Category Archives: diving

Bicheno Beachside Penguin Surprise

Views looking out over the rocks at dusk in Bicheno

Evening arrives in Bicheno, Tasmania

I never went to Bicheno with the intention of seeing anything or anyone other than my friend, and to avoid the storms that were starting to whip the southeast corner of Tasmania.

Having had enough chills for a lifetime, I was keen to search out some sprays of sunshine and gaps in the bursts of wind. This was a holiday, dammit. Don’t give me storms.

If there had been more time to play with I would have headed to the far northeast tip of Tasmania and sailed across to the white sands and warmer weather of Flinders Island, but with ferries only running once weekly, I’d have to save that adventure for another time. The Bay of Fires – another place where I would have loved to have got lost for a week or two – would also have to wait. No time.

The other option?

Bicheno, a place I knew nothing about other than that my friend, Hugo, would be working there on a marine project. Having hinted that the climate was usually more forgiving up that way, he’d got my attention and so D-man and me drove a couple of hours north of Hobart to this ‘jewel of the East Coast’.

Maybe some of you have been to Bicheno and enjoyed kicking back in its limited scattering of cafes, restaurants and bakeries. Maybe you’ve been to paint the fishing boats bobbing about in the bay or the blowhole coughing up metres of pillared mist. Maybe you’ve been kitted up to surf crystal waves or dive into the cold currents of the Tasman Sea.

Or maybe you’ve visited Bicheno with the full intention of seeing what I had no idea I was going to see. Because, it seems, if you actually do some research on the place, there is one main reason to visit Bicheno.

After a campervan cook-up washed down with (yet another) glass of local Pinot Noir, D-man and me layered up. On the way to buy the aforementioned Pinot Noir my friend Hugo had taken us on a cliff and scrubland wander and hinted at the activity that occurred once night-time fell.

And the night-time activity started with squawks; the gathering call of adult fairy penguins coming onshore en masse, and the call of the young awaiting their parents, reminding their parents of where to find them.

A baby penguin waits for its parents to return

Waiting for its parents to return

Walking quietly with a t-shirt covered torch, D-man and me made our way back along the cliff path and found a perch on the rocks overlooking the beach. We didn’t’ have to wait for long before we saw the waddles. Creatures, barely knee high, shuffled over boulders and through undergrowth in search of their young.

Little penguins – AKA fairy penguins – going about their daily routine as if this were the most usual thing in the whole wide world. Which for them, of course, it was. But for us? Not at all. I felt like I was living an Attenborough documentary. Bring on the narration.

Two fairy penguins heading back from a day at sea to return to their young in Bicheno, Tasmania, Australia.

Two fair penguins…

Two fairy penguins heading back from a day at sea to return to their young in Bicheno, Tasmania, Australia.

…heading back from a day at sea…

Two fairy penguins heading back from a day at sea to return to their young in Bicheno, Tasmania, Australia.

…to return to their young.

Once the cold of the night took hold we retreated, giving the continuing dribs and drabs of returning penguins a wide berth when we encountered them on our walk back. Which we did. Over and over. Little waddles, little flaps, and, well, just lots of little.

Catching up with a friend in Bicheno: wonderful. Living a magical bedtime story full of squawks, waddles and fluff: unexpected. Sometimes not reading about a place before you go: priceless.

Further reading and watching

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A great day at the Barrier Reef

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Back on the ocean!

It was never going to be a big day in terms of covering any great distance, but in others ways it was a big day. How could I go all the way to Far North Queensland without at least glimpsing the Great Barrier Reef, the ‘world’s largest coral reef system’, so big and impressive it can be seen from space? People travel to Australia especially to visit this Unesco Heritage Site, to snorkel and dive in tropical waters, to observe the corals and sealife, to drink in postcard appropriate scenery. Tropical, beaches, warmth? Try stopping me.

After a too-short sleep and a wake-up coffee with the stranger, L-man, D-man and me stuffed bags into the car, said goodbye to temporary housemates, and drove away from the farm to meet back up with other friends and seek out a Great Barrier Reef daytrip deal in Port Douglas.

The realistic option in terms of time and cost was a tour on the Wavedancer, a ‘luxury sailing catamaran’ which would take us out to the Low Isles for AU$161.

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Approaching the Low Isles

Within an hour of north east sailing we were mooring up in calm waters next to a teeny slither of palm trees and golden sand. It was the stereotype. Would the ocean deliver the same or had it already been too damaged? (Was I, I suddenly wondered, in fact contributing to further damage?)

The next few hours passed in a stinger suited blur of guided snorkelling and solo floating about. Occasionally I lifted my head to check I hadn’t drifted miles out to sea, never to be found again, but mostly I just bobbed around and explored and marvelled at underwater spaghetti.

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Round the island walk (all of maybe, oh, fifteen minutes)

It was pretty, undeniably, but like so often can happen, documentaries and coffee table books show it better, at its best. The colours weren’t quite as vivid as anticipated, the fish not quite as abundant. And, I can’t help but feel that the Low Isles experience was far less impressive than that of the Outer Isles.

But I’m not complaining. It was beautiful, the whole experience was beautiful, particularly when I imagined it was just me and a companion or two hanging out on this 4 acre coral cay. Whilst others might tell you that the onboard lunchtime smorgasboard was a highlight of the day, I’d probably say a giant clam did it for me.

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Free beach time massage for a buddy. Paradise, for sure.

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Kitted out, ready for action

Later that evening, camped up a little further down the coast near Palm Cove and sitting on fold-up chairs in a circle around a stove, I looked over at my friends and thought, ‘yeah, I love hanging out with you guys. What a day. Last minute decisions, sunshine, laughter, underwater play and explore, new sights, new sounds, boat time nodding off, after cruise oysters. The Great Barrier Reef. Yeah. And now chats about childhood and life and all that stuff. Good times. Great times’.

I’ll lift a plastic beaker with some left over wine to that.

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Queensland Roadtrip Day 7: Port Douglas – Palm Cove (43km)

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Diving the Galapagos

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Dive spots in the Galapagos islands (map from http://www.galapagosdestiny.com)

I needed a gentle re-introduction to the undersea world, not an adventure that would see me hanging on to tough, solidified lava for fear of getting swept away into the mouth of a hammerhead shark.

I decided pretty much last minute that I really should dive whilst in the Galapagos. When would I be back?

But I did wonder: was it really worth paying over $150 for two dives in waters that I’d been warned had low visibility and strong currents? It definitely sounded beyond my diving ability.

Ah well. So long as I stayed within my 18 metre limit, I was insured. Galapagos had thus far been good to me and I decided to place my trust in the hands of people who dive these spots on a daily basis.

It was on a Friday evening in May that I excused myself from a social meet-up with a delivery skipper who I’d be crewing for across the Pacific Ocean, and headed off into a dusky Puerto Ayora in search of an open dive shop.

A woman turned the key to her shop door as I approached. ‘‘Everywhere is shut now. But maybe René has space for you’, she said, “I show you.’ Within twenty minutes I was signing paperwork and trying on dive gear behind re-opened shutters.

It was going to happen.

Saturday morning. A sleepy-eyed start for us all, bouncing over dawn waves to the north-east coast of Santa Cruz island.

Dive one at Plazas started off hesitantly. An old boy, a man with sailing skin, natural highlights and a grey tuft of a beard helped me step into my buoyancy aid and tighten up my weight belt. I was a bit nervous. Would I instinctively remember everything? Maybe I should have done a refresher course first. Hmmm.

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Some of the dive team ready for action (*)

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Before the dive at Plazas

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King angelfish tempting us into the water at Plazas

Hands on regulator and back of the head, backward rolls, splash, splash, hitting the water one after the other. Apart from I stayed put. I couldn’t do it.

Second countdown, just for me this time, and pride pushed me overboard.

But I wasn’t the first to panic. A girl with a face full of makeup about to be melted by the lick of the sea started to hyperventilate once she hit the water. She lasted a few minutes. ‘No’, she said, ‘No’, and got back on the boat.

I struggled to submerge. Again and again I hit the surface to reach for air and calm my beating heart to a steady pace.

Eventually I descended, found my buoyancy and balance, and I eased into it, finning gently along a sandy bottom past curious king angel fish and a shoal of yellow tailed surgeon fish, floating along with golden Mexican goatfish, shimmery blackspot porgy – unique to the Galapagos – and grey mickey with delicate trailing tails and fins. And some stingrays. I kept my distance.

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Finally checking out the ocean floor *

It was all fairly relaxed. After twenty minutes two of the boys surfaced, out of air, whilst the rest of us continued cruising around. We were deeper than I should have gone – 23m – and whilst visibility wasn’t great, the grey waters still had enough clarity to keep this underworld from becoming too freaky.

Dive two at Gordon Rocks was a different ball game. The boat rocked heavily. ‘This section is calmer’, René assured us. But the entry was a little hectic and once in the water, my breathing was instantly panicked.

‘Behind you!’ shouted the driver, ‘Look, look! A hammerhead!’ I couldn’t look. A little apart from the rest of the group, the shark was close to me. If I didn’t look, it didn’t exist, and if I pretended that all the fins we’d seen from the boat were imaginary, all was good.

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Approaching the calm side of Gordon Rocks

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Overboard at Gordon Rocks

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My group… left to the sharks

We started the dive, submerging to 18m, down the crater wall. For forty minutes we drifted around the rock, currents spurring us on.

This dive gave me my shark sighting, finally. I’d done my best to avoid them until now, but a couple of whitetip reef sharks were insistent on being seen from a comfortable distance. More Mexican goat fish and blackspot porgy, some blue striped snapper, some surgeon fish. And two turtles. Ah, my beautiful friends.

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A shoal of yellow-tailed mullet, unique to the Galapagos islands *

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Galapagos fish

The safety stop showed me why Gordon Rocks is considered an intermediate to advanced dive site, with currents in the shallows threatening to rip us away from our handholds. My legs splayed out to the side as water surged past and I gripped on tightly, thrilled and scared and a little sad that it was nearly all over.

And the hammerhead story from the start of this blog post? Yeah, my imagination got the better of me. It could have happened, I guess, but I held on tightly, did my five-minute safety stop and finned up to the choppy surface fully unchomped.

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The reputation of the Galapagos means that they can demand fairly high prices and people will pay. There’s little room for bargaining and you can expect to pay upwards of US$170 for two dives. I paid $135 for two dives as a last minute special deal through Galapagos People Shalom Dive Centre. Carol – my fun, expressive yet calm dive buddy – and René kept a close eye on me throughout the two dives. Thanks guys! Thanks also for permitting use of some of the GoPro images (*) and  stingray footage.

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Overcoming underwater fear

Image © Chris Ridley at chrisridley.co.uk

The day I arrived into the Perhentians, some beautiful little islands off the north east coast of Malaysia, I was terrified of even snorkelling. Half a decade earlier in Thailand I had a cut myself up on a bed of coral following a mad, panicked flailing session in some shallow waters, and it had seriously put me off. I had tried one more time in La Jolla in the US, but the unnaturalness of breathing underwater was too much.

I couldn’t do it and I definitely couldn’t enjoy it.

But as with everything I fear, I try to find a way to deal with it. I’d seen so many great programmes about snorkelling and diving, and so many of my friends loved it. Surely there must be a way for me to fall in love with it too?

So it was 2008, I was staying in a stilted hut in the Perhentians and my good friend Hugo decided to take on the challenge of teaching me to dive.

The theory was fairly straightforward, possibly because I was a bit of a swot and did my homework good and proper. For this part of the PADI course I felt in control. Thinking, reading and remembering. It was familiar.

After the exam, Hugo’s face was sombre. I panicked. No, no, I couldn’t have failed. I had felt confident on all the answers. ‘Just joking’, he said breaking into a smile. Git. I’d passed with flying colours. Well, nearly. One wrong answer. Dammit.

The practical side of things were a little more, erm, panicked.

Hugo distracted me with silly games at the bottom of the sea shallows. Later, he made me do James Bond entries into the water. And when I told him that there was no way I wanted to go to the 18 metres needed to qualify for my PADI Open Water Certificate, he humoured me.

He pointed out cleaner shrimp, took out his reg, let them polish his teeth. I put out my hand for a manicure. They were crazy and translucent and tickly cute (the shrimp that is, not Hugo). And then he showed me his altimeter that displayed a depth of 18 metres. Sneaky chap.

A guy getting his fingernails cleaned (Image © Mark Rosenstein at www.markrosenstein.com)

So, despite a hiccup and underwater panic on my first Open Water dive, I eased into diving just fine. I didn’t have to use the excuse of some dormant heart murmur any longer (yes, it had been a worry, but possibly more of an excuse). I even started to imagine working my way through the PADI qualifications, although maybe I just wanted to get my Dive Master for the completion party? I forget. Whatever, I actually learnt to enjoy diving and my breathing calmed so that I didn’t empty my air tank within twenty minutes or so. It was considerable progress.

Sharks, sting-rays, I saw the lot. And I managed to hold it together.

And now, here in Galapagos, many a shop sign screamed out daily dives. Would I dare to give it a go again now that it had been a few years without practise? Would I get by without a good friend holding my hand?

Time to re-employ my just-get-on-with-it philosophy. Push the button.

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Sharks? Nah, I’m off to find me some turtles

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Settling for a snorkeling spot

I didn’t want to go searching for the sharks let alone swim with them, so when the rest of my group jumped in to the water and quickly disappeared off leaving little old me way behind, I didn’t mind too much.

What I did mind, a bit, was being alone in unknown waters full of strange sea creatures.

I adjusted my mask, took a big breath and put my snorkel in my mouth. My heart beat faster as I submerged my head and I took little gasps of air as I tried to flipper with some gentle rhythm and grace. I don’t take like a fish to water. I panic, a little, every time I look beneath the surface and see the ocean world spread out beneath me.

I tried to see the flipper trails of my team, but they were long gone. What to do? Head off in a similar direction and possibly get lost, or stay closer to the boat? Sometimes I throw caution to the wind, sometimes I’m just silly, but this time I played it safe.

I surfaced for a moment and returned to the boat, head above water. ‘What happened?’ asked Fabricio, my tour guide. I shrugged. ‘I lost them. They went’. ‘You might see some turtles over there’, he said, pointing to the edge of the reef breakwater that was giving us some relief from the ocean chop. ‘Will you keep an eye on me?’ I asked before submerging again, still fighting some anxiety.

Cornetfish (© Matthew Meier 2006)

And then I relaxed into it and I swam along with rainbow wrasse, bluechin parrotfish and various jacks and snappers, and loads of cornetfish –  these thin and crazy looking things that you almost can’t see. A stingray (Raya Sartén) gently flapped by and I gave it a wide berth. Something about stingrays scares the shit out of me. Maybe it’s the Steve Irwin thing? I don’t know.

A stingray slides and glides through Galapagos waters (members.ziggo.nl/mauricef/index.htm)

But my real search was for turtles so I swam away from the colourful charm of these tropical schools, onwards and over towards the far corner of the little lagoon. I spotted the first about four metres down, chomping away on plantlife. Fish darted around her mouth as the ripped off chunks of seaweed in a manner not too dissimilar to the tortoise I’d seen a few days earlier, only here the water gave the feeding process some slow-mo, drifty chic.

Another two turtles coasted around the area, one so huge that it was well on its way to being the size of a Smart car. Closer to me, I swam a few feet above it, tempted like no other time to hold on and go for a ride. But out of respect, and fear, I didn’t’. I like to think that I’m unlikely to cause any nuisance or harm, but who knows what impact a clumsy human might have? And who knows when a turtle might turn on you? Or three against one, in this case.

Not my photo… no underwater camera for me… pity (www.lifesorigin.com)

How long I spent observing the turtles, I’m unsure, but for a good while I bobbed face down and forgot all about short breaths and fast heartbeats, lost in the magic of a private moment with these creatures. A few others from my group started to arrive so I made my way back over to the boat.

‘Did you see the turtles?’ asked a French tourist as we both sat out on deck warming ourselves in the afternoon sun. ‘And the sharks! You missed the sharks. There were many.’

‘Yes’, I told her, ‘I saw the turtles’. But, I realised, I didn’t just see the turtles, I actually had some precious time with them. And I’d sure as anything trade some shark spotting for that, any day.

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Journey into the strangest landscapes

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Approaching Los Tuneles

Despite first impressions of an inhospitable, aggressive and alien landscape, these dry, spiky islands were also strangely fragile and elegant, composed of narrow passageways, slim archways and slender pillars dipping into lightly rippled lagoons of clear, turquoise waters.

I was on a trip out to Los Tuneles and typically I had failed to do any research other than listening in on a couple of travellers debrief the outing. I knew, then, that it involved tunnels and snorkelling in waters with a selection of our sea life friends And I heard sharks were involved. I was both strangely drawn in and totally terrified.

So I set off with expectations of big, fat tunnels where we’d sail into the depth of darkness and take to the water, and splash and snorkel around in a flash-lit womb. I guess I was thinking about caves, or maybe I still had the tunnel experience at El Chato at the forefront of my mind.

Instead, we motored along south from Puerto Vilamil on the island of Isabela, Galapagos for forty minutes until we reached a splattering of mini lava islands. Nazca and blue footed-boobies sat king-of-the-castle on top of black, chunky rocks as we wound our way further into a thickening maze.

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Getting closer

The skipper manoeuvred through narrow passes and shallow spots, finally dropping anchor in a more sheltered lagoon. Here was a network of lava archways and strips that joined islands into a bigger formation. Cacti and a few piles of rockiness gave some height to this floating land.

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In amongst it

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Moored up in an alien landscape

‘Give me your camera’, said a French tourist. On our way out to Los Tuneles we’d picked him and his family up from a yacht moored a little off Isabela. ‘Come, I take a photo of you here’. I posed awkwardly and then went off on a little solo wander. It was crunchy underfoot and I nearly lost my grip. But no! If you’re going to fall, don’t grab out! There is nothing to hold on to apart from cacti.

I sat on the edge of an archway and looked into one of the lagoons. Here, the water was less rippled and the sun pierced right through to the bottom. A sea-lion swam along, hitting the surface and then diving down again. A turtle glided past, a little beneath the surface. Another woman joined me and shouted over to the others, but the show continued only for a little while longer.

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Sea lion taking a dip

Within fifteen minutes we clambered back on board our little boat. As we headed away from the main bulk of lava mass we passed by some penguins and pulled over for a closer look. It wasn’t long before they leapt into the sea. You humans are all the same! Such voyeurs! Can’t a penguin socialise without you guys hanging around like a bad smell?

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Pose? Nah, let’s get out of here

And what about the snorkelling? Ah, yeah. It turns out that the snorkelling was to come later and was totally separate to the tunnels or archways or whatever you want to call them. Someone mentioned something about swimming and snorkelling not being allowed in Los Tuneles anymore. What was I thinking? Silly me.

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I paid $60 for the tour through Tropical Adventures in Puerto Vilamil.  The tour included a trip out to Los Tuneles, a basic pack lunch and snorkeling in another spot in the afternoon.

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Sun, sea, sand and… snorkelling on Ilha Grande

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Ilha Grande, Brazil

It was my first experience in a triple bunk hostel in a place that clearly practised rack ‘em and stack ‘em, where tripping over bags and inhaling recycled breath was to be expected.

I’d sailed into the simple docks of Abraão on Ilha Grande where touts eagerly awaited new arrivals offering rooms at rates that easily competed with my pre-booked hostel bed.

Once checked in, me and a friend set off to explore the village. It didn’t take long. Consisting of places to eat and shops stacked high with overpriced souvenirs and Havaianas, Abraão is fully established as a tourist spot.

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One of the main streets down to the beach in Ilha Grande, Brazil

Part of its appeal is the lack of vehicles. People walk and cycle about the place and little boats take visitors out on day trips to more remote beaches on the island. Sixteen trails of different lengths and difficulty are mapped out for walks across the island but it’s the beaches that are the main attraction, some perfect for lounging and swimming, others for snorkelling, others still for surfing.

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Praia Preta, Ilha Grande, Brazil

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Going snorkelling at Praia Preta, Ilha Grande, Brazil

I hired some snorkelling equipment (R$15) and made my way over to nearby Praia Preta with its dusting of black sand. I wasn’t the only one with that idea. Walking away from the crowds and right along to the rocks, however,  resulted in a pleasing reward in the shape of an enclosed bit of privacy.

Swim, snorkel, sun dry, read, chat, picnic, repeat. Good times.

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Praia Preta, Ilha Grande, Brazil

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Private hideaway, Ilha Grande, Brazil

And then what else to do on the island other than window shop, eat out and indulge on tasty desserts from outdoor sweets trolleys, and sit under twinkling fairy lights on the beachfront whilst listening to street musicians as night took hold?

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Sweets stall, Ilha Grande, Brazil

Overall, with more money I could have stayed here longer, exploring secluded bays, maybe doing some diving. But Brazil is expensive for backpackers, and little islands with inflated prices proved to be even more problematic. After three nights on Ilha Grande, I bade farewell to this cute little place and boarded a boat back to the mainland.

Getting to Ilha Grande from Rio de Janeiro is pretty straightforward and takes between three to four hours. You can either take a bus with Costa Verde from RODOVIARIA (main bus terminal in Rio) to Angra do Reis where you can catch a ferry or local boat to Vila do Abraão, or book a direct transfer through your hostel/hotel. The latter can work out a little cheaper if you factor in a taxi ride to the bus terminal. All in, travel to the island should cost you in the region of R$85. Speedy return transfers are easily booked when on the island and depart three times per day.

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To Galapagos or not to Galapagos, that is the question

How can you visit Ecuador and not go to the Galapagos?’ asked my colleague when I had told him of my travel plans. I shrugged. My initial ideas had been to travel from Ecuador down through South America into Argentina where I would meet a friend and explore Patagonia, but realising both the cost and timescale, these ideas were minimised to spending the full three months in Ecuador. That way I could get a proper, fuller impression of the country. I didn’t want to flit or fly through places too quickly and miss… I don’t know… the true essence of the place.

So yes, why the dilemma with going to the Galapagos islands if I was choosing to base myself in Ecuador? Don´t many people come to Ecuador primarily to visit the Galapagos? I was surprised to meet so many cash conscious backpackers throw out their travellers’ attitude to finances and say ‘sod it! I’m going to the Galapagos!’, but they did. Only two people I’ve met on the road thus far have decided not to go and in both cases it was down to cost.

You will regret it if you don’t go’, said one new friend who had just got back, ‘it’s so amazing… a once in a lifetime experience’. ‘You’ll do it,’ said another, ‘you just can’t not do it’. I could go in the future, I argued, but it wasn’t a strong argument when measured against the increasing likelihood that they will start to restrict visitor numbers to the islands and that prices will push upwards.

So why the hesitance? Possibly because everybody keeps raving about it. I find anything over hyped a little off putting. ´It was´, said a couple of people who recently went to the Galapagos, ´a bit of a disappointment.  Maybe our expectations were too high´.

Others talked about being stuck on board with a bad crowd (realistically when a bunch of strangers are thrown together into a small space the dynamics can be great, or in some cases disastrous). Sticking to schedules and being lumped with a bad guide were also cited as affecting the experience (although I´ve been told many guides are fantastic too, luck of the draw I guess).

And yes, cost is a factor. Do I really want to blow my entire redundancy payout, my little bit of security, on a trip of a lifetime? Maybe. I´ve got a bit of thinking time.

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