Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Dive Academy on Tour 2016: Galapagos Islands

As an amazing surprise 50th birthday present for me (Paul), Claire secretly organised a once in a lifetime trip to one of the top diving destinations in the world - Galapagos Islands.

The Galapagos Islands are a bunch of remote volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean around 1,000km off the coast of Ecuador and considered one of the world's foremost destinations for wildlife-viewing. It's isolated and rugged terrain shelters a diversity of plant and animal species, many found nowhere else in the world. Charles Darwin visited the islands in 1835 and his observation of Galapagos' species later inspired his theory of evolution.

From Thailand the journey was long and required a one week stopover in L.A. on the way!! From L.A there was another flight to Quito in Ecuador and a one night stopover then a short flight to San Christobel, the capital of the Galapagos islands. And there onto our home for the next seven days a liveaboard boat called the Galapagos Master.....

Being in such an isolated location we knew there would be no communication with the outside world as we were told in advance that there would be no wifi available around the islands which meant we well and truly would be leaving The Dive Academy in the capable hands of our staff.

The Galapagos is famous for it's beautiful scenery, diverse land wildlife and obviously the reason we went there was for the Galapagos Marine Reserve's reputation as one of the best diving destinations in the world.

We had an amazing time and some of the sights and experiences we had are something never to be forgotten and we wanted to share them! Obviously we have hundreds of photos and have just selected a few so as not to bore anybody reading the blog. Taking the photos, particularly the underwater ones was at times challenging - the rule in the Galapagos National Park is that you are not allowed to get closer than 2m from the animals so close up's of the land animals were quite difficult and underwater the visibility wasn't the best so getting great shots was also very hard. Don't look at the quality of the picture but the beauty of the creature!!

Scenery: the route of our trip took us through many of the 18 main islands of the Marine Reserve so we got to see some of the most beautiful scenery the islands have to offer. Most of the islands are uninhabited and there is no access to them but there are some which we were able to go onto to see the amazing wildlife.

Darwin Island

The world famous Darwin's Arch

Wolf Island

A calm sheltered bay in Wolf Island to spend the night

Big waves breaking onto the islands

Land Wildlife: as I mentioned above the Galapagos Islands are known for the amazing diversity of species both in the water and on land. We were able to go onto a couple of the islands to see some of the rare and amazing wildlife, some of which can only be found on these desolate islands and nowhere else.

A lonely, solitary Galapagos Penguin

Prehistoric looking Land Iguana

Male Frigate Bird with it's fantastic red sac which it puffs out to attract a mate

Blue footed Booby (I'm not making it up!!)

A young 80 ish year old Tortoise

A huge 100-120 year old Tortoise - I thought I was old at 50!!

Sea Lions: around the Galapagos Islands Sea Lions are the most common creature you see. We first encountered them as soon as we got off the plane lazing around in the harbour in San Christobel, a couple even cheekily boarding boats moored in the bay for extra peace and quiet. Nearly every island we visited Sea Lions were spotted either playing around in the surf or laying on the rocks sleeping in the sun. Because of their lazy nature taking pictures of Sea Lions was much easier than any of the other creatures we came across so we have quite a few to choose from!! Sea Lions are amazing creatures with many of the same characteristics of your family dog except they tend to smell a lot worse.

 Diving: being used to warm water and easy diving, we found the diving at the Galapagos Islands a nice challenge of our dive skills. Fortunately there was nothing too difficult for us to deal with but the minimum temperature of 22 degrees when we are used to temperatures around 29 degrees was something new to deal with!! And with currents so strong that you had to hook on with a reef hook and hang on for dear life to stay in one place, the diving was a much different pace than we are used to in the chilled, relaxed waters around Koh Samui!! But we lived to tell the tale.

The Galapagos is known for it's abundance of large Pelagics and unusual creatures and if you are looking for the kind of diving where you potter around looking for Nudibranch's and small stuff or looking to see schools of fish and lots of variety then Galapagos probably isn't the place to go! However the marine life you do experience is the kind you never forget. Hanging on to a line in ripping currents isn't the best of fun until 150 Hammerhead Sharks swim past and overhead; swimming along in 22 degree water (especially in 1mm neoprene shorts - balls of steel turned to shriveled grapes very quickly!!) isn't a great feeling until a Sea Lion swims up to you and starts doing somersaults in front of you and copies what you do when you start doing somersaults and twists too; floating around in poor viz in the blue (more like grey) isn't too interesting until a Mola Mola swims past; and being thrown around in shallow cold water isn't an amazing way to spend your time until you look around and see lots of prehistoric looking Marine Iguanas; doing a safety stop at the end of a dive with loads of Hammerhead Sharks and a pod of Dolphins swims by: experiences and encounters never to be forgotten.

Darwin's Arch and Landslide, which are found at Darwin Island and Wolf Island respectively, are the two main dive sites where you get to see the Hammerhead Sharks and we completed 8 dives at the two sites - more than you would normally do at two sites but when you are surrounded by hundreds of Hammerheads on each dive why wouldn't you want to repeat the experience time and again? Each of the other dive sites we visited had fantastic things to see and as the Marine Reserve is strictly monitored we were usually the only boat and divers on the dive site - there are only 6 liveaboard boats allowed in the Reserve and the authorities organise a strict schedule to make sure there are limited numbers of divers on a dive site at any time.

Some of the photos and videos might not be the best quality as conditions weren't always favourable for good photography - poor viz and hanging on to a line attached to a reef hook with one hand while trying to take pictures of the sharks swimming overhead with the other isn't always easy. But you will be able to enjoy many of the fantastic memories we have taken away from the trip.

Claire prepared for the cold

Claire hooked in and hanging on

Braving the cold as you do as a rough, tough diving Instructor!!

A school of Snapper

Turtle swimming out a cave as we were swimming in


Ugly beautiful!

Smiling for the camera

Eagle Ray cruising by

Eagle Rays passing overhead - check out the hair and bubbles blowing in the current

White Tip Reef Shark

Galapagos Shark

Dolphin cruising by on the safety stop

Close enough to the Dolphin to hitch a ride

Mola Mola (above & video below)

Sea Lion diving down to join us and a Fur Seal coming by to say hello in the video below

Marine Iguanas!

And finally lots of Hammerheads!!

The boat, crew and dive buddies: the boat we found ourselves on for the week was called the Galapagos Master and it was like being in a 4 Star Hotel: fantastic food cooked by the onboard chef, Soloman the amazing steward to take care of you through breakfast, lunch, dinner and anytime in between, a fantastic boat crew to help you with anything you needed and two great dive guides to show you everything underwater. If there is a boat that travels the Galapagos Islands that gives a better experience than the Galapagos Master then it must be very special.

The Galapagos Master

Being stuck on a boat for a week with strangers can sometimes be a bit difficult if you find yourself with people you can't connect with or just don't get on with. We were incredibly lucky on this trip as we spent the week with a great bunch of people that all got on really well and actually even liked each other!! It was a pleasure to dive with a group of divers from different parts of the globe: there were Japanese, American, Spanish, Swedish, Danish, Tawainese / American, Austrailian, Peruvian (I think apologies if I'm wrong) and obviously the token English divers and along with the Ecuadorian dive guides it made a for a great mix of nationalities, personalities and experiences. Thanks guys it was great fun!

Happy to see the Hammerheads!

And lastly thanks to my amazing dive buddy in life Claire for planning such a special trip for my 50th birthday (and your 41st) - it is a trip never to be forgotten with experiences and creatures I will remember for a long, long time!

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