The winds were down, the ocean ocean was calm and the moment had arrived. Over two weeks at sea and we wanted to switch things up a bit, freshen up and reignite some excitement after some slow sailing days.
Diving into 4,000m deep waters did the trick. (I say dive, but I bottled it. Maybe I was scared that I’d just keep plunging down, deeper and deeper, and not find my way back up in time? Maybe it was the unknown? Maybe it was the fact that I’m rubbish at diving and I didn’t want the indignity and pain of a belly flop? All three guys did beautiful, smooth dives, I must add. Ah well.)
Later we added snorkel and masks to the mix, finning around by the catamaran. One person always remained on board, keeping an eye out for drift and sharks.
We only just pierced the surface of the sea, and she seemed sparsely populated with salpy forms floating around in sunlight streaked water. Any other ocean life was way, way down there, beyond our grasp and lung capacity.
Matt gets a photo from under the catamaran
Swim back to the boat before it leaves without us
And then we clambered back on board, refreshed, reinvigorated and ready for the final 1,000nm. Onwards to Tahiti!
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.
Some of the dive team ready for action (*)
Before the dive at Plazas
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.
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.
Approaching the calm side of Gordon Rocks
Overboard at Gordon Rocks
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.
A shoal of yellow-tailed mullet, unique to the Galapagos islands *
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.