GALAPAGOS. Darwin and Wolf. Big, grunting dive spots with serious reputations that loom large in the imagination.
Troops of hammerheads blocking out the sun while you cling to a rock in mental currents. Shoals of fish so tightly packed that you have to shove your way through them.
Flocks of eagle rays covering the ground, moving in ghostly formation. An enormous whale shark making nothing of the current, steaming onwards regardless.
A two-week liveaboard tour of the Galapagos seemed like a no-brainer when a friend suggested it to me. With 18 months in which to raise the money, dropping several grand on one trip seemed halfway reasonable.
Being largely a friend of warm water and noting with gulped alarm that temperatures were going to be around 16°C, I forced myself into some chill local waters to test out my gear.
Living in Berlin, this meant the Baltic Sea, which in June is about the same temperature as Galapagos waters. Some frantic purchasing of extra neoprene later, I hoped I was going to be halfway ready for the Humboldt current.
It was not just a wet trip, because our programme included half a dozen island visits on land, to see blue-footed boobies, giant tortoises, iguanas (land and marine varieties), nesting albatrosses, Darwins finches and sun-bathing sea-lions. Wonderful fodder for a life-long David Attenborough fan.

IT ALL SHAPED UP BRILLIANTLY, as we wound our way around 10 islands, following a complicated route dictated by the Galapagos National Park authorities.
The diving stacked up too, from relatively tame but interesting at the start, to the roaring buzz and dive overload that is Darwin and Wolf. But it was ruined - some of the best diving in the world was wrecked.
I encountered my nemesis on day two, a nemesis that appeared on nearly every subsequent dive, still dominates my underwater memories and is, I fear, fated to twist my future dive plans.
I was enchanted, but it was not the kind of quiet, centred enchantment I tend to sink into when watching jellyfish at night, gently pulsing along their blind route through the water.
The sea lions in Galapagos enchanted me in an open-mouthed, racing-pulse way, and so completely that armies of hammerhead sharks could not compete.
My dive log of the first encounter reads: Sea-lions were with us nearly all the way, blowing bubbles and doing somersaults. I want to be one, so bendy in the water and fast. Stunning. Beautiful big eyes under the water and a golden hint to their fur.
They seemed to take delight in buzzing divers, zipping close in front and then twisting around and about, circling, somersaulting, tracing corkscrew patterns in the water with their bodies and arching backwards to suddenly stop or change direction.
One dive started near a bed of gravel right next to a cliff that stretched up out of the water where, on the surface, the sea-lions were sunbathing.
As soon as we arrived, they came zooming down to check us out, rooting around in the gravel with their noses, and watching to see if we would join them. I did, scooping the stones to mimic their moves.
One hung in the water so close to me that I could easily have reached out and touched it - head at the same level as mine, body curving away. It was not moving, just watching me, as I was watching him or her.
Another time we watched as a sea-lion zipped down to the sandy bottom and picked up a large starfish.
It carried it up to the surface and then dropped it, following its progress back
to the bottom with seeming delight, swooping and corkscrewing around it.
Then, just before the starfish landed on the bottom, the sea-lion darted and grabbed it again, taking the hapless creature back to the surface to start all over again.
The performance had something of a cat with a mouse about it but was more graceful and - apologies to the starfish - seemed less mean.
We saw young pups wrestling each other under the water, juveniles following us into a cave, eyes wide in the dark, acrobats darting past us leaving curves of blown bubbles, large adults cruising past intent on the hunt. We even saw one chase off a hammerhead shark that was minding its own business cruising along a reef.
New words need to be invented to describe sea-lions under water. They seem to have passion, an appetite for life and an enthusiasm for being what they are that I found utterly captivating.
While firmly rejecting anthropomorphism, it is impossible not to feel that they were experiencing enormous joy in simply being - the kind of fierce joy that makes you bite a lover hard enough to leave a mark.

EVERYTHING ELSE WAS SUDDENLY just fish. We saw everything one might wish for. Mental lists were being ticked off left, right and centre - mantas, turtles, Galapagos sharks, hammerheads, shoals of tightly-packed big-eyed jacks, groups of eagle rays, sting rays without number, seahorses...
It was all just fish - apart from the birds. Penguins attacked us. Read it again. Penguins attacked us.
My buddy had gloves of which the first two fingers on each hand were white. My wetsuit had a logo on the upper arm. Apparently these look like penguin dinner.
Out of nowhere, these little brown birds came zooming onto my buddys fingers. I could see her flapping her hands around, as three of them went for the kill.
No sooner had I put my hand over my reg to make sure I didnt lose it while laughing than I felt a sharp jab on my arm - penguin attack! The greatest danger was drowning from guffawing, as these earnest little birds flew in the water around us, darting in on their prey.

WOLF SERVED UP THE GOODS, with endless chunky hammerheads parading past just metres from the rocks where we hung on, our bubbles whipped sideways by the current. Visibility was not the best but served us well - it was good enough to reveal the sharks, yet poor enough to hint at more rows of them further away.
Darwin even treated us to incredible encounters with several enormous whale sharks, a treat that momentarily took my mind off the sea-lions.
A shadow appeared out in the gloomy blue which only the guide immediately recognised as significant. As he flung himself out into the huge current,
I followed, as he had warned that his sign for whale shark would be him swimming after it as fast as he could.
Trying to keep an eye on depth while hacking against a massive current at top speed, and as an enormous animal started filling my entire field of vision, was an exercise in self-control.
Reaching the belly of the biggest creature I had ever seen, I looked forwards and there it stretched, on into the distance to the head. When I looked back it carried on way down to the tail, where the fluke was at least as big as me.
It would have been breath-taking, had I had any breath spare, but all my energies were concentrated on keeping up with the whale shark, which seemed utterly unconcerned by the presence of several puffing, wide-eyed divers.

WE SAW SEVEN WHALE SHARKS in three dives on one day, an amazing climax to the trip. But even they, at the end of the day, were just fish, albeit really big ones. My heart belongs to the sea-lions, their enthusiasm, their joy and their curvy-twistiness.
One of my best friends is a biker. He and I often moan about how badly our respective sports hammer our bank accounts. While he is damned to spend all his money on track days in Spain and France, not only will I continue to put all my cash into diving, now Ill be doing it in the cold. That wasnt the plan at all.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly from the UK via Quito or Guayaquil in Ecuador, which operate direct flights to San Cristobal in the Galapagos. Guayaquil may be preferred as baggage is less likely to be lost.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Liveaboards include Galapagos Eco Explorer I (takes 16), www.explorerventures. com; Sky Dancer (16), www.peterhughes.com; Galapagos Aggressor I & II (14) www.aggressor.com
WHEN TO GO: January to March is considered the hot/wet season, March being the hottest month of the year. Water temperature drops considerably in July, but this is the ideal time of year to see more aquatic life. Water temperature ranges from 14 to 26°C.
MONEY: US dollars and travellers cheques. You can use Mastercard but not usually Visa.
PRICES: Flights from UK to San Cristobal via USA and Ecuador cost from around £1050. Seven nights liveaboard with licences, diving and island transfers aboard Sky Dancer are priced from US $3495; on Galapagos Aggressor I and II from $3795; and on Galapagos Eco Explorer I from $3395 (no transfers).
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.ecuadortouristboard.com, www.galapagos.org