Friday 17 Feb
The Galapagos Islands underwater (part 1)
As Rob is fast becoming an avid 'twitcher' rivalling Bill Oddie, and I'm obsessed with all things underwater we thought we'd split the blogs in to 'land' and 'sea'. For the 'land' bit read Rob's previous blog, but all you waterbabes read on.
Our Galapagos experience was really a tale in two parts. We enjoyed watching the spectacular land animals and birds at close range but also never missed the opportunity to go snorkelling or diving. I don't think we'd have got a feel for quite how rich in life the Galapagos Islands are without getting ourselves wet. There was just 'stuff' everywhere, every time you put your face in the water, and we saw all sorts of rays, turtles, penguins and reef sharks just snorkelling in shallow water. In fact one of our best experiences was snorkelling up to a colony of small Humbolt penguins huddled together on a rocky outcrop. Rob and I hung on to some rocks only inches away from a group of five penguins, whilst a sea lion played around us swimming in and out of our legs and popping up in front of our masks. One of the penguins finally shuffled forward and plopped in to the water in between us before darting off. We literally could have caught it, but apparently the authorities frown upon that sort of thing ;o)
The sea lions were great fun, just like dogs, playing and rolling over. They're really inquisitive and would appear from nowhere in front of your mask startling you; bark and swim round and round like it was a big game. The turtles were also surprisingly bold and one afternoon a family of four giant sea turtles allowed me to tag along with their group, swimming alongside them and rising and falling to their breathing rhythm. They must have stayed with me for at least 10 minutes before gliding off in to the depths.
But if the snorkelling was fantastic the diving was simply world class. There's nothing that can prepare you for diving in the Galapagos. There's no coral or even really any pretty colourful fish, it's simply all about the 'big stuff' and in particular the sharks. I've never seen so many sharks they were just everywhere on every dive, and luckily for us Edwardo, the captain of our boat, was a dive enthusiast after my own heart.
We saw things I've only ever had chance to watch on National Geographic. We swam in to huge walls of fish so dense that once inside it was pitch black, clung on to rocks as white tip reef sharks fed on fish around us, and sat within inches of two giant stingrays as they rose from the seabed like hovercraft and glided by. The turtles, rays and sea lions were so common we stopped noticing them after a while. But, it was the sharks that really captured my imagination. I have a little bit of an unhealthy obsession with sharks, and watching them in their natural habitat was fascinating. During a safety stop on a dive near Isla Espanola we found ourselves surrounded by dozens of different types of sharks between two and three metres in length. There were black and white tip reef sharks, Galapagos sharks and even a couple of bull sharks in the mix. As we clambered back in to the boat Rob declared it the 'best dive of his life'.
Every dive was amazing but perhaps my favourite was on our final day. I'd seen a few hammerhead sharks on previous dives but only fleetingly in the distance. The Galapagos is famous for its hammerheads and I was keen to get a bit closer. I'd heard that a dive site called Gordon Rocks was the place to go, as the sharks were attracted by the strong currents.
Unfortunately, Rob had an ear infection and another couple of people from our group dropped out so it was just me and the dive instructor, Juan Carlos, or 'Macaron' as he preferred to be known. Five minutes after we entered the water three hammerheads swam by at close range, I couldn't believe our luck. Then as we descended deeper we saw a scorpion stone fish camouflaged against the rocks, and two huge lobsters hiding in a small cave. Around us were spotted eagle rays the size of spaceships, turtles, sea lions, reef sharks and a couple of hammerheads. I looked up to see the distinctive shape of a giant manta ray silhouetted against the light directly above my head. It was sensory overload, and I didn't know where to look next.
We kept bumping in to another group of divers and getting caught in their bubbles so decided to swim out from the rocks in to the blue. We managed to latch on to the back of a group of three rays made up of a mother and baby spotted eagle ray and a sandy coloured golden ray. They stayed with us for the majority of the dive, and it was beautiful to watch them glide through the water flapping their enormous wings only inches in front of us. It was like they'd invited us to join their group and were showing us around. They certainly showed us to where all the action was.
As we followed the rays further out from the rocks I spotted one hammerhead, then two, three, four, five…then I lost count. We found ourselves in the path of a school of hammerhead sharks and within seconds we were engulfed. I don't quite know how to describe the sensation of being suspended 20 metres underwater surrounded by over 30 three metre long sharks. It was incredible, unnerving and at the same time very moving to watch these beautiful creatures with their distinctive shapes cruise by. I did have one moment of doubt when all I could see were sharks, and think 'have I done something really stupid' before grabbing Macaron's arm (much to his amusement). Hammerheads are generally quite inquisitive and during our safety stop two young sharks circled us at close range. We'd been underwater for about 55minutes, and they were circling us within a couple of metres. I'm sure they wouldn't have harmed us but we'd had a wonderful dive and I thought we were perhaps pushing our luck, it was time to go up.