Galapagos dive travel
A Dream of a Trip in the Enchanted Islands
Sitting on the deck of a Red Sea Live-Aboard, Dany Weinberg (Biko) and I, we were all complaining that after so many safaris in the Red Sea, we had still not had the opportunity to see real big fishes. We started discussing a potential destination and concluded that we should go to the Galapagos. We began to run the project as soon as we came back home. After two months Dany and I were on our way to the famous Galapagos Islands.
The first stop was New York, where we completed an upgrade of our photo equipment at the famous B&H.
Then we went to Quito, capital of Ecuador. The two hours flight delay in Bogota (Columbia) put us under a lot of pressure. Worse, we were even told that we might have to stay overnight and take the plane the next day, a real disaster as we were supposed to catch the plane to the Galapagos the next morning!
Fortunately we reached Quito that same evening. However, we were still a bit worried since we didn’t know whether we would find our luggage containing all our precious equipment. We were truly relieved when we got all of it.
We spent the night in Quito, at some 2830 meters altitude in the middle of the Andes. That night, we had the opportunity to eat one of the best steaks we had ever tasted in our lives!
The following day, we flew with Tame Local Airlines to Baltra Airport in the Galapagos Islands, 1000 km (600 miles) westward of the South American continent.
Antonio, our 10 days live-aboard guide, welcomed us at the exit of the airport. He first took us to the Lammer Law, the world’s largest and most wonderful trimarine. The crew warmly welcomed us upon our arrival on board, which deeply touched us. We were stunned and amazed to see what a beautiful and enormous ship this was. It was equipped with such a roomy living room and twelve bedrooms with queen size beds. So far, everything was wonderful.
Later in the day, we arrived at our first diving spot. Antonio, our knowledgeable guide, introduced our dive by stating the following: “during this dive, you will see some hammerhead sharks, sea lions, eagle rays, sea turtles, white tips sharks and maybe some Galapagos sharks”. I was not sure I understood well what he was saying. I couldn’t believe my ears. I asked him if he was talking about what we would be seeing during our entire trip. He answered “NO my friend, that’s what you’re going to see during this first dive!”
Dany and I just couldn’t believe it. As Red Sea divers, we were simply not used to see so many large underwater animals, all in one dive. Our guide was right; we saw all of the creatures he mentioned, and all of them in such a large quantities! We finished our first dive with such a sense of wonder and we were overwhelmed with fascination.
When we went down for a tour on one of the islands, we were no less amazed to see the abundance of wildlife. This included a wide variety of birds (Blue-Footed Boobies, Fregates…), sea lions, and marine iguanas that even allowed us to approach them.
Later in the afternoon, we left for a 12-hour navigation trip to Wolf and Darwin, the Northern islands. For that, we had to cross the equator. The sea temperature in these islands is warmer than it is in the center of the Galapagos and water visibility is also clearer.
The following day, we stayed at Wolf Island where we dived during the entire day. At night, we navigated to Darwin. This is when the real action started! That place is a natural kingdom. It is not possible to get on the island itself but what we could see from the boat was simply amazing. So much action going on, so many birds of all kinds; some of which were fishing and others hunting those that were fishing to steal their fishes away. For hours on end, we admired the hundreds of dolphins jumping in and out of the waters, way deep into the horizon. There were so many of them that after a while, we couldn’t even look at them anymore.
What we could see from the air was totally insignificant compared to what we would see underwater. Before our first dive, Antonio told us that during the last trip, the divers had seen 15 whale sharks and that he would be trilled to see some more on this trip.
Leaving the Lammer Law anchored next to Darwin Island, we went to Darwin Arch with a Panga (local name for a Zodiac motor boat). Darwin Arch is a small arch-like shaped rock situated at a distance of about 250 meters from Darwin Island. We started our dive as soon as we jumped into the waters. The current was so strong that in order to swim forward, we had to hold on to the reef, which consisted of stones alone, without corals.
When reaching our destination, all we had to do was rest on the rocks and simply wait for the good stuff to happen. We didn’t have to wait long. Scalloped hammerheads started showing up in schools of tens or hundreds. It was as though they were dancing ballet. There were many other kinds of interesting fishes and sharks in the area, such as the Galapagos shark living only in the Galapagos, Malpelo, and Cocos islands, also known as the Golden Triangle.
However, the unlimited schools of hammerheads really pumped our adrenaline. That was right at the end of the first dive, when we went off the reef into the blue to do our decompression stop. At that same moment, we saw a huge 15-meter long whale shark passing by us, and, believe it or not, it was not alone! A second similar sized whale shark was swimming right next to it! Even though we were at the end of the dive, we swam really hard to get close to them. If the adrenaline was high when we saw the hammerheads, we were close to overdose when we saw the TWO large whale sharks!
At the deco stop, we hugged each other out of sheer happiness. All our following dives in the area were just about as exciting. We saw whale sharks during all of them. At the end of each dive, during the decompression stop, silky sharks were swimming around us. This was really impressive.
Antonio warned us not to leave the reef when we saw a whale shark because the current would take us into the blue. Despite this warning, during one of the dives, I really wanted to adventure and get close to a whale shark and I left the rocks. I was taken into the blue and had no other alternative but to go back to the surface. On my way up, I found myself face-to-face with another whale shark.
At the surface, I put my tank on the panga and went to take a swim in the sea amidst dolphins. After a few minutes, all the dolphins suddenly disappeared and were replaced by a little silky shark. It was so beautiful. I shot a couple of pictures. Then, there were more and more of them. Five or six sharks were swimming around me, getting closer and closer. I felt as though I was in a movie, but I knew I wasn’t James Bond and I didn’t want to end up in their stomachs, so I began swimming back to the panga as fast as I could. The panga was quite far, so I called the skipper to bring it closer to me.
When the panga arrived, I pulled myself up at a speed that probably only skilled military commando divers are capable of, even though I am really not one of them. On the panga I took a deep breath! I probably shouldn’t have been that scared since the silky sharks are known for their curiosity only. On the other hand, it was quite intimidating to swim with five or six sharks swimming around me, getting so close. Their reputation didn’t give me much of a clue about what they were actually thinking at the very moment, so I preferred to get out ASAP.
Between the dives, we went by Darwin Island to have a closer look at the birds and swim with the extraordinary and active sea lions that never stopped playing. At some point, a whale shark approached our boat. It remained there for a couple of minutes, then left.
At the end of our journey in Darwin, towards the end of our last dive, Dany and I left the reef to adventure into the blue and do our deco stop. Accidentally, we bumped into a school of hammerheads that were passing by. It took them a couple of seconds before they started paying attention to us and swam away. It was a great way to conclude our stay in Darwin!!
We returned to the central islands and continued our visit. We were able to appreciate the beauty of nature of each island we visited and understand Darwin’s evolution theory, as it was on display live, right in front of our eyes!
Before coming back home
Galapagos is a real paradise for those who love nature. Dany and I came back to Quito so amazed of all what we had seen and still, wanted more adventure. So, on my last day in Ecuador before flying back to NY, we wanted to see the whales passing by the Ecuador coast during that season. For that purpose, we flew to a small city near the coast to catch a (rare) taxi and drove tree hours to a tiny village. There, we went on a 5-hours motorboat slow tour.
During our tour, we could admire the humpback whales from very close. Far away, we even saw a whale jumping out of the water. That was truly amazing!
When we returned to the beach after a very hard trip on that nutshell, I didn’t even have the time to get dry, I had to rush to the airport and had to find someone with a car (no taxi there) who would be kind enough to drop me in another city to catch a plane back to Quito. I had to pay a lot of money to persuade the only car owner to drive me to the airport, some two and half hours away from where we were. I left Dany who stayed there a couple more days. My driver drove so fast to the airport that I thought the car wouldn’t make it. Luckily and still all wet, I could catch the plane on time. I was quite happy not to have to drive the entire night across the Andes to Quito to catch my plane back home early the next morning.
Some facts about the Galapagos
“Natural history of this archipelago is remarkable. The Galapagos Islands represent an entire little world by themselves.” Charles Darwin
Located on the Equator, the Galapagos Archipelago is a cluster of 19 volcanic islands. The archipelago came entirely from within the ocean and has never been attached to the South American continent. It remains on a “hot spot” (as it is called in geological jargon!), meaning that it is fragile as it lies on top of the tectonic plates of the ocean floor.
All are volcanic islands and are part of the Nazca submarine plate, except for the Northern Islands, Wolf and Darwin; which are part of the Cocos plate (this same plate includes the famous Costa Rican Cocos and Columbian Malpelo Islands).
2. Currents and Climate
Currents and winds determine the climate and seasons. There are two seasons in the Galapagos, the dry season and the “hot and rainy” season. During the dry season, “garua”, from May to December, the temperature is cooler and the water temperature ranges between18 and 20 degrees centigrade. During the “hot and rainy” season, from December to May, the temperature is warmer and the water temperature ranges between 24 and 27 degrees centigrade. Rain is intense during the first three months of the year.
The Galapagos are at the center of some major water currents, which are the source of the abundant wildlife in the region. This is what makes it so special.
There are three main currents that reach the islands. The first one, the Humboldt, is a cold current. It originates from the Peru-Chili coast and the southern Pacific Ocean and hits the southern islands at a temperature of about 15 degrees Centigrade. Cromwell, the second current, is also cold. It comes from the west (Pacific Ocean) and hits the islands of Fernandina and Isabela at a temperature of 13 degrees centigrade. It then migrates to the center of the archipelago where looses its intensity.
The third important current, El Niño, linked to the Panama current, also known as “counter” current north equatorial, conveys hot water from the Pacific Ocean into the area and brings many tiny marine organisms from Asia and the Panama-Columbia region. El Niño, together with the coastal Peru-Chili current, forms the south equatorial current that hits directly the Galapagos.
These currents are the source of the Galapagos’ rich life, since they brought different species of wildlife to the islands and they are continuously providing the necessary food.
Many people went to these islands since the Incas discovered them around 1485, including the Spanish and all kinds of pirates from England (Francis Drake), France or Holland who found refuge there. The pirates found there a safe place to stay and keep their stolen treasures. It was also an easy place from which to get out attacking Spanish ships.
Today, some 20.000 people live in a couple of villages scattered around the islands.
Ecuador tries to limit the demography in order to keep the balance between people and nature.
The Galapagos is listed the UNESCO World Heritage List, a listing of places considered unique in the world.
Charles Darwin was probably the world’s most renowned visitor of the Islands. He developed his famous theory of evolution just a couple of years after he came back from his memorable stay.
4. The Birth of Life on the Islands
Since Galapagos are oceanic islands, formerly volcanoes that emerged from the sea, they have never actually been attached to any continent. This means that life on the islands did not come as a result of species remaining after a detachment of the islands from the continent. There was no life on the island when the islands got out of the ocean.
Since the islands are quite remote from the continent, life could not get there easily. Species arrived “naturally” only by floatation on driftwood or rafting, simply by following the currents. Lizards, iguanas, vegetations, seeds, etc…were amongst those species that arrived there by floatation. Other species, such as sea lions swam all the way up to the islands. Large turtles reached the islands, using their carapaces to float. Some species arrived by air, carried by the winds (birds, insects, seeds), other kinds stemmed from third-party species (birds bringing seeds or worms…). The only species that survived were the ones that were able to travel for an extended time by sea.
However, even some species that did succeed to reach the islands had adaptation problems and thus disappeared. This explains why there is not a representation of all species on the islands. This also explains why reptiles whose skin is impermeable and who do not need much clear water arrived there in large numbers. Finally, most mammals living on the islands were brought by men, by boat. Very few arrived on their own (sea lions).
5. Some Facts about Evolution
When an organism is changing environment, a natural selection is made. The weakest or the one that can’t adapt disappears. Each organism has to undergo an evolution in order to survive in a new environment.
This process is very easy to see in the Galapagos archipelago:
– The pinson (bird) flew from Santa Lucia (Caribbean Islands) to the Cocos Islands, to the Galapagos. Today, you can find one species of pinson in Cocos and 13 different species in the Galapagos Islands. These 13 species changed according to their new environment.
– The large land turtle floated all the way to the islands. On some islands the vegetation they used to eat was harder to reach, as it was higher. They had thus to stretch their necks in order to eat. As a result, their neck became longer and the carapace opening widened to facilitate the motion of the head and lengthening of the neck. These turtles gave their names to the Galapagos Islands because they resembled horse saddles, “Galapago” in Spanish. Each island has different species of turtles. The “Darwin Foundation” (http://darwinfoundation.org) breeds the different kinds of turtles in a farm. The turtles are fed the same foods as their ancestors and when able to survive on their own, the turtles are released in their natural habitat, on their original island.
– Marine iguanas used to basically be land iguanas. During their journey rafting from the South-American continent, they had to jump into the water to catch some food. Now they can stay up to 30 minutes underwater at a depth of up to 20 meters.
– Some “Opuntia” cactuses changed their appearance in areas where land iguanas live. These iguanas used to eat cactus leaves. The cactuses grew taller to get out of reach of the iguanas. Now, land iguanas wait at the foot of the cactuses for the leaves to fall down. On those islands where there are no land iguanas, these cactuses did not grow taller; they kept their original size and appearance. This demonstrates that even vegetation has an instinct of survival.
All species such as goats, rats, cats, dogs, etc. that were brought to the islands in a non-natural way (by men) are endangering the balance of the islands. Ecuador had to hire hunters to kill goats in masses because they were eating the reptiles’ food but could not get rid of all of them. For instance, dogs attack iguanas.Many species living in the Galapagos are unique in the world, for example: – There are six types of boobies (bird) living in the whole world, three of them live in the Galapagos: the blue-footed boobie, the red-footed boobie, and the masked boobie. – 13 of the 14 species of pinsons live in the Galapagos – There are different kinds of turtles – The batfish, a fish looking like a bat, can be found in both Cocos and Malpelo. – The Galapagos shark – Marine iguanas – And more…
Galapagos are a real melting pot, just like New York! You can find in the Galapagos all the wonders of nature you can only imagine, including: – Sea lions come from California – Fur sea lions from Chile – Flamingos come from the Caribbean Islands – Penguins come from Chile and Antarctica – Turtles from Argentina – Iguanas from South America – Darwin Pinsons from Cocos and before that those from the Caribbean (they helped Darwin to understand the evolution theory) – And more…
How to get to the Galapagos? You can flight either to New York, or to Madrid. From there you flight directly to Quito. You will need to stay overnight, since the local Ecuadorian flight “Tame” only leaves in the morning to the Galapagos.
Some interesting links for diving trips There is only a handful of boats that are going to Wolf & Darwin northern islands. These boat are making longer trips than the ones navigating around the center islands, lasting at least one week and the trips are also more expensive. I think that if you decide to make such a long and expensive trip, the northern area has to be visited. It is a must! The following companies organize trips up to the northern islands: – http://www.aggressor.com – http://www.quasarnauticausa.com/ouryachts/mistral.htm – http://www.peterhughes.com
Tourists are not required to have visas to visit Ecuador and the Galapagos. No vaccines are necessary if not entering the Amazonian region.
US Dollar. It is important to have a lot of small change.
Very different than the Red Sea or the Maldives, the Galapagos are much less colorful, with very few corals and lots of rocks. However, you will see large quantities of big fishes.
Water temperature: Cool water in the southern center islands, milder temperature in the north. Depending on the season, the water temperature can vary between 18 and 27 degrees centigrade, down to 13 degrees in western Isabela.
Visibility: The water is clear during the “cold” season. During the hot season, water visibility is weaker due to plankton abundance.
Currents: may be strong
Sharks: generally not aggressive. Some of them, like the Galapagos shark or the Silky shark, may be curious and they could swim around you. They generally leave, but it is important to be cautious, especially when you are at the surface with no tank :-).
– Take a high quantity of gigabytes storage to store your endless pictures. Having backups is even better.
– U/W Strobes: one or two are useful for close-ups. You won’t need them for long distance shots. Don’t forget to orient them according to the water visibility and make sure you set the distance between you and the subject.
– About lenses. For U/W, a wide-angle like fisheye or 15mm is a must to shoot whale sharks, hammerhead groups, sea lions, etc… Another lens, such as a small zoom (17-70), could be used for fishes swimming too far to be shot with a wide-angle.
– For over the water photo, wide-angle and a small zoom are also great, since in most of the cases, you can really get very close to the subject. Tele-lenses are wonderful for bird photography. A lighter lens may be easier to move, but a heavier one could also be useful if you can afford it.
– For video shooters, take a lot of tapes with you with large capacity batteries. Dany, made a nice 50 minutes film of our trip. You can see it hereunder in 5 episodes.
Remember that traveling to the Galapagos is generally a trip you do once in a lifetime. Make sure you don’t forget anything, especially your photo equipment!
9. Galapagos diving trip in video, by Dany Weinberg
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