A Travellerspoint blog

Galápagos - Day 1

And so it starts...

overcast 25 °C

We are in the Galápagos.

The Galápagos are a small archipelago of young volcanic islands in the Pacific. They are remote (600 miles to the west of Ecuador, next stop is the Marquesas 2000 miles further to the west), and are justly famed as an incredibly unique, fragile and special set of ecosystems. Because they are so far from anywhere else (and as they have not been completely spoiled by humans) a large proportion of the flora and fauna on the islands are endemic to the Galápagos, that is, they are not found anywhere else in the world. A side effect of the fairly limited human influence on the islands is that the wildlife is utterly unafraid of people, often to the extent of behaving like we are just not there.

They are a group of around two dozen large and small islands, some with people living on them, many uninhabited. We have joined a liveaboard dive boat, spending the first few days in the southern group of islands (which are all relatively close) before a long haul up to two isolated, barren pinnacles of rock named Wolf and Darwin. The emphasis on the boat is diving - over the next week we will do 17 dives at various spots, with a peak of four dives per day, and the odd land excursion. This is hard work.

The first dive of the trip is what they call a "check-out" dive - i.e. you check that you have all your equipment, get everything setup correctly, have a thick enough wetsuit for the chilly water, remember how to dive, etc etc. The dive is in approximately 20ft of water with fairly crappy visibility so we aren`t exactly expecting wonders. We jump in, faff around with our weights (as we are wearing massively thick wetsuits we need a LOT more weight than we are used to), struggle briefly with the current and then sink to the bottom and make our way along the bay wall.

We are swimming slowly along the bottom, not the most excited we have ever been, when the sea lions appear. Comical, lardy and waddling on dry land, sleek and moving like shit off a shovel underwater, they are amazing to watch. We sit on the bottom for half an hour, with nobody else in sight, as they whirl, cavort, spin and play around us like acrobatic freedivers on crack. They are shooting around us just for the pure pleasure of it, coming mere centimetres from our faces. We watch as they pirouette, turn and stop on a dime like ballerinas, just to strike a pose on top of a rock. Some of them are playing with our exhalation bubbles above us and making bubbles of their own (seemingly for us to play with), others swim past our shoulders at the speed of light, almost making us drop our regulators several times (the regulator is the bit that goes in your mouth to dispense air to you). Two of them are even, um, courting. We sit there, speechless (well, obviously, but especially so this time) until nearly an hour is gone and we are supposed to be topside.

We come back up grinning so hard the tops of our heads are almost falling off. A good start!

Posted by pendleton 09:04 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

From Middle Earth to Evolution

sunny 22 °C

We are OUT of Central America (and hopefully won't have to worry about influenza A again).

We are in South America now, in Quito in Ecuador to be precise. We are here for one of the highlights of our trip - a week-long dive safari in the Galapagos islands which are off the coast of Ecuador - so we've taken a couple of days unwinding in Quito and sorting ourselves out to make sure we are as ready as possible for the trip.

Quito (lit. Middle Earth) is only 20km or so from the actual Equator line so we went down there yesterday. It's quite touristy but fun, we balanced an egg on a nail and learned the effects of the Coriolis force. And jumped back and forth between hemispheres like loons.

As an editor's note, we've finally put up all the blog entries that we've been putting off for ages while we've been lazing around the Caribbean, and I've annotated them with most of the photos we have taken. We'll be out of touch for the next week or ten days but will hopefully return with lots more excitement!

(later editors note - computer problems again so it will be a while before we get pictures up)

Posted by pendleton 13:52 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

We All Live In A.... ?

10 °C

As we move through our travelling experience, we´re finding our plans changing more and more. Some of this is due to us deciding we want to change our focus on (first food, now diving). And some of it is due to random things which pop up in our path which we didn´t expect to find.

An example of the latter would be the Roatán Institute of Deep-Sea Exploration. Owner-operator Karl Stanley has been fascinated by the thought of underwater travel and submarines since he was 9. Since then he has dedicated his life to building and running subs - now basing himself in Roatan as there is a very deep trench very close to the shore. He´s built several subs over the years - his latest, Idabel, has been taken down to a depth of 2540ft. This is the world record for a non-military sub. We saw his operation across the bay on our first day in Roatan but originally dismissed it as "craziness". And forgot about it for a while. But then a week later we got talking to Steve, one of our friends on the island, and... it sounded amazing. We pondered it for a short while, and then decided to go for it.

Recap: we had agreed to get in a small (2-3 people plus captain) submarine, which one man had designed and had built himself, and for this man to pilot us down to a depth of roughly 2000ft below sea level, over the course of 4 hours. Hopefully to see lots of weird and wonderful beasties which are never seen at lesser depths. We asked Karl if there was any insurance- "Well, I´m driving it. No problems so far". What could we say!

We arrived for our trip just as dusk was starting to become a reality. Necessary gear for a submarine ride: cameras, water (not too much...), snacks, warm clothes (ït gets down to 10 deg C at the bottom). Nervously, we kiss, possibly for the last time, on dry land, then get in the sub. We are in a large spherical observation blister at the front while Karl stands behind us piloting (he has windows all around but we still end up with a better view due to the distortion effects the spherical glass gives). The waters roll up the window as we watch and then close above our heads. Hmm. Slightly nervous now. We head out to see and then start to slowly, slowly, sink. It has to happen slowly because the sub has been built to be as close to negatively buoyant as possible, i.e. that it NOT sink like a stone, in case anything were to happen then it is easier to get back to the surface with only a small amount of buoyancy air being used. Not that anything would happen. Would it?

It starts to get dark around 300ft down. This is more than twice as deep as we´ve ever been with a tank on our back. Weird creatures start to appear - jellyfish, upside-down-fish (which just hang in the water like a popsicle), and then, looming out of the darkness, something which looks like a pink ectoplasmic tentacle. It wraps itself around one of the struts that hold the lights, before boring through the hull, sucking our brains out through our noses and turning us all into zombies. No, not really. It falls off eventually as we descend deeper.

Deeper, deeper. We descend through 1000ft. This is deeper than any diver has ever been (world record is 308m I believe), regardless of any equipment. It´s black as pitch and we are still seeing weird partially-alive things. Eventually (after more than an hour) we get down to 2000ft. We are close to the sheer wall, which plunges away above and below us into even deeper, unplumbed depths. The landscape looks like the Moon or Mars - rocky, silent, barren. We start to make our way along the wall. "What´s that?" I ask, pointing up and two the left. Karl flicks the light over and we are gobsmacked to see a 3m-long sixgill shark calmly pacing us. He´s a big boy, and almost touching the glass. These sharks are never seen above 1500ft. Creatures of the deep...

We spend maybe an hour at or around 2000ft. Over the course of this hour we see a lot of freaks and oddities. Albino lobsters. Coloured sponges. Brightly coloured angler fish with their lures out. Tinsel fish trying to scare us off. Tripod fish - walking along the seabed on their fins! We see some orange roughy (a very tasty fish which it was unfortunately only discovered after we had eaten 95% of them that they live to be 100 years old and only reproduce once in a blue moon - DON´T EAT THEM!). And we spend 10 minutes sat on the sandy bottom watching a dumbo octopus. Bit difficult to describe other thab as the cutest cephalopod you will ever see - they really look like Dumbo the Elephant.

At the bottom we are layered up in jeans and hoodies, with icy condensation dripping off the metallic frame onto us. We are, for all intents and purposes, astronauts, without leaving the planet. Only a thin shell of metal stops us from being instantly pureéd. It´s amazing being down there and seeing the sights but I can´t say this thought is ever far from our minds. We come up from the depths slowly over the course of two hours, and then it´s over. Water splashes across the top of the window (or, more pertinently, air does!). We pull back into dock in the balmy Roatán night, get out, and have to pinch ourselves. Did that really just happen?

Posted by pendleton 09:25 Archived in Honduras Comments (0)

Roatán

sunny 32 °C

Roatán is a funny place. When we sit down and pick it apart it's easy to dismiss. The place is brutally hot in the middle of the day, compounded by the almost total lack of any breeze and the fact that there's a good few hours of power (and water) cuts every few days. The lack of breeze also means that it's crawling with mosquitos and sandflies; but as it's a protected marine park you're not supposed to use DEET. The cash machines run out of money every other day, and credit cards are useless. On top of all this the food (in restaurants and supermarkets) is almost London prices, due to the direct flights from the USA and the high prevalence of cruise ships visiting the island. But sitting here in our hammock on our veranda, listening to the gentle rain through the trees, sipping rum and watching geckos doing their bit to keep down the bug population I feel a bit kinder towards it. We've been here well over a week but are finding it very difficult to recall exactly how long it is; or come to it, to make any firm plans to leave to go to Ecuador. And we didn't even intend to come to this country (Honduras) originally!

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We are staying in West End, which (to be fair) is the most heavily touristed place on the island. It's swarming with dive shops of every stripe, and at times it seems that pretty much everyone who isn't over 40 and here on a package holiday is here to do their DiveMaster training. Several of the shops have people running all the courses together, from Open Water (i.e. never dived before) to DM (i.e. you're leading people to dive). All in 2 months. Needless to say this seems a little bit of an accelerated schedule to us, to say the least.

[This V-shaped sunset is caused by the sun sliding behind a mountain on the mainland]
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We spent our first four days here doing a Rescue Diver course, which is a basically what is sounds like, sort of like lifeguard training but with what to do if people get in trouble underwater. Very good training as our instructor delighted in making it as realistic as possible and as stressful as possible also. We are very very glad we did it but very very VERY glad it's over! We've done a couple of fun dives (i.e. not doing any courses or anything 'serious') over the last couple of days and have been pleasantly surprised with the state of the corals and the fish populations – the first drift dive I did every fish I saw was an absolute monster.

This is Team Rescue immediately after - including Chucky the ginger rasta doll who we spent ages trying to find
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UPDATE: we spent today lazing around the pool at one of the 'exclusive' resorts as an unexpected bonus of bumping into Steve who we met in Belize, who had blagged some entry wristbands off one of the owners in a bar. Result! A nice change to be spending time in an infinity pool rather than a communal bathroom. We've also booked our flights out to Ecuador, leaving a couple of days early. Annoyingly the FCO advice regarding Mexico has just changed to allow UK nationals to go there... oh well, another time.

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Next: South America!

Posted by pendleton 09:43 Archived in Honduras Comments (0)

Off The Wall

sunny 27 °C

After a frustrating week of kicking teenagers out from under our feet we were ready for a break, and had arranged a week staying on Glover's Reef atoll with the Off The Wall resort. It meant an early start, a ferry ride, a taxi journey, a bus ride, another taxi journey, another lift to a dock, and a very wet crossing in choppy seas out to the island, but we got there in the end!

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The island is absolutely idyllic. It's a slice of the atoll, so one side is out to open seas and the other facing the calm lagoon, and is roughly small enough to walk around in about 15 mins (it's small enough to walk across in about 30 seconds – you're usually able to see both shores). There are only two operations on the caye, OTW and Slickrock (an adventure travel company, a.k.a. The Others), and during the week we were there there were only 4 guests on our side (including us). The place is very much an as-much-as-nature-intended it sort of way – compost toilets, no electricity after dark, cold showers (except at noon), as much of the island left over to the original inhabitants (pelicans, iguanas and hermit crabs) as possible, and everyone sitting down to eat at two big tables – guests, staff and the owners.

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To be honest, it's felt more like staying with someone's family than we did in Guatemala – Kendra and Jim have made us feel so welcome it's untrue. The days are just spent lazing around and diving the reef (which is about 100 yards offshore most of the time), possibly with a bit of snorkelling or kayaking, broken by yummy home-cooked food and discussions of the animals we've seen today. Perfect for kids, and us! Then being lulled to sleep (at about 8pm) by the waves crashing feet from our cabana. Bliss.

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We were very sad to leave, but unfortunately our pleas to Kendra and Jim to claim asylum to escape the swine flu have fallen on deaf ears. This has also meant a change of plan – we were originally planning to travel back up Belize, then into Mexico, then dive in and around Cozumel for a week and a bit and then a spell inland. Obviously, as events have changed our plans have had to change with them. We still wanted to do some more diving before the Galapagos just to make sure we're up to it, so we decided to go to Roatán in the Bay Islands off Honduras (just around the corner of the land from Belize) as it didn't involve any plane travel, the diving is supposed to be pretty good, and the costs of doing courses are pretty cheap.

Last set of pictures - Brian barbecuing barracuda, Junior doing something funny with a fish, me upside down underwater and a squid we found one night and put in a bucket to have a look at!

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Posted by pendleton 19:16 Archived in Belize Comments (0)

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