The Greatest Underwater Show on Earth
THERE ARE FEW PLACES left in the world where animals are king. The archipelago of Colon, commonly known as the Galapagos Islands, is one such place. Penguins and turtles play in the shallows, sea-lions zip around as marine iguanas graze on algae, and schools of hammerhead, silky and Galapagos sharks glide in the currents.
And then there are the whale sharks, mola mola, marlin, orcas and manta rays that visit every year. After 1342 dives, had I finally found the greatest underwater show on Earth?
It’s the journey, not the destination – right? Clearly whoever said that was not talking about Galapagos. After eight flights and three passport controls,
I finally make it to San Cristobal Island, almost 600 miles off Ecuador’s west coast. Met by a smiling crew, I join 15 other divers and jump aboard for a seven-day trip of a lifetime.
Designed by diving pioneer Peter Hughes, our vessel is the mv Galapagos Sky, a state-of-the-art luxurious home away from home. Fluffy white robes hang in spacious bedrooms, pillows scatter over comfy lounges and the dining area is already set for a delicious four-course meal. And my home doesn’t have a stocked bar, large dive-deck or a sun-deck complete with hammocks.
Our short check-out dive comes complete with a sea-lion welcoming committee, then we set sail for Bartolome Island, the first of three land excursions. We disembark, step over a slumbering sea-lion and Sally Lightfoot crabs, and make our way to the summit.
Three hundred steps later (with a few stops to wonder at the lava cacti and Martian landscape), we’re stunned by the breathtaking panoramic view.
The most recognisable landmark in the Galapagos, the magnificent lava structure that is Pinnacle Rock towers high above the waterline.
We’ve been here only a few hours and Galapagos already feels like the land that time forgot. Next up is Cousin’s Rock, a series of terraced steps composed of layer on layer of compressed lava ash that fell hundreds and thousands of years ago.
We descend onto a large platform at 10m and are greeted by two sea-lions. A quick circle around the group and they zoom off, just as a marble ray and a school of razor surgeonfish meander past.
Further on, we swim into greenish hued water created by a blanket of juvenile black coral bushes. Visibility isn’t great (10-12m) but it’s good enough to see a school of pelican barracuda and peach creole fish in the blue.
At 25m I almost crash into a green turtle camouflaged in the black coral, then pass at least eight more as we head towards the Point. Soon afterwards we spot our first shark, a whitetip, with a huge eagle ray in its wake.
As we ascend into the shallows we spot beautiful king angelfish, trumpetfish and a lone tuna. The sea-lions return to play around the shallow jagged pinnacles (and our fins!).
While we dry off to hot chocolate and home-made biscuits, everyone agrees that Cousin’s Rock is a great introduction to volcanic rock diving. But when the engines rumble
and we begin our overnight journey north an air of excitement ripples through the boat – we’re heading to the uninhabited, untouched and legendary islands of Wolf and Darwin.
As we get closer to Wolf, birds crowd the skies and dolphins leap in the boat’s wake. The hairs on my arms bristle and I wonder about the old-time pirates who would once have sailed past.
Did they watch in awe as frigates and blue-footed boobies circled steep guano-painted cliffs? Did they eye the school of silky sharks that slink alongside, and wonder what else roams below this extinct volcano?
As we suit up, the buzz on the dive-deck is louder than the squawking birds, because we know what’s below us – sharks, lots and lots of very big sharks! The plan is to do three day dives and one night dive at Wolf, and naively we think this will be enough.
The small inflatable panga drops us at the famous Landslide dive-site. With a backward-roll splash, we descend onto a series of boulders at 10m and regroup.
Pelagics and sharks aren’t the only thing that’s big here – the currents are so strong, they can rip you right off the reef.
Today it’s unusually calm, so we cruise over to the edge, my heart missing a beat as I spot my first hammerhead in the blue. At 20m we reach a natural amphitheatre. Clinging onto the rocks and chuffed with our front-row seats, we wait for the stage show to begin,
The support act shows up first. The three spotted eagle rays hang close for a while until something bigger scares them off. And by “bigger”, I mean a school of 10 scalloped hammerheads, a giant green turtle and three Galapagos sharks!
I would squeal with excitement if I wasn’t concentrating so hard on taking a picture. The current has picked up, and as I struggle with long strobes and a huge camera rig I remember my earlier smugness eyeing people with tiny GoPros. If this is a “medium” current, the last laugh might be on me.
The visibility is often poor at Wolf and the sharks tend to keep their distance, but it doesn’t spoil the show.
After half an hour we let the current push us across the reef and out into the blue, narrowly missing a huge school of jack, pelican barracuda and a juvenile silky shark as we whoosh past.
On the last day of 2014 I wake to the sight of one of the most famous arches in the world (to divers, at least). We’re here, this is it; we’re about to dive arguably one of the best dive-sites in the world.
It’s also one of the few places where you’re guaranteed to see schools of hammerhead sharks, no matter what the weather or season. Hashtag awesome.
We drop in close to the cliff-face and descend to a rocky outcrop at 16m, startling three green turtles along the way. The guide points upwards as a pod of Pacific bottlenose dolphins chase the panga back to the mothership.
Conditions are perfect – zero current and 20-25m vis. We hurry to a site called the Theatre,
a natural viewing platform that overlooks the ultimate shark-cleaning station.
I check the nooks and crannies beneath me for the moray eels that I know are prolific at this site, then hold on and wait.
Soon enough one, two, three then six hammerheads mosey in, and I stare wide-eyed as king angelfish and Creole fish begin their cleaning frenzy.
A school of jack obscures my view for a second, dispersing to reveal Galapagos sharks swimming alongside hammerheads in a figure-of-eight formation. I have never seen so many sharks in one hit!
A head fills my wide-angle lens and I think, man, this dude is close.
After 30 minutes we reluctantly follow our guide Santiago along the reef until we hit a sandy channel 15-20m below us. The slow drift back is impressive – hammerheads, Galapagos sharks and the occasional turtle are silhouetted against the white sand. When we surface there are giant smiles all round.
“Wow!” my buddy says.
“Murray,” I say, “we are so far from ‘wow’ and so close to ‘that was the best freaking dive I’ve ever done’ as you can get.” We laugh, because it’s true.
We weren’t to know it yet, but with seven dives planned at Darwin’s Arch, the greatest show on Earth was about to get better and better.
One such highlight comes during an afternoon dive. We swim out into the blue (after feasting our eyes on more close hammerhead and Galapagos shark action), and find ourselves in the middle of what I can only describe as a hammerhead blockade.
Hundreds of ghostly shapes flank us as we drift through the middle of a large school; twisting gracefully from side to side, their white bellies disappear for a moment in the fading light.
The fierce current drags us onwards, and soon we see the hull of the Galapagos Sky looming before us. Just as surprising are the 20 silky sharks on a stake-out beneath it.
I kick furiously to get closer (camera poised), but then one shark turns, its beady eye and pointed nose coming within arm’s length of me.
I scoot behind a fellow-diver, and I’m pretty sure the shiver running down my spine isn’t because I’m cold!
On our final dive at Darwin, I position myself next to a rock at 24m and watch six sharks cruise over my head.
Everywhere I look there are sharks. Big-eye jack and yellow-fin tuna join the party; it’s a cracking way to end at what has been an unforgettable dive-site.
A few hours later we’re back at Wolf for one last dip, and the infamous Galapagos currents finally show up. Forget Papua New Guinea; forget Palau. I’m thinking perhaps only Raja Ampat comes close to the force of nature that rages beneath us.
I double-check my safety sausage, dive horn and mini personal EPIRB (provided by the crew) and feel safe in the knowledge that if I’m swept out to sea, I won’t miss out on the chef’s mouth-watering ceviche!
This time we have to pull ourselves across the rocks, hand over hand, to the edge, greeted by our friendly family of eagle rays. They’re in a playful mood, performing cartwheels and rubbing their faces onto the rocks.
Letting go, we fly across the reef, barely registering the faces of the other group as we race past. Finally I manage to wedge myself into a large hole, right next to a Galapagos shark – it’s a fantastic photo op if only I can manage to hold the camera still!
The last dive at Wolf was the most exhilarating of the trip, and served to underline why diving in the Galapagos is for experienced divers only.
We head south to Fernandina Island, where the Cromwell Current brings ice-bucket-challenge temperatures – you’ll be glad of your 7mm semi-dry and hood!
A dive-site called Cape Douglas is the only place in the world where you can dive with marine iguanas. We spot these mini-Godzillas basking on the shore, and Santiago informs us that once their body temperature warms up enough they’ll slide into the shallows looking for a scrumptious meal (otherwise known as green and red sea algae).
The underwater landscape is like nothing I’ve ever seen before – a garden of boulders covered with red and green “moss” and the occasional soft coral floating in the surge. As well as the iguanas, we spot playful sea-lions and bright orange hogfish.
PUNTA VICENTA ROCA
Just a short hop across the channel is Punta Vicenta Roca. Cruising into the cove, we’re watched by juvenile turtles, penguins, crabs, iguanas, fur seals and many other species of bird, including the flightless cormorant that’s unique to Galapagos.
The underwater terrain mirrors the high, steep cliffs and large boulders we saw topside. The icy temperature takes my breath away as we descend to 30m in search of seahorses. Once found, we hastily skirt back up the wall, its jagged layers of rock perfect hiding spots for crabs and slipper lobsters.
This must be the prettiest dive in the Galapagos, I think, as we swim past pink and purple corals interspersed with red fans and yellow sponges.
When we reach a deep swim-through carved into the rockface, we’re surrounded by a thick school of salemas, small members of the grunt family.
Two sea-lions play on a ledge next to us as we hang off the wall looking for ocean sunfish. It’s not until we’re halfway back that we spot one hanging gracefully just off the wall in the murky blue. #win.
Sailing around the tip of Isabela Island, we head to the small island of Pinzon. The main attraction here is the red-lipped batfish (not to be confused with the tropical stripy batfish).
We drop onto the sand at 20m in search of these bottom-dwellers. They may have perfected the art of camouflage but they are no match for Santiago, who finds at least six. Although not nearly as impressive as a school of hammerheads, I’m captivated by these funny “winged” creatures as they hop along the seafloor.
We explore the reef wall and spot a plume of salemas ahead of us. I have to dive straight into it – being engulfed by a huge school of small fish is like being tickled with thousands of feathers!
Afterwards we continue along the wall and look for seahorses in the soft coral; instead we find a small moray and the tail of a sleeping whitetip shark.
Slowly we ascend around the corner and onto a large rocky slope. We peer out into the blue hoping to see a whale shark (though it’s the wrong season). Instead, we’re treated to two giant mobula rays and our first and only manta. It’s a fitting end to our last dive and the manta’s black tips seem to wave goodbye to us as she disappears into the blue.
I’ve been back home for more than a month, and whenever I think of diving the Galapagos, that giant smile returns.
This ancient land of volcanoes, giant tortoises and wall-to-wall hammerheads is a marine version of Jurassic Park just waiting to happen.
And yes, I’m going to call it, for divers who love big stuff it surely is the greatest underwater show on Earth.
|LAND DIVING v LIVEABOARD|
If you want to dive Wolf and Darwin (and why come to Galapagos otherwise?) a liveaboard is the only way to go. Galapagos Sky is one of only a few dive-boats that journey there, and the crew was the best I’ve ever travelled with – courteous, friendly, knowledgeable and super-safe. The food was top-notch too.
If you do have more time I highly recommend spending an extra week in Galapagos. Dive and land cruise operators are crammed along the harbour-front of San Cristobal and Santa Cruz islands, and your only problem will be getting past the sea-lions and iguanas!
It’s easy to forget that this is their backyard; their sheer numbers and combined weight have sunk many a small boat in the harbour! You could chance a last-minute land cruise but liveaboards must be booked ahead.
Galapagos Sky balances out the spectacular diving with opportunities to explore the main land attractions and wildlife. The trek to the top of Bartolome Island, with its lava cacti and Mars-like landscape, is a highlight, and an optional panga ride around Vicente Roca cove is a fantastic opportunity to get close to the flightless cormorants, Galapagos penguins and many species of birds and reptiles.
There’s even time to explore the town centres of San Cristobal’s and Santa Cruz. But the biggest draw is found only in the highlands of Isabela Island, one of the few places to see the famous Darwin giant tortoises in the wild, just roaming free!