Tag Archives: Galapagos

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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Baby, can I drive your boat?

I’d climbed Volcán Sierra Negra in the morning and was now back in the middle of Puerto Vilamil on the island of Isabela trying to figure out how to get back to Isla Santa Cruz where I was hoping to meet the captain of a catamaran bound for French Polynesia.

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Boat building in Puerto Vilamil marina

A hitch later and I arrived at the marina where I asked a couple of guys perched on some railings about boat times. ‘That man there’, one said, gesturing towards a guy walking towards us, ‘he’ll take you for $30’.

Half an hour later I found myself riding up top in the captain’s cab – up on the flybridge – whilst twenty nine kids and their teacher snuggled in downstairs under the sun protection of a tarp and the safety of a burly deckhand.

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Leaving Isla Isabela behind, Galapagos

We bounced along, away from a sunny Isabela and towards an increasingly greying sky. Rain started to patter down.

‘Can you…?’ asked the skipper, pointing to the wheel and the captain’s seat, having clearly remembered my earlier jests about being able to captain his boat. My friend Ollie had pulled a similar trick back in 2011 during a trip between Koh Tao and the mainland in Thailand. Whilst he may have got away with dishing out a bit of bullshit in order to convince the crew that he could captain the small ferry, why did I think I could pull the same cheek?

‘I can drive it, you know’, I’d told him, ‘can I drive it?’ It had been a mischievous ask, and now he was off of his pew and I had to deliver. I jumped over into the hot seat whilst he pulled across the rain screen and secured things up top.

And in those few minutes that I turned the wheel the wrong way and in the moments that I tried to steer us on the least choppy path possible, all my Galapagos photos went sliding down the tarpaulin. My little camera made a secret escape attempt. Oblivious, I continued taking my steering seriously until captain finished up his rain mission and returned to his rightful duties.

I sat back in my co-pilot seat and pondered what lay ahead in my adventures beyond this Galapagos trip. This little moment at sea and at the helm had got me thinking: how would it feel to do three weeks without stopping? The stretch from Galapagos to Tahiti could either destroy me or cure me of my ocean fears, I figured.

And then, finally, I realised that my camera was missing. I did a panicked scout about, and the captain killed the engines. Because there she was, nestled on the edge of the tarpaulin, waiting for a big wave to give her enough lift to fly off into the sea. Burly deckhand reached up as we held our breaths; he would either knock her into the ocean depths or save her from a watery death.

Thankfully it was the latter and the remainder of the trip, although wet and stomach lurchingly rough, was accompanied by a little bit of fuzziness. My Galapagos photos may be poor compared to what other people manage to capture, but they’re still my photos, some of my memories.

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Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz comes into view

Ah, another little adventure with a happy ending. (And I meant the fact we got the school group across from Isla Isabela to Isla Santa Cruz safe and sound. Of course. What were you thinking?!)

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I’m just off to climb a volcano

‘What are you up to tomorrow?’ asked a friend during a Skype call. ‘Ah, I think I’m going to go and climb a volcano’, I told him, ‘an active volcano’. The island of Isabela is, after all, made up of six volcanoes (five of which are active) and to visit the Galapagos and not take in some volcanic splendour would surely be a half-hearted effort. As with many activities on the islands, local laws require you to be accompanied by a guide so doing it totally off my own back wasn’t going to be an option. I booked in for the $35 tour.

Tomorrow had arrived and here I was with a group of unknowns sheltering from the damp air, drizzle and grey skies, waiting to start the great ascent to Volcán Sierra Negra, one of the largest active volcanos in the world. But with this turn of bad weather and such poor visibility, would the trek go ahead?

It hadn’t started like this. Oh no.

Less than an hour earlier I had ran through sun soaked streets and arrived, in a sweat and seven minutes late, to an empty Tropical Adventures shop. No cars were waiting. No tour guides around to tell me off. They had left without me. Oh, crap.

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Running through the streets of Puerto Vilamil on Isabela, Galapagos

I started to walk back towards the main square in search of breakfast. A jeep drove by, five, maybe six people crammed inside. Someone waved. Was that one of the guys from yesterday’s Los Tuneles tour? Another car beeped and pulled up alongside me. “Quick! Get in! You’re late!”

No rucksack, no breakfast and late. It was shameful. I made my apologies. People were gracious, on the surface at least, but maybe their tolerance was tested when half an hour later we were still driving through the streets of Puerto Vilamil doing random pick-ups and drop-offs and who-knows-whats.

And so, having driven north east from Puerto Vilamil upwards into an increasingly hostile weather front, here I was standing snuggled in with a bunch of about twenty strangers, and all those efforts to get here seemed to be in vain. It was surely a no go. This weather encouraged thoughts of duvet days and movie sessions, of chatting and playing music by the fireplace with friends.

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The starting point

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Some of the group before the hike began

Stop. Doubt not. This weather was, apparently, totally normal. ‘English speaking with me’, said our young guide who later told me how much he loved doing this job in between surfing the islands various breaks. The variety in landscape and climate, he told me, made Galapagos the best place to live.

And what about city fun? Wild, chaotic moments? Didn’t he crave a bit of breaking loose at times?  ‘The mainland’, he said, ‘sometimes’. I found out from a few people that Guayaquil and Quito (on the mainland of Ecuador) offer them an escape at times, but do nothing in trying to tempt them away from the tranquillity of the Galapagos Islands.

For an hour we climbed along muddy, cracked pathways. The drive up must have dealt with a good chunk of the 1,124m altitude because the physical climb was the gentlest I could have imagined. As we ambled along, I chatted with French tourists and a young German couple, with an Argentinian wanderer and a chatty entrepreneur who had left his entire family and cultural sensibilities behind in India for a new life in Australia. As travelling often allows, I saw way beyond what was right in front of me, leant more about the world in a broader sense.

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Grassy, gentle paths

At the main lookout I realised my expectations of what a volcano might look like were limited to glossy photos in magazines that showed spewing lava flow and an excess of red and orange hues tipped with flashes of bright white heat.

This expanse of flat, cracked blackness that stretched off into the far distance was strikingly different to the volcano images in my mind. The drop off into the crater, although steep, was not as dramatic or as deep as I might have imagined, and swaths of clouds were swept along the surface by a moody breeze.

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Sierra Negra to my left…

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…and to my right

It was, undoubtedly, a unique landscape, all 10 kilometres of parched rockiness. We stood for a little while and looked out over this section of Sierra Negra. As recently as 2005 she had belched up a load of lava, and before that, 1979. There was a good chance that she might erupt again, right now. A sign stated ‘since the magma chambers are approximately two kilometres deep, there are cracks where every so often the fumes vent or lava erupts’. It could happen.

Onwards we walked, skirting along the eastern side of Sierra Negra, our grassy path contrasting with the bleak gravel of her belly spread out below us. The landscape started to change. More rocks, more slip, more hostility.

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Landscape change

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North east side of Sierra Negra crater, heading towards Chico

Those in the group who didn’t have boats to catch back to Santa Cruz continued on over shale and scatter towards Volcán Chico whilst the rest of us turned around and backtracked through ferns and hairy trees, walking and talking and stopping for a quick picnic lunch. Within two hours we were back at a still drizzly starting point, ready to descend back down to Puerto Vilamil.

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Ferns and hairy trees

One of the most active places for volcanic activity? Pah. Really? It all seemed very gentle and relaxed, dreamy even. Today, in any case.

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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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Islas Ballestas: as good as Galapagos?

7:15AM and the guy from reception in Hostel San Isidro, Pisco is shouting up the stairs. Shit, shit, shit. It’s happened again. Me and alarms and the seduction of sleep.

Five minutes later, I’m sitting in a minibus with a load of other tourists and we make the short journey to Paracas, grab a quick bite and together with a load of other groups, we board our speedboat for a trip around Islas Ballestas, a gathering of islands which are often referred to as the Poor Man’s Galapagos or Little Galapagos. It’s a half hour speed across early morning chop and it’s chilly.

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Heading out to the Islas Ballestas

We’ve been warned about wearing hats. I’ve pulled my hoody in close, mainly because I’m cold but I also do have a tendency to get shat on from a great height. A bird craps and it lands on the little girl´s head in front of me. She doesn’t notice. Her dad does and he points and laughs. There’s nothing like caring parenthood.

The first sight on the trip is that of Candlebro, a hillside engraving 50m in length. Cameras click away. The boat continues onwards, Guarnay Cormorants swooping close to the ocean and settling down amongst their flock, a dense, black sea on the cliff tops.

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Cormorants swoop close to the water

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Cormorants settling on the hill

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Colours and sunlight

Sunlight streaks through chasms of rock as we approach the islands. As has happened on a fair few occasions in South America, we´re asked to spot an impression of Christ in the rock face. I can’t see it but others with wholehearted imaginations can and I conclude that maybe it’s too early for my own creativity to kick in. I do spot the elephant rock with its trunk and legs and tail. I´ve not totally lost it.

The monogamous Humboldt Penguins – smaller than expected – gather together, pelicans in their midst. A little group line up and take turns jumping off of a natural stone platform into the water in the pursuit of sardines.

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Penguins and pelicans

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Penguin politeness

The rocks are dyed and covered by bird crap that has slopped down and caked and crusted up. The stench in the air is strong, a most overpowering, fishy smell. Seriously unpleasant, its pungency varies as we travel close the islands, sometimes bearable, other times less so. Little red crab-like creatures cling to the vertical rock face. Despite their appearance, the guide insists that they are not crabs but ´sea spiders´.

Fishermen net for octopus and crabs, and sea lions lounge on the rocks, one male demonstrating his machismo by barking at his colony of women.

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Hanging out

Further along is ´single´s beach´, a stretch of sand inhabited by a load of sea lions. ´It´s single´s beach because it´s just lots of males´, explained the guide, ´or maybe they´re gays´ he added. Regardless, they seem quite happy lounging about without the disturbance of other creatures and birds.

On the approach to the dock, a pod of dolphins turn up right on cue, ducking in and out of the now flat surface of the sea. We throw off our life jackets and disembark. Half-day trip over.

So was it worth it? Galapagos comparisons aside, yes. It was a short and sweet outing with plenty of wildlife and birdlife and intriguing rock formations. And religious interest, if you were one of the ones who spotted Christ.

But compared to Galapagos?

Galapagos is totally different´ said one guy who had recently returned from a trip to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. ´You actually get to go on to the islands themselves and experience different vegetation and landscapes and lakes and wildlife up close. A few things are similar, such as the sea lions and some birdlife, but there is so much more to see and do on the Galapagos Islands.´ Make up your own mind.

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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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