DIVING THE GALAPAGOS
By Randy Keil of Tortola,
"These islands, volcanic nubs pushed up
above the oceans surface five hundred miles west of Ecuador, constitute
one of the shrines of modern science. We can tune in public television
any night of the month, it seems, and find them gorgeously photographed,
reverently explained." So writes David Quammen in FLIGHT OF THE IGUANA.
Few of these shows, however, concentrate on underwater Galapagos...
... This being my second trip to the Galapagos,
I had an incredible 7 days to look back on. After experiencing more than
7,000 dives in my lifetime, I've found no other marine environment where
the unexpected happens on such a regular basis. As our plane neared San
Cristobal, I wondered about the effects of El Nino, and felt the adrenaline
start to flow. We'd be going directly to the boat and in the water that
We boarded the Lammer Law at San Cristobal
and motored to Isla Lobos for the required check-out dive. Each diver had
to demonstrate a free descent without reference, mask flood and clear,
regulator loss and recovery, and buoyancy control. The site consisted of
a sandy bottom, gently sloping shoreward and littered with gulf stars with
the ever present Galapagos sea lions coming in for brief visits.
A four hour trip brought us to Jimmy's Rock
off Espanola. This seems to be a good place to mention that each island
has at least two names. Espanola is also called Hood. The sea floor around
Jimmy's Rock reef is about 60' with a mild to severe current. There were,
however, lots of places to hide from the current and this site provided
a good introduction to Galapagos diving. As on all our dives, fish were
everywhere! Coming from the Caribbean where much of the available nutrients
are tied up in static corals and sponges, the mid-water life amazed us
anew at each site. The fish were literally uncountable. Enormous bumphead
wrasse and parrots cruised through shifting masses of creolefish. I counted
three species of puffer including the blue phase of the quineafowl which
was familiar from my Sea of Cortez diving. Fine spotted morays vied with
moorish idols for our attention on the rocky reef. A large stingray presented
only a momentary diversion for my favorite sport of shark watching. On
this dive, whitetip reef sharks appeared at irregular intervals throughout
The morning dive was followed by a land excursion
to Gardner Beach which included sea lion pups and turtle nests. We dingyed
back for lunch and an afternoon dive at Gardner Bay. Once again the ubiquitous
sea lions enliven a short wall adorned with Galapagos black coral, finespot
morays, and yielded the trips first yellow phased guineafowl puffer. As
with all our dives, the puntas followed our divemasters float and were
always ready to help with equipment. Plenty of fresh water was available
for gear and camera rinsing. No sooner had we stowed our dive gear than
Marco and Steve began to rally the group for the major land attraction
of Punta Suarez.
Punta Suarez contained a playful group of
sea lions, the Espanola version of the marine iguana, nesting areas for
the masked and flue footed boobies, finches, a cone Galapagos hawk, yellow
crowed night herons, and the red billed tropicbird. I wrote in my log "the
differences between 1990 and 1992 were frightening. Where two years ago
blue footed boobies were in abundance, only two were sighted on the entire
two hour walk." One of the highlights was the antics of a masked boobie
chick which would offer a stick to would be photographers, toss it in the
air, dance around the stick, pick it up and begin anew. Only the loss of
available light and the Galapagos mosquito quelled the enthusiasm as motor
drives purred and shutters clicked.
The early morning of our third day found us
in mid ocean between Espanola (Hood) and Floreana (Santa Maria). The boats
fathometer registered in the 300-500' range and yet we could see rocks
only a couple of hundred feet away. As the divers finished a dawn snack,
Steve and Marco did a quick snorkel around the pinnacle to judge the current
which I logged as moderate. The place was called McCrowan Shoal and proved
to be a steep sided pinnacle covered with barnacles and hydroids. Fish
swarmed in mid-water for a distance to 20' to 30' from the pinnacle. Further
out, large basses and snappers cruised. As I descended, I noticed my computer
was not in its underwater mode and so returned to the surface to reset
it. By the time the computer had reset (about 20 seconds), I had drifted
so far from the pinnacle that I could not see the sides (where is your
personal sonar when you really need it?!). Even in the moderate current,
I realized that swimming against it in midwater was going to be too tiring
and consume inordinate amounts of air. So, I decided to give up my dignity
and bottom crawl back to the shoal. But, how far away was the bottom? Where
is the bottom! I touched the ocean floor at a depth I won't reveal and
made it to the pinnacle in under three minutes with about 2,000 psi - my
computer was not happy!
Giant eagle rays began working the "windward"
side of the pinnacle, but alas, I had no bottom time and was forced to
watch from above. One of our group got a momentary glimpse of a whale shark
but no Galapagos or white tips were sighted. We motored back to Lammer
for breakfast and continued on our way towards Floreana. Along the way,
I reflected in my log some more changes wrought by the most recent El Nino
- "sea lions with hip bones showing, skinny iguanas, the absence of blue
footed boobies, and few sharks." The water was bathtub warm at 82 degrees.
We did an early morning wall dive at Champion
after spending the day exploring Foreana and diving Devils Crown at night.
Big schools of what I called Sweetlips, camera shy moorish dolls, playful
sea lions, and lots of yellowtail surgeons, and once again... no sharks.
The next site, Daphne Minor and Roca Gordon
were both vertical walls plunging downward to abyssal depths. I felt as
if I was diving the walls of an underwater Yosemite Valley. Turtles, rays,
and white tipped reef sharks enlivened the dive and sea lions visited throughout.
At the end of one of the dives, an eagle ray led us to a squadron of golden
rays which wheeled and soared just out of camera range. My favorite logbook
quote from this area - "endless walls beckoned with mysterious green, dark
water." I described the wall at Daphne as "unreal" with lots and lots of
turtles and a few white tips. Our first close encounter with Galapagos
sharks provided quite an adrenalin rush as they approached unwary divers
until eye contact was made or about 10' - whichever was closer! This was
starting to resemble the pre-El Nino Galapagos as I remembered.
The land visits to Plaza and North Seymour
gave us a chance to see iguanas and the crazy antics of the frigate birds.
Sea lions surfed the breaking waves and the place took on a magical quality
in the late afternoon light - it proved to be one of our favorite land
We were all early to bed before heading out
to the Bartolome for Galapagos penguins and a place the crew called Hot
Shark. The site was lukewarm with hammerheads, a lone Galapagos shark,
close turtle encounters, more morays, and two strange shaped objects as
yet unidentified. In the late afternoon, we split the group and some hiked
to the top of Bartolome while others visited a lava flow or took naps.
The next few days meld together in a haze
of physical exhaustion as we started our three dive a day pace with land
excursions sandwiched between dives. Cousins Rock was a really dynamic
place and I think we ended up doing about eight dives there. It never disappointed!
Turtles, sea lions, sharks, rays, and all sorts of fish along a wall that
started in 20' of water and went downward forever. Also did a night dive
From Cousins, we motored out to ta place that
I remembered as shark city on our previous trip - Roca Redonda which has
the distinction of being geologically separate from the main island of
the archipelago and the surrounding water is thousands of feet deep. Roca
also has the strongest currents I've ever seen. One of the guides called
it industrial strength and even our professional vidiographer was impressed
as he could not hold his housings sideways in the flow.
El Nino had warmed the waters of Roca down
to about 80 to 90 feet. There was then about 20' of murky lukewarm water
and then a layer of very cold water began beyond 100'. The sharks congregated
here, but the conditions were so demanding that we did only two dives and
moved on to Punta Espinosa on Fernandian. Iguanas were everywhere! The
plus side of El Nino was that the marine iguanas were extremely active
both in and out of the water. They snorted salt, they swam, they dove for
algae and were in turn crawled upon by lava lizards. Great photo and video
opportunities! Again, quoting from my log: "... black lava hillsides sloping
down. Red mangroves with black sand underneath littered with marine iguanas.
Sea lions heaving themselves over lava to sleep in the shade of the mangroves."
Snorkeling with the iguanas was an exercise
in patience, but well rewarded photographically. It was during these hours
of sensory battering and physical exhaustion that the title of my yet-to-be
written memoirs became In Search of Marine Phenomena. And, sure enough,
as we left Fernandian, a fin whale of about 70' made an appearance. The
captain kept pace in what we considered to be a non-harassing manner and
the whale stayed with us for perhaps 30 minutes before giving us the slip.
It was with a sad heart that we passed Roca
Redonda without a dive and headed back towards Cousins Rock and Albany.
Both sites had deep water nearby, plenty of current, and abundant sea lions.
Albany also had a sandy plateau where we did some nice photographic work
with a large marbled ray and some very amateurish work with an enormous
last dives were to be, by consensus, on Albany. The underwater portion
of the trip was coming to a close. My body was unbelievably weary. Couldn't
be nitrogen induced, could it? The sea lions were having no such problems
and they'd been doing endless dives for eons. I envied their physiology.
One portion of Cousins Rock stuck out into
the dark current and was a gathering place for thousands of small creole
fish. A blanket of fish extended 30 or 40 feet away from the rock and further
out was the realm of rays and turtles. Several sea lions had staked out
a patch of sea water just off the "nose" and took turns power diving into
the school of gringos. At the apogee of the dive, the sea lions would pull
a back flip and the creoles formed a perfect circle as the ones closest
to the sea lions sped outwards. The next sea lion would wait until the
creoles had settled back down before duplicating the maneuver. As a photographer,
the idea was to get close enough to get a good picture but not so close
as to scare the gringos. Great fun!
We washed gear as we headed towards the Charles
Darwin Research Station and the island of Santa Cruz. This would be our
first look at the animal that gave the Galapagos their name - Geochelone
elephantopus, better known as the giant saddle back tortoise. Originally,
there were probably 13 or more sub species, but today only 9 viable races
remain. The total population is some 15,000 - down from an estimated original
count of 250,000. These and other cheerful facts were learned at the Darwin
station. Everyone was saddened at the story of Lonesome George who in 1979
became the last of his species. He has not had a mate for twenty years
and is now being allowed access to a female of a subspecies that evolved
under similar circumstances. Stay tuned for the outcome, folks.
We heard of goats and cats and dogs and pigs,
all introduced of man. We heard of rats and diseases that could only come
from the mainland. Let me quote David Quammen: "The drawback for any species
in having evolved on an island, under conditions of isolation and escape,
is that eventually the isolation is breached and the escape comes to a
rude end. This fate is almost inevitable, but here in the Galapagos it
is gratifying to see so many people doing so many things to "minimize our
baneful impact on island species".
This idea of minimum impact stays with one
long after a Galapagos experience is reduced to slides and stories.
<><><> TRIP TO GALAPAGOS PLANNED!
Maritha and I have chartered Lammer Law in
the Galapagos for fourteen days. The trip dates are 4 June 2006 to 18 June
2006. We plan to spend four days in the northern islands of Darwin, Wolf
and Roca Redonda before coming south to Punta Espinoza, James Bay, the
central islands and then down south to Floreana and Hood. The trip will
end with a visit to the Charles Darwin Reseach Station and a trip to see
the giant tortises in the highlands of Santa Cruz before flying back to
mainland Ecuador. Interested
scuba divers should me contact via EMAIL.
Copyright 1995 Randy Keil
All photos are copyright 1995 - 2005 Randy & Maritha Keil.
NOTE: Randy handwrote this article and gave
it to me, Lynn McKamey (ScubaMom), for type setting and uploading. Any
names of dive sites and/or marine creatures that are misspelled are my
own, not his.
Randy Keil has lived in and dived the British
Virgin Islands for almost 20 years and has dived all over the world, is
a NAUI/PADI instructor, and was also certified by LA County. Randy is a
published free lance writer; his photographs have been featured in several
Keil's other Dive Adventures
Gateway to Dive Travel.