EVER SINCE, AS A SMALL CHILD, I learnt about Charles Darwin and his discovery of so many weird and wonderful creatures, I had a hankering to follow his example and explore the many corners of the Earth.
After learning to dive in 1998 that hankering increased, mainly fuelled by my curiosity about encountering different types of marine life.
The ultimate destination for me had always been the Galapagos. I would absorb myself in books, documentaries, articles, films and photos – anything I could find about these mystical islands.
Stories told by divers of their incredible visits, the extreme diving and the amazing marine life had put a visit top of my bucket-list. For one reason or another, however, it had always been one step too far away.
Finally, after nearly 40 years of dreaming and as part of a more extensive trip, I was able to arrange a fortnight in my dream destination – one week on land and one on a liveaboard, travelling up to the northernmost and desolate islands of Wolf and Darwin.
After the warmth of the Mexican Caribbean, the cold waters of the Galapagos would be challenging. The Galapagos can be accessed only via two cities in mainland Ecuador.
As the flight from the capital Quito stops in Guayaquil, I decided to fly there from Cancun via Miami, and spend a couple of sightseeing and downtime days in Ecuador’s largest city

MY FIRST SHOCK CAME when I went to exchange sterling for US dollars, the currency used in Ecuador. I usually change my money in the country of use, as the rates tend to be much better.
With very little Spanish in my language arsenal, it took me visits to five banks to establish that no foreign currency can be exchanged in Ecuador!
I was carrying only US $40, and knew that the Galapagos was expensive and charged 10% on any credit card transaction. I would need to pay a park fee and entry tax of $110 in cash just to get into the Galapagos, not to mention the inevitable excess-baggage charge.
I was forced to go to one of the black-market money-changers who hang out on every corner. Bargaining with a calculator, I managed to get a very respectable rate.
Feeling extremely apprehensive I counted out notes, constantly keeping my eye out for muggers or police, and breathed a sigh of relief when the transaction was completed.
The Galapagos islands were discovered in 1535, but because of their inhospitable terrain they weren’t populated until the 1800s. European and North American settlers arrived in the 1920s, as well as mainland Ecuadorians who came to farm and fish.
Tourism didn’t hit the islands until the 1960s. Four of the islands are inhabited, with most of the 30,000 population living on the capital island San Cristobel and Santa Cruz.
Because of the unique location of this volcanic group of islands – centered on the convergence of several major Pacific Ocean currents – both coldwater and tropical species can thrive there.
The Galapagos harbors an extraordinary range of distinctive marine habitats and species, around 50% of which are endemic.
It’s just an 80-minute flight to southern-lying San Cristobel. Arriving at the small airport near Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, its tiny and only town, we soon realised the protocol for getting a taxi – jump out in front of the first approaching cab (it will be a pick-up) and throw your luggage in the back. Who dares wins!
That we were somewhere very different was made evident by the number of Galapagos sea-lions on the main street. Barking, burping and farting as if they had been out on the town the previous night, they had commandeered public benches, walkways, a playground, and even a kid’s plastic tube slide into the ocean!
Joining the Humboldt Explorer for our seven-night cruise, we did a six-minute check dive in 1m visibility, with no marine life and cold, cold water – reminiscent of home. After all the anticipation, everyone went to bed disappointed and dispirited.

SANTA CRUZ
Next day we had moved on to Santa Cruz in the centre of the groups of islands to do two dives at Punta Carrion. A wake-up call at 6am saw us blearily putting on our various layers of wetsuits, hoods, gloves and boots.
None of us was excited by the prospect of jumping into the 18° water at that hour, especially as the sky was overcast and the air chilly – a feature of the Galapagos between June and November. Carefully negotiating the 1m swell while transferring into the RIB, silence ensued. We sped to the dive-site, the wind making our eyes water.
Back-rolling in, the cold water took my breath away before I gathered my senses and descended in about 10m vis to a white-sand bottom, interspersed with large lava rock boulders covered in a multitude of different-coloured corals.
Large jewel-like starfish of many kinds dotted the landscape. King angelfish swam around the reef and variously coloured guinea-fowl pufferfish sat, fat and proud, among the rocks.
Starry grouper, camouflaged against the backdrop, hid in every nook and cranny, while male, female and juvenile Mexican hogfish followed us around, ever-curious. If I dive I’m happy, but if I see something new on a dive I’m very happy. On that dive alone, virtually everything I saw I had never seen before.
The second dive followed this pattern, but with a whitetip reef shark and a fleeting glimpse of a 6m juvenile female whale shark!
From July to October, females are known to travel to the northern islands of the Galapagos, and this glimpse held promise of an early start to the season.

NOW WE EMBARKED ON the long journey north to remote Wolf and Darwin. Fortunately we arrived soon after the Galapagos government changed the law that previously restricted divers to two dives a day. Now we could do four, though this would mean very early starts, as the last dive must be completed before 4.30pm and sunset.
We would be diving with large schools of hammerhead, Galapagos and silky sharks and wouldn’t want to be caught out at dusk – feeding time! We also wouldn’t want to get lost at sea at night in such a remote part of the world.

WOLF ISLAND
Moored in a quiet bay at Wolf Island, the sheer cliff walls seemed to breathe with the amount of birdlife.
Rare and indigenous blue- and red-footed boobies swooped around our boat as frigate birds dive-bombed into the ocean in search of food.
Excited now, we were all up and ready way before the dive briefing. We were given Diver Alert air horns and GPS radio devices to attach to our BCs for safety, as the currents can be fierce and unpredictable. We wouldn’t want to get separated from the group and end up on our way to Asia without having contact with our boat.
Rounding the corner of Wolf in the RIB, we realised how protected from the wind and weather our bay had been.
Bouncing high over 2m white-capped swells, we held on tightly as the RIB positioned us close to a towering cliff face. On the count of three we back-rolled in, some of us falling much further than others.
At around 3m I looked down to see two large scalloped hammerheads crossing paths just below me. My heart began to beat fast, as they disappeared just beyond our vision. With only 10m visibility, I knew they weren’t far away, and probably watching my every move.
Settling in at 24m on a rock on the edge of a precipice that dropped to 1100m below, I was surprised by the lack of current.
Huge swathes of fish battled for space before me. Holding onto the rock with my gloved hand – current hooks were not allowed – I watched for one of the multitude of moray eels that swim freely around the rocks, feeding. The show was about to start.
As my eyes grew accustomed to the milky murkiness, huge shapes gradually materialised. Five, ten, fifteen – more hammerhead sharks than I could count swam lazily by, the odd exaggerated side-to-side motion of their heads making them appear to be doing a swaying, trance-like dance.
Between them, bronze-backed 3m silky sharks, their streamlined bodies
a stark contrast to the hammerheads’, swooped into the large schools of fish, working together to herd them towards the surface, then attacking at great speed.

TWO HUGE, BOLD Galapagos sharks, instantly recognisable by their tall, sickle-shaped dorsal fins, dared to come close, making our hearts pound as they would suddenly appear from nowhere, vanish and then reappear moments later from another direction.
Surfacing through this maelstrom of bodies and teeth in a close group was very intimidating – especially, it seemed, to all the male divers, who pushed in front of me to get back on the boat first!
Not only was I the only woman in the group, but I also had a large unwieldy camera. With the swells still big, I was shocked by their reaction.
Back on board, there were gasps of amazement and excitement, everybody trying to relate their version of the dive.
The other group had also seen a large mola mola. Jumping into the welcoming hot tub at the back of the boat to warm up, guesses of how many sharks were there grew ever-bigger – 20, 40, 60.
In reality, schools of more than 200 sharks can be seen around these northern islands on a regular basis.
I counted 49 sharks in one of my photos – not bad for 10-15m visibility!
The following three dives that day saw the surge and current increase, and even more sharks appeared, swarming around us like bees.
Six cownose eagle rays hung off the wall in the current, as a green turtle made a run from reef to surface.
Our dive-guides would take us onto the edge of the reef, where it became increasingly difficult to keep a grip. We would wait 10 minutes to see if there was any action, before moving along the reef to another location. The sharks move along the reef into the current in their large schools, circling back out of view before making the pass again.
The weather deteriorated overnight, with winds picking up and the swells increasing – and that was in the protected bay.
As we made our way in the RIB to a site called Landslide, the waves crashing into the side of the cliff warned of a difficult entry and exit, as well as a strong surge under water.
Descending as quickly as possible, we fought our way to the edge of the reef.
The visibility had decreased to 8-10m, creating an eerie scene in the early morning. Shadows and silhouettes of sharks, large and intimidating, came ever closer as we were tossed back and forth.
Thankful for my gloves – others who had foregone them had small ribbons of green emanating from their unprotected hands as the reef tore into them – I worked my way slightly upstream of them, wary of the blood in these shark-populated waters.
Our air was soon depleted in the difficult conditions, and after 15 minutes our guide William signalled for us to make our way up the reef for an extended safety stop. He was very excited by a rare sighting of a Meyer’s butterflyfish, normally seen only in the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans.
The current had carried us around the corner of the island into a slightly calmer area. Again, as on almost every dive, the males fought to beat me to the RIB. As I waited, dipping my head under water to view the scene below me, I could hear the distant clicking sounds of dolphins.
Back on the liveaboard before the other group, we quickly dekitted and jumped into the hot tub. Then we heard whooping noises from the others’ approaching RIB – they had spotted a massive 12m female whale shark.
On our final dive at Shark Bay we swam into the blue to try to spot a whale shark, searching for the food in waters brought up from the deep by the cold Humboldt current at this time of year.
A few were spotted but only in the distance, and we surfaced feeling disappointed.

THE LIVEABOARD LAY north of the island, ready to start its journey up to Darwin as soon as we were on board. This meant a reasonably long RIB ride.
As we skimmed over the swells, we were suddenly joined by a group of Risso’s and Pacific bottlenose dolphins, and our RIB captain slowed the boat and suggested that we grab fins and masks and jump overboard.
Catching fleeting glimpses of the dolphins as they sped by us, accompanied by lots of clicking and a lone Galapagos fur seal, made up for not seeing a whale shark. There was much gloating later when we found that not only had the other group not seen a whale shark, but they had also missed the dolphins.

DARWIN ISLAND
By the time lunch was over we had reached Darwin, the most northerly island, and were descending on its only dive-site, on the southern side of the Darwin’s Arch rock formation.In the relative protection of the arch, the surge and current weren’t too strong.
Almost immediately we were surrounded by sharks. They seemed less shy than they had been at Wolf, and several came very close to us. It’s a small site, and we spent the whole dive in one place, hanging off the wall.
Towards the end we let the current take us over to a sandy area at around 16m, where juvenile hammerheads have a cleaning station. Less wary than the adults, the juveniles came much closer to check us out.
As I knelt on the sand, I heard my dive guide banging his tank behind me, and turned to see a 2.5m hammerhead only 2m away, and heading straight for me.
I managed to click the shutter once before it turned sharply away at the
last moment.

WE DID TWO MORE DIVES at Darwin the next day. The current and surge had picked up even more, making it almost impossible to hold onto the rocks, so our guide decided to make it a drift-dive.
It was probably the best drift of my life, as the current carried us through the schooling mass of sharks so that we seemed to become part of their group.
On the final dive at Darwin, while drifting, we seemed to be heading for a huge dark shadow. The closer we got, the bigger the shadow until, almost upon us, we realised that it was a huge 14m pregnant whale shark. At last!
Back on the liveaboard. we were secretly delighted that the other group hadn’t seen her.

BACK VIA WOLF
After two more dazzling dives and two more sightings of whale sharks at Wolf, we made the very rough overnight crossing back to Santa Cruz, stopping only for two morning dives at Cousin Rock north-east of Santiago Island.
The island is tiny and uninhabited except by thousands of birds, but celebrated not only for pelagic but for macro encounters.
We had been warned that Cousin’s waters were colder than in the north, so donned an extra layer before rolling in off the RIB.
Descending to a slanted plateau, we headed over the side to get some protection from the medium current.
We swam along the wall with the sandy bottom 32m below us. The topography was like nothing else I had experienced. Being volcanic in nature, the plateau had broken away from the island to leave a vertical wall made up of layers of lava, with small fissures and shelves all the way along – plenty of places where marine life could hide.
Many moray eels were free-swimming from fissure to fissure, while camouflaged bright red scorpionfish, and even a small frogfish and a tiny seahorse, hid in the coral-encrusted rock and wealth of soft corals and seafans.
It was a real pleasure, after so many extreme dives with huge schools of sharks, to relax and search the reef for interesting marine life. And at the sound of a tank bang, I turned to see several eagle rays gliding past.
On the safety stop on our final dive, a large male sea-lion joined us for a few minutes, weaving in and out of our bodies and doing somersaults.
Sadly my camera battery died after only a few shots.
My final mission was to try to photograph the marine iguanas under water off Santa Cruz Island. However, being completely unbothered by humans on the land, they turned into masters of evasion under water.
Mission accomplished… almost!

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE Fly via Madrid with Iberia, via Amsterdam with KLM or through most main USA gateway cities to Quito or Guayaquil. Onwards flights are with LAN, TAME or Aerogal to San Cristobel, or Santa Cruz islands via Guayaquil. Inter-island transport is via ferry.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION Humboldt Explorer, www.humboldtexplorer.com
WHEN TO GO The Galapagos can be dived year-round, although on the Equator the weather is not tropical. Air temperatures range from 21-30°C. The cooler dry season is from July to December, the warmer wetter season January-June. The best season weatherwise is from December-May, when the sky is always clear and the sun shines strongly. At other times it can be overcast and misty a lot of the time. From July-December average water temperatures are 18-23°C and January-June 21-27°C. A 7mm wetsuit or drysuit is best, with hood, boots and gloves, but Lisa Collins took a 3mm and a 5mm full suit along with a 3mm for layering. Diving in the northern islands is best June-December, when the big stuff comes in. Whale shark season is July-November, manta rays December-May. Hammerheads school year round.
CURRENCY US dollars.
PRICES Seven nights’ full board on Humboldt Explorer with up to 30 dives and including internal flights from Guayaquils is around £3499pp with The Scuba Place, www.thescubaplace.com
FURTHER INFORMATION www.ecuador.travel