And so it starts...
21.05.2009 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!