A Travellerspoint blog

May 2009

Galápagos - Day 5

overcast 25 °C

We are back at Wolf, having made a detour north to Darwin and returned the day after.

It´s just before dusk and the visibility is starting to get low. We are separated from the group and floating at about 60ft in a large ball of silvery chubb. Around the outside of the fish are lurking sharks, mostly hammerheads with some Galápagos thrown in the mix. They swim around us in an endless circle... we can never see more than twenty or thirty but it´s a different twenty every minute. It occurs to us that we are suspended in a huge ball of their favourite food; also that they don´t have very good eyesight.

We drift... and drift... and drift... in the current. The darkness closes in a little more. The sharks circle, coming in to peer at us occasionally. We look at each other nervously. They aren´t even trying for the fish. Just circling.

In the end we come up with quite a lot of air still left in our tanks. No recorded shark attacks in the Galápagos. But no need to push our welcome...

Posted by pendleton 17:43 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Galápagos - Day 3

Concentrate, here comes the science part

overcast 25 °C

Everyone has seen the pictures of the indigenous land-side wildlife of the Galápagos (big tortoises, blue footed boobies, marine iguanas et al - more about these guys soon). What's not quite as commonly known is that there is an astonishingly rich underwater world which is even better preserved than the topside ones.

The Galápagos islands straddle the Equator line (most of the southern islands are below but Wolf and Darwin are above), so you would naturally expect the water to be quite toasty. This isn't necessarily the case though, as the islands are at the junction of several large oceanic currents - the Panama current coming from the northeast (warm water), the transPacific coming from the west (warm water), and crucially, the Humboldt current coming from the south. This is the key current, that sweeps in all the way from Antarctica up the coast of South America, bringing cold water, rich in nutrients. And penguins...

The cold water brings nutrients, which are eaten by the microscopic shrimp and such. Who are in turn eaten by the little fishies. Who are eaten by the hand size fish. Who are then eaten by the big game fish... and the sharks!

Wolf and Darwin are, as previously mentioned, the two northernmost islands of the archipelago. They are geologically distinct to the other islands, being part of the Cocos tectonic plate rather than the Nazca plate, and formed by the subjunction zone between these two plates slipping over each other. The islands are uninhabited by people, and just look like big rocks in the sea with masses of bird colonies on top. These are two of the most revered sites among scuba divers, to be spoken of in hushed terms. The access to the islands is restricted so much that less than three thousand people dive them every year. We have a dive briefing the night before, where we are told to expect currents, lots of fish, and hopefully some sharks. We go to bed, beyond excited.

We're out of bed before the morning wake-up bell has started ringing. A quick breakfast and a more detailed dive briefing and we are in the water. Today the current is only mild, so we drift along at about 60ft above the tumble landslide that falls into the deep. We start to see some sharks - firstly the small Galápagos sharks (about 1-2 metres long), then some larger hammerheads (2-3m) (note - not dangerous to people unless you cut your leg off or something... just a little disconcerting). I have floated forward in the group to be the point man, even ahead of the divemasters. I turn around to check that my buddy Angi is OK and still where I think she is, and when I face forward again my brain almost stops. I can't believe what I am seeing. Coming directly towards us is a huge whale shark - 40ft of harmless, beautiful beastie. People construct entire dive trips around these things and quite often fail to see them. We had hoped to see one in Belize or Honduras but weren't lucky enough then. And one has just snuck up on us. It's huge, as big as a fortress, as big as the sky. I hold my breath (they don't like bubbles so much) as it effortlessly drifts towards us, close, closer than people are supposed to get to them. Less than 3m and it glides past us, its huge body surmounted by a load of remoras hanging on to the tail. It's probably a female, here to get the remoras cleaned off by cherry-picking smaller sharks. I hang there, motionless, speechless, as the divemasters frantic tank ting-tinging alerts the rest of the group that Mrs Big has arrived. She's past us in what seems like seconds. Some of the group are haring off after it but Angi and I just hang there, not really knowing how to process the information. Then we high-five, hug and grin like idiots.

A week later, it still seems like a dream.

(Note - we don´t have any pictures/videos unfortunately due to the lack of an underwater camera (and also the lack of a working computer) - any donations from our kind new friends gratefully received!)

(update 16-06 - we have some photos very kindly courtesy of Dave from our trip! Links are

http://i484.photobucket.com/albums/rr204/bonessdiver/galapagos%202009/DSCF1081.jpg
http://i484.photobucket.com/albums/rr204/bonessdiver/galapagos%202009/DSCF1137.jpg
http://i484.photobucket.com/albums/rr204/bonessdiver/galapagos%202009/DSCF1161.jpg
http://i484.photobucket.com/albums/rr204/bonessdiver/galapagos%202009/DSCF1187.jpg
http://i484.photobucket.com/albums/rr204/bonessdiver/galapagos%202009/DSCF1239.jpg
http://i484.photobucket.com/albums/rr204/bonessdiver/galapagos%202009/DSCF1321.jpg
http://i484.photobucket.com/albums/rr204/bonessdiver/galapagos%202009/DSCF1332.jpg
http://i484.photobucket.com/albums/rr204/bonessdiver/galapagos%202009/DSCF1460.jpg
http://i484.photobucket.com/albums/rr204/bonessdiver/galapagos%202009/DSCF1170.jpg

Depicting a whale shark, a hammerhead, an eagle ray, a dolphin, me, a turtle, a sea lion, a penguin and the brooding Wolf landscape.

Thanks Dave & Nicki!)

Posted by pendleton 11:52 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

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)

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