Monday, December 18, 2006

Galapagos, Ecuador, December 2006

I don't remember when I first heard about the Enchanted Islands... it seems like I've been wanting to go there for ever...


...mesmerized by incredible tales of fantastic encounters with wild creatures unafraid of man. Where harsh reality is like a wonderful dream. Where fabulous visions turn out to be real.

travel blog

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Galapagos: The dark side

⊗ The Galapagos archipelago is much vaster and its main islands much larger than I expected, but so is the number of people living there. Despite 97% of the land area being a national park (since 1959) and the surrounding waters being a marine reserve (since 1998), both recognised as World Heritage Sites with unique ecosystems by UNESCO, the population has more than tripled over the last eight years. Puerto Ayora for one certainly seems to be booming judging from all the construction going on there.

⊗ The lure of economic opportunity has attracted a lot of new immigrants from the poor mainland, not just because of the money to be made in the substantial and still growing tourism industry, but also because of the rich fishing grounds. As most everybody, they're not here to make a sustainable living, but to get rich as fast as possible, no matter the cost to the environment. Local fishermen are a pretty big & aggressive lobby group on the Galapagos islands, regularly demanding larger quotas - as if they're respecting them in the first place. Unfortunately, whenever allowances are given (for sea-cucumbers, lobsters or whatever), they are exploited without any consideration and the reaped benefits generally quickly spent on instant gratification, not on securing ones living.

⊗ And it's not just the small men in the street, but also the big boys that are out there to make a killing. Fishing fleets seize any chance to make illegal forays into the marine reserve and scoop up its riches. (I was actually told that Japan shamelessly offered Ecuador to build a new airport & hospital, and generally improve the infrastructure on the Galapagos islands in exchange for fishing rights for the next ten years! After that there wouldn't be anything left anyways.)

⊗ The consequences of over fishing are alas clearly visible in the surprising absence of some species. While I still did see quite a few hammerheads, especially around Wolf & Darwin, (1) there were barely any white-tip reef sharks around, (2) strangely enough I only saw one Galapagos shark, (3) except for a small school or two, there were no jacks to be seen. It being my first time in the Galapagos, I can not of course compare what I saw with previous visits. My nearest reference therefor being Cocos island off Costa Rica's west coast, around the same time ten years ago, where white-tips were all over the place and where I witnessed truly huge schools of jacks, day after day.

⊗ Another problem with the growing number of people, both immigrants and tourists, is the ever increasing need for more infrastructure (land, housing, roads, electricity, water, etc) and food (locally grown & imported). Not to mention all the human waste that needs to be disposed of. As import of materials and food increases, so does the risk of invasive species free-riding in and exterminating the local ones.

⊗ Control? If there is any kind of patrolling or supervision going on I didn't notice it. Except for the officials at the airport making sure every tourist pays his/her 100 USD park visitor fee. An amount I don't mind at all paying for the privilege of experiencing the Galapagos, but I sure hope it all goes to the preservation of the natural state of the islands.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Galapagos: About my trip

⊗ The M/Y Reina Silvia is a great ship, but it is not build for divers. The cabins are decent enough and there's plenty of living space, but except for a scuba tanks storage rack, there's no dive deck to speak of. Meaning everything (wetsuit, booties, fins, mask, etc) is hung or stowed in crates on the rather cramped sundeck. And your UW camera equipment... well, that's your problem.

⊗ Surprisingly for a live-aboard of this class, the M/Y Reina Silvia does not offer Nitrox.

⊗ While the organization and service on board were impeccable, the diving was always done in one big frustrating clump of fifteen divers plus two guides. This by itself is totally unacceptable when paying top dollars for a first class dive trip - and I would not have booked this cruise had I known this. Even though we always rode out in three zodiacs and officially three teams, we all went to the same spot at the same time. Maybe because there was only one senior dive-master and one junior dive-guide?

With that many divers together in the water, it's impossible to enjoy a dive, no matter what there is to be seen. Macro dives are total chaos as everybody of course clambers to see the shy little seahorse the guide has found. Action dives are inevitably fiascos, as that many divers clinging side-by-side onto a current swept rocky edge, create a veritable wall of bubbles that scares or at least keeps away, the already wary hammerheads. Not surprisingly, the best part of any dive was when we let go and were spread out by the current. Only then would they appear out of the blue and come nearer for a closer look.

⊗ The M/Y Reina Silvia was never anchored far off the dive sites, but still, the zodiacs should have had radios on board, as well as first-aid-kit & oxygen, not to mention more powerful twin outboards (instead of a weak single one).

⊗ Personally, I did not appreciate being left alone at the surface by two of the zodiacs, given the conditions the day I lost my team (see: Española: Gardner seamount).

⊗ The two weeks route around the islands wasn't very travel efficient, with many long overnight sails. Not that big a thing -thanks to the calm weather- but why sail back and forth so much? Also, Tauchreisen Roscher sells its Galapagos package advertising four to five days around Wolf & Darwin, where some of the best diving is to be done. We only stayed three - even though weather conditions were fine.


⊕ That said, I did get to experience quite a few amazing things, as you can probably tell from my account. Both below the waves and during the many wonderful land excursions, knowledgeably led by the main guide.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Santa Cruz: Charles Darwin station

Our last day is a dry one, in order to off-gas all the nitrogen accumulated during the dives. After breakfast we visit the Charles Darwin station, then get some time off for sight-seeing & shopping in puerto Ayora. In the afternoon we then head off by bus to the Chabo reserve, where we get to see some free roaming wild giant tortoises.

 Giant turtle
After that, it's time to pack. Tomorrow I start my 48h journey back.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Isabela: Cabo Marshall

Dive 1: Cabo Marshall, 6:58, 24°C water, visibility about 10m, mild current. As soon as we submerge we sight a small manta shying away in the blue. Soon followed by several big ones flying by below us.

Then, from the deep, a large school of mobulas comes straight towards me... before veering off to my right as they continue their climb. What a fantastic sight! I can hardly believe my eyes.

 Mobulas
Later, as I drift away from my team, peering into the blue, I sight some more mobulas, apparently flying around in a circle, being joined by more and more of their kind, slowly forming a girating swarm of congragating mobulas, dancing in the sun's rays. Whow!

 Mobulas
In just this one dive, I've seen more mantas and mobulas than in all my -over 1400- previous dives put together.

 Manta
Dive 2: Same place, 10:23, same conditions. Not a single manta or mobula to be seen. A couple of hammerhead sharks do come by to see us off. As well as a white-tip reef shark.

 White-tip reef shark

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Isabela: Punta Vicente roca

After Wolf & Darwin's tropical conditions, the 20°C water at punta Vicente roca feels... cold. But the sea-lions and flightless cormorants don't seem to mind. Also to be seen here are turtles, octopus, seahorses and shrimp colonies.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Darwin

Another three hammerhead dives at Darwin's arch. During the second dive, I actually get to glimpse a huge school, there must be hundreds of them, way out in the blue, barely visible, but whow, what a sensation!

Hovering in the blue, one moment I'm surrounded by thousands of small fish and a gang of jacks, then, suddenly, in a split-second, they're all gone. Below, a dolphin shoots by. Clearly in hunting-mode. Then, out of nowhere, they're all back, as if nothing had happened. Incredible.

As we finish our third dive, we end up beside a school of steel pompanos, hanging around just below the surface.

 Steel pompanos

Monday, December 11, 2006

Darwin

Darwin island. Sunrise. Thousands of boobies and frigates are in the air, circling above their volcanic layer-cake island, rejoycing in a new day. The imposing steep cliffs prohibit any landings. I can hardly wait to get going and jump in.

 Darwin island & arch
Dive 1: The arch, 7:06, calm sea, 26°C water, visibility a good 15m, mild current. For some reason we're almost always diving in one big group of 17, despite being divided in three teams... creating a -for sharks- unpenetrable wall of bubbles when all of us are hanging onto the rocks. Only when my team finally heads off and ends up on top of a sand patch do we get to see some action: hammerheads coming in for some servicing by eager cleaner fish.

 Hammerhead shark
Dive 2: The arch, 10:55, strong current & surge. Same scenario. Nothing to be seen until we split into smaller groups. Only then do they appear out of the blue, in small packs. And this time I get my -it's now or never- chance: one of them turns and slowly swims straight towards me, I take a deep breath, it comes closer still, I hold my breath to avoid freaking it with bubbles and point my camera, when it fills my frame I shoot, it veers away, I shoot again, it's gone. Later on we also glimpse a dolphin diving down and some jacks streaming by.

 Hammerhead shark

 Hammerhead shark

Dive 3: The arch, visibility has dropped to 10m. Again, the best action is above the cleaning-station sand patch. Spread out over several meters we get to see hammerheads all around us and near enough to be real exciting. And I even get to see my first Galapagos shark.

 Hammerhead sharks

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Wolf

We sailed the whole night and when I wake up we're just anchoring beside steep cliffed Wolf island. The air is swarming with sea birds. There's no way to set foot on land here, instead we've got three dives on the program.

Dive 1: Falling rocks, 7:02, 26°C water allowing me to dive without my restraining jacket, nice visibility of about 15m but not much sunlight, only a slight current. There's nothing to be seen at first, then slowly they start appearing out of the blue: hammerhead sharks, plenty of them. Not very close but everywhere. When Rafael, my team's guide, suddenly starts finning into the blue I follow in his wake, and am rewarded with the sight of a whole school of hammerheads slowly passing by. During the rest of the dive I spot at least ten eagle-rays, a sea-lion, a sea-turtle and a lone white-tip reef shark. This is definitely more like it!

Dive 2: Shark bay, 10:50, same conditions. Several small schools of hammerheads cruising by in the blue, always keeping their distance. Powerful as they are, they are rather shy and don't like our noisy bubbles at all. But a few do come a bit closer to inspect the commotion. And I finally do get my chance to take one shot. (Note the love bites on her back.)

 Hammerhead shark
Dive 3: Shark bay, 14:57, same decent visibility, no current. They're still there. Above. At the side. Below. Unfortunately out of camera reach. At the end of the dive, during our safety stop, a lone mobula passes by. The first one of this trip.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

North-Seymour

I decide to have a dry day, skipping the early morning dive, after which we set sail for Wolf & Darwin. The islands I've been waiting for since this trip began. Tomorrow we'll be there...

Friday, December 8, 2006

Española: Gardner seamount

We start the day with a great dive at Gardner sea-mount: several marble stingrays hiding in the sand or under overhangs, eagle-rays in the blue and a small school of about twenty golden cow-nose rays flying by! Not to mention two huge jackfish.

Not so great is that I've lost my group... they just disappeared into the blue and did not come back to the reef as agreed in the pre-dive briefing. So I surface alone, amid 2m swells. No land nor zodiac in sight. Before deploying my SMB I blow my tank-pressure-powered horn. While pretty shrill it sounds rather meek in the middle of the ocean. No worries though, a bit later a zodiac appears. And moves on without picking me up! Because I belong to the white team, and it's the yellow team's zodiac... I'm still bobbing there in disbelief when the green team's zodiac passes by and just leaves me there too. Incredible. They do return however once they've picked up their team members and remain by my side until my own zodiac finally arrives.

The second dive, at the same place, is even better than the first one. First a squadron of six eagle-rays passes by within shooting range. Later followed by another one of five. And I get to see some more marble rays and sea turtles too.

 Eagle-rays
Long sunny walk at punta Suarez, where we get to see the usual inhabitants: sea-lions and marine iguanas. The iguanas have red flanks here, due to their diet consisting primarily of red algaes. We also get pretty close to masked and blue-footed boobies. The latter have an elaborate courtship ritual that we're luckiy enough to witness: the male slowly lifts one foot after the other, in a funny dance, the female -if interested- mimicks his steps, he then raises his beak straight up in the air, as well as his tail and wings, to see if she really means it, if she does she'll mimick him again. After repeating this a number of times, confirming their partnership, they'll then get a bit more romantic by touching beaks and picking up twigs. Pretty cute.

Blue-footed boobies
Further on, we also sight a few waved albatros, the last ones of this breeding season, as most have already taken off.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Floreana: Enderby & Champion

Early dive at Enderby followed by a land tour at punta Cormoran. There's a shallow lagoon there, with about 30 flamingos. We are lucky enough to witness a courtship parade by a bunch of stiff-walking head-turning cackling males. A rather funny spectacle, that no female seems to be interested in. In a nearby bay, at least half a dozen turtles are hanging around, resting, waiting for nightfall to crawl up the beach and start their labour. December and January are the egg laying months here for sea turtles.

 Flamingos
Second dive, a little after two, is at Champion. The sun's out. The water's a nice 26°C. Visibility about 10m. Turtles, some schooling fish, a bunch of white-tips, a dark marble stingray and a playful sea-lion at the end. Not bad.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Santa Cruz: Gordon's rock

First action dive of the trip, starting with a rough entry & speedy descent. A lone hammerhead shark in the blue keeps a safe distance. A handful of white-tip reef sharks swim by below. I take my first shot at another hammerhead coming a bit closer. But alas not close enough. A sea-turtle wanders by. Followed by a sea-lion speeding towards who-knows-what. Probably just showing off again.

I decide to skip the second dive, held at the same place, to get a bit of a rest. There're plenty more diving days ahead.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Santiago: Cousin's rock

Busy day. Starting with an early morning wet-feet landing on a black-lava-sand beach. Home of -you'll never guess- marine iguanas and Galapagos sea-lions. The more special thing about this island however is that it also houses the smaller nocturnal fur sea-lions, which during the day time usually hide in crevasses & cliff-side holes.

Pre- & post-lunch dives are done at Cousin's rock. The main thing here being a large & dense school of striped salemas. A white-tip reef shark cruising by adding a bit of spice.

Just before sunset we go for a little climb on Bartolome island to enjoy the view of the surrounding volcanic landscape.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Isabela: Tagus cove

After breakfast we suit up and hop in the zodiacs for the short ride from the ship to today’s prime dive spot: Tagus cove. It’s 8:04 when we roll into the instant-wake-up 19°C cold water. Luckily my double 7mm wetsuit does keep me cozy if not comfy.

We’re soon rewarded for our bravery: playful sea-lions swim by and I actually manage to keep one’s attention for more than a second by performing some acrobatics too, which, though they must appear as slow-motion clumsy turns to a sea-lion, quickly have me sucking hard on my regulator.

 Sea-lion
Still recovering my breath, I then turn my camera to some much calmer creatures: three pretty large seahorses, one of them clearly pregnant.

 Seahorse
Two hours after the first dive we’re back again. This time I also get to see several stingrays, a sea-turtle, a pair of small penguins passing by just above me before plunging down in hunt-mode and a flightless cormorant torpedoing by, chasing some unidentified small fish.

Afternoon walk-about at Punta Espinosa on Fernandina island. The place is crawling with marine iguanas, huddling together by the dozens, in harems jealously guarded by head-shaking salt-spitting males. Flightless cormorants are drying their useless wings.

 Flightless cormorant
18:00, we're sailing over the equator as the sun sets and the moon rises above the volcanoes. Another world indeed.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Genovesa

We start the day with an early dive, rolling over into a choppy sea at 7:02. It doesn’t take long before a sea-lion joins us, showing off with some incredible underwater acrobatics. Shortly thereafter a hammerhead shark cruises by nonchalantly. In less than 20m of water! They’re not usually seen that shallow, at least not in other parts of the world. And that’s just for starters. As I turn around, an eagle ray flies by down below and a golden cow-nose ray hurries past towards... -I can hardly believe my eyes- a whole school of at least fifty golden cow-nose rays approaching from the opposite direction. And all that before breakfast!


After a fortifying breakfast, Victor takes us for a land tour on Genovesa. We land on a small beach amid a sea-lion family with several cute puppies. Swallow-tail gulls are nesting right beside the path. These are the only gulls in the world that hunt at night. They share the island with masked boobies, red-footed boobies, frigate birds, Galapagos doves and herons. Most of them within touch distance, unafraid of man.

 Sea-lion puppy
After an amazing first dive, the second dive, at 15:05, in Darwin’s bay, is rather boring, with nothing worth mentioning. But then, with a visibility of about 5m, it’s hard to see much.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

M/Y Reina Silvia

At 7:30 I’m transferred to the airport by pick-up, mini-ferry and bus. Pausing along the way for a quick look down one of the pretty deep Gemelos sinkholes. The plane bringing in the other guests is late, but Victor, the main guide, looses no time rounding up everybody and organizing the move to Baltra’s harbor. There, the Gobierno Provincial De Galapagos lets us through without a word and we jump onboard a zodiac for the short ride to the M/Y Reina Silvia, our live-aboard for the next two weeks. We are fifteen tourists on this trip: nine German, one Polish and four Swiss divers, besides yours truly. To take care we get around, get fed, get to see a lot without getting lost above or under water and return happy are ten crew members: captain, first & second mate, cook & assistant, waiter/barman, engineer & assistant, deck-hand and two guides.


Being alone, I get to share a compact cabin with Piotr, a sympathetic Polish guy, who’s also appointed as my dive buddy on this trip.

After a three-course lunch, we’re thoroughly briefed about everything, prepare our gear, suit up and step into the 24°C water directly from the stern of the ship, by now anchored between the two small Plaza islands, on Santa Cruz’s east coast. Just for a short check dive, to get wet and make sure everything is working and we’re properly weighted. In my case that means 6kg of lead, in addition to my 4kg stainless-steel backplate! But then, I’m wearing a very buoyant double 7mm wetsuit.

 M/Y Reina Silvia at Plazas
We dive along a shallow coastal edge with sandy bottom. Viz is poor, about 10m. There’re some fish around, but nothing too interesting except for two turtles and a stingray. The sea-lions all seem to be sleeping on shore.

 Sea-lion puppy with its mommy
Shortly after the dive we do a quick walk-about on Plaza sur, the same place I visited two days ago. So I get to see the sea-lions again anyway :o)