera lights provided nearly enough illumination for the whole island.
There was the odd incident of a cylinder coming loose and a diver falling a bit behind on a drift but the excellent guides were soon on the spot to sort us out. The guides were amazing. They are the directors and we are just the audience in the theatre of the ocean. Even during our safety stops you were entertained by more than 20 Galapágos, silky and hammerheads 25M below. Oh… I forgot to mention visibility: always 25M or more and sometimes up to 50M. The lack of river silt and the cooler Humboldt current coming from Antarctica ensured good viz. At this site I did my 900th dive and was rewarded with a giant cake at dinner and which everyone had for their desert. It was amazing. It also cost me a round of beers.
The next day we were to have dived further south at Round Rock for pelagics but sadly we were blown out. We agreed to sail further south to the west side of Isabella Island and a site called Pte Vicente Roca. Here we saw giant sunfish at a cleaning station. They are huge and adopted an up-pointing stance for cleaning which was the best time to approach them. To get to the site we swam through huge shoals of black striped salemas. A bit like the South African Sardine run. We saw white tip sharks, hogfish, blennies, gobies and short spiked urchins. We also watched flightless cormorants, sea lions and Galapágos penguins feeding off the salema shoals. Gosh, can they move swiftly underwater. There were marine iguanas perched along the rocks, but we never saw them in the water. On the night dive here we saw turtles, long-tailed stingrays, a small rusk-eel, sharks and even seals which had learned to follow the diver’s torches for an illuminated meal.
Overnight we moved to the west of Fernandina Island and a site called Caba Douglas. This is one of the most famous marine iguana feeding places and was to be an amazing highlight but alas conditions were very rough and we could not dive. We would have wasted a day while waiting for better conditions and then lost out elsewhere, so again we voted to move on.
Back to Isabella Island and a different site called Cabe Marshall. WOW! What a site for white and black tip reef sharks. At a cleaning station we mingled with 20 or more, sometimes coming within a metre of our faces. A lot of us had GoPro Hero cameras and they were working overtime. However, most of the photo-divers used compact cameras with zoom and these took much better pictures. The GoPros were good in video mode and on an extended stick you could get in close. I was lucky to have professional photographer Marc Stickler on board who showed me how to use my borrowed GoPro to best advantage.
A later dive at nearby Pte Coca on a wall we saw king angels, barberfish, mojarra grunts, blue-gold snappers, scissortail chromis and flag cabrillas. Repeat dives here saw hammerheads, big parrotfish (surge wrasse evidently) shoals of butterfly fish and a bumphead parrotfish, snappers and even a Galapágos flounder.
Our last dive of the tour was on the north side of Santiago Island at a site called Cousins Rock. Here we were treated to flight after flight of eagle rays effortlessly gliding through the sea above as we were perched on a headland ledge at 20M. Sometimes they mixed with mobulas which are smaller cousins of the manta. Although a few people did see a lone oceanic manta in the trip, I confess to missing it.
After this we moved to the north of Santa Cruz Island to refuel for the next trip. After lunch we were ferried ashore to go and see the giant Galapágos tortoises. Some were over a metre long and 60cm high. True giants. We were then given a few hours free time in Puerto Ayora for shopping and souvenirs. Why did everyone like the blue-footed booby T-shirt for their other halves back home? Then back aboard for an overnight. The next day for disembarkation and transfer to the airport for onward flights home with an unnecessary overnight stopover in Guayaquil which otherwise would have got us home a day earlier.
In summary, I would say I had a fantastic trip. My best liveaboard so far. Thank you Blue o Two. I did 28 dives. The diving, the food, the guides, the crew and the vessel were (guess what….) JUST AMAZING.
• Hugh South is a BSAC Advanced Instructor. Member of Nuneaton Sub-Aqua Club. Age 69. And has been diving for 30 years.
• There are some extras to pay on board such as nitrox fees and dive chamber fees. They are not great compared to the cost of the holiday. Currency onboard and on land is US Dollars. For information contact Blue o two. However, these trips are popular and are sometimes booked up a year in advance. Costs approximately £6,000 for 10 days, £5,000 for 7 days with less time on Darwin and Wolf. See www.blueotwo.com