Hitting the G Spot:
Galapagos Islands Photo Essay

**Click on any image to see a larger version**

Dear Diary,

Well here I am, 600 miles off the west coast of South America. I am going to fill you in all the details, although I have made an unfortunate promise that anything compromising or otherwise potentially libelous will stay on the boat. Capice? Good.
Getting to the Galapagos wasn't all that painful. From British Columbia, four hours to Houston, meet up with some of the gang there, slug back a few brewskis, another four hour flight, a two night layover at 9,000 ft in Quito, a quick flight to Baltra, with a stop Guayaquadil, and we are almost there...
That's one happy braciole in the other dinghy. It's his fault that I am here. When he returned from the Galapagos last year, he wrote this. After reading it, I knew I had to go, and when one of the original group for this trip dropped out and the spot was offered to me, I jumped on it.

After clearing through painstakingly slow environmental controls at the airport, which included paying a $100 Galapagos Park fee, trekking through a squishy shoe wash, and a hand search of baggage to ensure no nuts or roots or seeds etc was being brought into the pristine ecological park (sapien sure breathed a sigh of relief when his booty was not discovered ;^), we were met by some of the Aggressor crew, transported by bus to the waterfront and then ferried out to the boat.

Well, thar she blows. The lovely Poder del Jesus aka Galapagos Aggressor 1 awaits the eager voyagers. She carries 14 divers and 7 crew in comfort and style. Contessa and I are assigned to a cozy cabin on the upper deck (really, I feel like royalty ;^). My clothes in my duffle are all completely soaked because the bag was still on the dive deck which was quickly awash when we got underway. Oops.

It's a 16 hour run up to Wolf Island and we are all dog tired. After a welcome cocktail with the crew, a fab dinner and a few more brewskis, it's nighty-night, sleep tight.
Awakening the next morning, Wolf Island is close on the horizon. We will do four dives here today - on the first we will tuck away around the corner and out of the current to do a checkout dive in a sheltered bay, before they let us loose with the big boys.

Since it's a checkout, I don't take my camera down with me. I'm checking out quite a bit of new gear this trip - a new trilam drysuit, a long hose, a slung pony and a Vyper wristmount computer. Task overloading is a definite possibility in these adrenaline-rich waters.

We see numerous red-lipped batfish on this dive, sitting pretty and waiting for their close ups. Of course, we never see another one for the remainder of the trip...
Cris the Divemaster gives the first briefing at Wolf Island. Back roll in together off the zodiac, he says. Swim like hell to get down, he says. Grab onto the reef and drag yourself upwind, he says. Then hang on and hang out there for a while, he says. Then follow the yellow tank out off the reef and into the blue, he says. The DM's will only bang their tank when they see Mr. Big, he says. Carry an Aggressor-issued telescoping dive flag so the dinghy dudes can spot you when you surface, in the event that the current carries you away, he says. Stay out of the way of the whalesharks, he says. Righty-O. I think our hearts our pumping now, and I notice even the wise-asses on the trip are paying close attention ;^)
Day One, Dive Number 3. I spend the good part of a dive trying to get the camera happening. My heart just isn't in it though. The esteemed DrCraig has taken one look at me in my gear, what with that freaking long hose wrapped around my body, the slung pony and the clipped off Aggressor-issued folding dive flag, and he has declared that I am (oh, the shame of it) a fustercluck. And to make matters worse, while I am attempting to capture (in images) this skittish little bugger...
...the whole freaking group has followed He Of The Yellow Tank out off the reef into the blue, and has seen a whaleshark. Everyone. Except me. I may possibly never live this down. One more dive this day, and still no whalesharks for me. I have even been foolish enough to change out my toasty drysuit for my 3 mm wetsuit to appease the whaleshark gods. B-b-b-ig m-m-m-mistake in 73F water.

Even though I have seen masses of hammerhead and Galapagos sharks this day, I feel devastation and remorse. That f-f-f***ing little yellow p-p-p-puffer...
New day, new dive site. This is the far side of Darwin's Arch. DrCraig has deemed this place to be quite possibly the best dive site in the world. I tend to agree with him. That view there in the picture is one you don't want to be seeing from the water with a tank on your back. Cris tells us he has seen grown men, who have let the current carry them too far, crying, clinging to the rocks here, waiting to be rescued. The dive site is on the other side of the Arch.

For whatever reason, every year large populations of whalesharks migrate to Darwin's Arch for a few months. Some speculate it is where the females come to give birth to their young.
Joe Bennie (aka Zio, JB, Kenya Joe, etc etc) perches on the reef while swarms of fish fly past. Like him, I am so in awe of this incredible place that I often just drop my camera and suck in the view. In all of my dive travels thus far, I have never seen the accumulations of fish that are here in the northern Galapagos. They actually make it difficult at times to take pictures by swimming through the frame while I am trying to set up a shot.
Señor Hammerhead does a fly by.

Previous to this trip, I had seen exactly 3 hammerhead sharks. I saw 3 hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos (up close and personal) in the first 3 seconds of my first reef-edge dive at Wolf Island. In a week of diving, that number swelled into the hundreds. I mean, really, it all becomes a bit hohum after a while. Not.
It has taken me some time, but I have finally figured out that it is a good thing to keep a close eye on He Of The Yellow Tank, and to follow him out off the reef into the blue in search of Mr. Big.

Open ocean diving is a bit of a trip in the Galapagos (actually, I find it a bit of a trip anytime) - without reference to reef or surface you swim out across a stiff current, through hoardes of fish, with sharks often passing below or above you, all on a quest to see whalesharks.
Massive schools of creole fish congregate just off the reef at Darwin Island. They do a good job of blocking the view to the whalesharks, so incredibly, sometimes the wall of fish parts, and coming straight at you is Mr. or Ms. Big, who are probably just as surprised to see you as you are to see them.
Waiting for Mr. Big.

That's deja in the foregoround, videocam at the ready, raring to go chasing after whalesharks. He got some incredible footage for his efforts.
Finally, a whaleshark sighting for the puffer girl. Okay, so I'm lying. This is not a picture of the first whaleshark I saw, nor the second, nor the third. But I did get payback for being skunked at Wolf Island by seeing three whalesharks on my first dive at Darwin.

I hear the dull clanking of Cris' tank banger. I know the big guy is near. Swimming hard for all I am worth, I see the massive fish coming towards me from out of the gloom. This can't be real. In awe, I lift my camera to frame the shot. And nada. Nooooooooo! The batteries are dead. But, in spite of technical difficulties, I've got a smile as big as a whaleshark's arse when I climb out of the water after this dive.
Speaking of whaleshark arses, I'm seeing a lot of this view.

Even though they look like they are hardly moving - their propulsion coming from a languid sweep of their massive tail, incredibly the whalesharks are swimming faster into the current than any human can hope to equal, at least for long. I will admit that I am getting pretty tuckered chasing whale sharks, and after a while, I vow to stick to the reefs to take pictures of some of the proliferation of other, much-overlooked creatures...
...like this dude,
...and this amazingly inquisitive and friendly guy, who is not at all like other sea turtles I have encountered elsewhere, who tend to be very skittish around divers...
...and these bad boys, who, as it ends up, are allergic to bubbles, and therefore tend to avoid them at all costs...
...and a huge population of eels. The place is crawling with them, many free swimming, and lots hanging out under ledges, hiding their heads like ostriches with their full bodies just lounging across the reef. Seriously, there are so many eels that when I am hauling myself hand over hand across the reef to get to its edge, I have to be very careful where I touch down.

On one dive I stop to try to take a picture of four or five of them free swimming in a frenzied dance, and one of them even takes a run at my camera. Jeez, just like a testy Hollywood superstar...
But even on the reef, whalesharks are happening. I catch this whaleshark blowing over my head while I am looking for smaller animals to photograph.

To me, this fish looks like she may have a bun or two in the oven.

Words and pictures can not translate the sheer mind-boggling size of these animals, nor the thrill of being in the water with them. It's like seeing a school bus, only bigger, not to mention alive, flying past you underwater. And the best part is this: you know they are not interested in eating you.

Beep, beep.

And then, imagine this: in the zodiac on the way back to the mother boat for lunch, a large dorsal fin is spotted in the water. It's a whaleshark feeding at the surface. Cool! I jump back in with a few others to be in the moment, and I remember to bring my camera in a vain attempt to capture it. Deja is there too, and DrCraig and twang and ga_seafan. We're all swimming with this massive fish, and it's hanging around. Incredible! ga_seafan is positively over the top with joy. I can hear her squeals of delight when I lift my head out of the water periodically to avoid drowning.
That's DrCraig showing off some fine free diving form. He's wearing masses of neoprene to keep him warm in the 73F water, and it seems to defy logic that he is able to get himself this far below the surface.

Just before this freedive, he has handed off his brand new Oly 3030 over abyssal waters for my safekeeping. I think to myself that the man is not thinking straight, but I manage to avoid fumbling the pass, and to take this picture too.
That's twang and the whaleshark. The whaleshark is feeding, which explains the open mouth. Sometime soon, twang will basically stick his camera in the whalesharks' gaping maw and get a very cool pic of his plankton filtering apparatus. I think he is lucky that the whaleshark doesn't swallow his camera, and him along with it...
This is what a whaleshark looks like when he's coming right at you. Go back and look at the image above this one, which shows how teeny twang looks next to this huge fish. That is one big mouth. And, as his eyes are on the side of his head, he can't see you, so he is likely to run right into you unless you get out of the way, fast.
...and this is the view immediately after you get whacked by a whaleshark's tail. I get caught between the dinghy and the big fish. Above the racing of my heart, I hear Deja's frantic warning: "the tail, look out for the tail". Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Awoosh. The massive tail (which is taller than I am) pushes me aside like I am but a bit of flotsam, and the whaleshark seems none the nonplussed for it. I, on the otherhand, am laughing so hard that I am choking on water. What an incredible rush.
But, all too soon, it is time to say good-bye to Darwin Island and head south in search of Manta Rays and seahorses and sea lions and such in the southern Galapagos Islands.

.../Part Two