Galapagos Aggressor II, March1-March7, 2001

Author: Steve Kovacs

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Early on February 28 I boarded a Continental flight from Vancouver for what I excitedly hoped would be my best dive trip yet aboard the Galapagos Aggressor 2 live-aboard. I'd heard amazing things about the diving in the Galapagos but you just never know whether mother nature will decide to show up or not. A flight to Houston of about 4 1/2 hours was followed by a noneventful 6 hours to Guayaquil finally arriving just after midnight. I then took a shuttle over to the Oro Verde hotel to meet my dive buddy Glen and have a short sleep before catching the morning flight from Guayaquil to Baltra in the Galapagos.

An Aggressor representative left us a note in our room to meet at the airport at 10 am the next morning where she gave us our tickets and helped us check in for the 1 1/2 hour hop over to the Islands. After arriving in the Galapagos and paying the exorbitant $100 US fee we were met by the dive masters, Nelson and Jamie, who helped collect and load our luggage for the 5 minute ride to the boat with the rest of the passengers. As we disembarked and walked up to the edge of the dock, we walked past 3 sea lions basking in the sun totally oblivious to our presence. You could walk right up to them nose to nose and they'd lazily open their eyes look at you for a second and go right back to sleep. Yep we've finally arrived in the famous archipelago.

A quick orientation and we were assigned our cabins and asked to set up our gear for a checkout dive that afternoon. What was really annoying was that Glen and I were the second dive pair to book a spot on the boat months before and we specifically requested a cabin on the upper level which was definitely quieter and had very large windows with a fabulous view. Instead our request was totally ignored and we were given a room on the lower level. Initially Glen and I were even placed in different rooms even though we booked together! Low class for an operation that's supposed to have such a good reputation.

The rooms are extremely spacious for a liveaboard with each one having its own head. The rest of the boat is also well laid out and comfortable although the dive deck did seem a little crowded during suiting up even though there were only 13 of us on board.

The first dive was supposed to be a check out dive to make sure that all our equipment was functioning and weighting was correct. Supposedly there was not much to see with a max depth of around 30 feet. Visibility was only 20 feet but the fish life was very good. The first thing that struck me was just how tame the fish seemed to be, generally unconcerned with the presence of divers. The highlight of the dive was an incredibly friendly puffer that followed us around for a few minutes and even allowed its belly to be scratched! Overall a very enjoyable dive.

The next day the "real" diving began at North Seymour. This and all subsequent dives were done with one of 2 dinghies that quickly shuttled you out to the dive sites and then found you and picked you up at the end of the dive. Within a minute of entering the water we were joined by a couple of sea lions darting in and around us and having a great old time circling us clumsy visitors without effort. An eagle ray lazily swam by and several large stingrays rested on the bottom. Again the general fish life was impressive with all the usual reef critters present.

I was testing out my new housing with a macro lens and so lagged behind everyone else ending up solo after a while. After about 30 minutes, swimming along and enjoying the dive immensely a large hammerhead shark suddenly streamed by within 10 feet and disappeared into the blue. Shortly after a white tip swam by checking me out followed by a 10-foot hammerhead that suddenly turned around and came back towards me. A little bit unnerving so I got as close as possible to a large rock trying to blend in. The big boy decided to make a few passes getting closer and closer after every pass till he was around 5 feet away before turning and swimming off. Quite a rush and slightly creepy getting that type of attention from a large shark when you're all alone. A few minutes later, still contemplating this encounter, I came across a couple of more white tip sharks, one sleeping under a ledge and another swimming around. Below a thousand psi I decided to finish the dive and surface. While waiting for the dinghy to pick me up it was slightly unsettling looking below and seeing the white tips swimming around directly below as I bobbed on the surface. It was something we would get used to by the end of the week-- waiting for the dingie to pick us up while sharks could be seen circling below us. All I could think was what an awesome dive and amazing beginning to the dive vacation. And we hadn't even hit the famous Darwin and Wolfe sites yet! Wow.

Following the 2nd dive we had the first of several shore excursions during the week visiting Seymour Island to see the incredibly tame wildlife. You could walk up to anything from fur seals to iguanas to blue footed boobies and they wouldn't move at all. Really a neat experience.

The next dive an hour later at the north channel of North Seymour Island turned out to be my all time favorite dive up to that point.

After entering the water the sea lions again payed a visit to zip in and around us. White tip sharks were everywhere swimming around or just resting motionless on the sand.

What was really amusing was that if a white tip would swim by while the sea lions were "entertaining" us they would dive bomb the shark and start nipping at its tail and harassing it until it swam away. They definitely wanted to be the centre of attention. Three eagle rays also decided to check us out at different times during the dive but what was surreal were the numbers and variety of fish. If you just sat in one spot and watched the dozen or so white tips coming and going huge schools of fish would surround you unconcerned about your presence with schools sometimes blocking out the light they were so thick. We saw schools of Barber fish, king angels, many different species of butterfly fish, sturgeon fish, moorish idols, several species of grunts, damsel fish, sergeant major, fly cabrilla, several types of parrot fish, mutter hamlets, adult leather bass, trigger fish, wrasse,fly cabrilla, and on and on. Simply amazing! After this dive I was speechless. Could it get better?

Immediately after the 3rd dive we began our 16-hour journey northward to the much anticipated Islands of Wolfe and Darwin and hopefully a date with some schooling hammerhead sharks. We were extremely lucky in that the seas were calm practically the entire week making travel very comfortable. Also up until this point we had not encountered any significant current or surge but we were assured that things would change in the following days to come.

We arrived at Wolfe the morning of the 3rd day and were immediately greeted by a pod of over 75 dolphins. Although this group tended to be shy and never got too close they were visible during our entire stay at Wolfe and their clicking and whistling could often be heard during our safety stops.

Following a quick briefing we suited up with anticipation, boarded the dinghies and were quickly ferried out to the dive spot where we dropped down to 60 feet and snuggled between a couple of large boulders. I was completely unprepared for the sight that was about to behold us. After only a few seconds a school of a dozen or so large Galapagos sharks swam by. This was followed by wave after wave of hammerhead and galapagos sharks. Many times the two species were intermingled lazily swimming by generally unperturbed by our presence. For 40 minutes we watched in awe. The parade of sharks had to be seen to be believed. Although the schools usually swam by anywhere from 30 to 40 feet from where we were perched between the rocks many times curious hammerheads or Galapagos sharks would break away and do a close pass within a few feet to check us out. Words can't describe how incredible it felt to be surrounded continuously by these large pelagics.

We were also introduced for the first time to the powerful surge that would be present on the majority of our dives. I never did get used to being constantly thrown uncontrollably from rock to rock. At times the surge was so strong it would pull you up and down 10-15 feet like a continuous pendulum as you swam along. I went through a pair of gloves during the week just from grabbing on to the rocks and barnacles. Bringing a couple of pairs of gloves is a good idea ssince chances are you'll have some nice holes in your gloves by the end of the trip. I also had some large gashes in my wet suit from being continuously bashed against the rocks. Not easy diving to say the least and it was going to get more harrowing before the week was out!

We did 3 more dives at wolfe on the 2nd day and although the sharks were there on every dive they never returned in the massive numbers of that 1st dive. Other marine life was also present during these dives but with all the sharks around it was hard to pay too much attention to them. We did see several turtles at Wolfe and the numbers of Moray eels present was so great we tended to quickly ignore them after a while. At the conclusion of one dive my buddy and I surfaced right into a school of hammerheads as they were passing by. Truly high voltage diving at it's best.

One of the more frustrating dives of the week also occurred at Wolfe Island. Right after dropping down to 60 feet the battery in my camera died. All photographers know that as soon as that happens something amazing is going to happen like a mermaid deciding to pay a visit. I wasn't THAT lucky but within a few minutes I spotted a large turtle lazily swimming by. As soon as it got a glimpse of me it turned and swam towards me. I just sat there in disbelief as it swam right up to my mask and stared into my eyes just inches away checking me out. All I could do as it then swam lazily away was look at Glen and shake my head. Of course a couple of minutes later a huge 10-12 foot Galapagos shark swam right by within2-3 feet immediately followed by a large hammerhead following right behind. Sigh...

The next day we headed over to Darwin where the surge was very, very strong and the visibility quite poor. We did see one solitary hammerhead, large schools of fish, an eagle ray, and one lone dolphin but overall nothing to write home about (my how quickly one can become spoiled!).

During the second dive at Darwin the surge was so bad the dive became generally unpleasant. As Glen and I surfaced to 15 feet for our safety stop a massive school of creole and big eye jack surrounded us while several rainbow runners came in for a closer look. What we didn't know was that as we were doing our safety we got caught in a strong current. When we finally surfaced we were right at the corner of the arch but in a matter of seconds were swept behind the rock onto the other side. Out of sight of the dingy and the Aggressor we got caught in the powerful surge heading straight towards the rocks. For 20 minutes or so we were thrown around like a couple of rag dolls in washing machine just trying to stay above water. I never swallowed so much seawater in my life. When the dinghies couldn't find us they decided to search on the other side where they found us trying to keep ourselves from being smashed against the rocks. The happiest sight I ever saw was that small dinghy coming towards us. The conditions were so bad at Darwin that the boat returned to Wolfe for the final 2 dives of the day.

The fifth day we again did Wolfe but this time we changed sites and dove the "blender". Now a little common sense will tell you that if a sight is named "the blender" it isn't because of its marine life. True to its name the surge was just wicked and at a couple of spots between large passages the current was brutally strong necessitating crawling along from rock to rock. I also experienced my first down current but fortunately I was hanging on to some rocks as I was being pulled straight down for a couple of minutes by what must have been at least a 3 knot current. I finally got bored and crawled out.

Our final dive at Wolfe was on the other side of the Island to look for the unusual batfish on the sandy bottom. The plan was to drop down to 100+ feet for 10 minutes and hopefully find this peculiar critter. Fortunately I was able to find one within a couple of minutes but the little bugger didn't feel like cooperating for a mug shot. Every time a tried to take it's picture it would turn its back to the camera or take off "running" along the bottom with its fins. Quite an unusual critter. Unfortunately the best shot I could get of him is the one below but it doesn't show his distinctive bright red lips. Maybe next time.

The following day saw us at Cousin's. The seal lions were exceptionally friendly, chewing on our fins and poking their noses into our masks for a closer look. A very nice dive site with several different species of blennies, chamelon clinids, red light gobys and all the other usual critters. Thanks to the sharp eyes of the dive masters we also did find 2 sea horses among the black coral.

Succeeding the 2 dives at Cousin's Rock we had a choice between taking a dingy ride to look for penguins or going snorkling with them. The dingy group did find several penguins resting on the rocks and swimming around while the snorklers had the double pleasure of getting extremely close to an unconcerned penguin as well as snorkeling and frolicking with an exceptionally friendly sea lion. 

The penguin excursion was followed by a challenging hike up the tall peak of Bartolome for a beautiful view of the harbor and surrounding islands. To be honest I would have rather skipped this tour in exchange for another dive.

The next morning there was a land tour at Santa Cruz to visit with more of the endemic species of the islands.

That same afternoon we were scheduled to do the last dive of the week at Gordon's Rock. During the briefing we were told that when the diving at Gordon's was good, it was good, but when it was bad, it was bad. Hmmm, would the SCUBA Gods smile on us today? Immediately upon entering the water and dropping to the bottom I looked up and couldn't believe my eyes as a large 12-foot manta ray lazily glided above us.

He passed a few times and appeared to disappear. You could just feel like something magical was about to happen. Moments later we came across a turtle at a cleaning station covered in a variety of fish attempting to pick its shell clean. Another turtle then slowly swam by followed by an eagle ray that decided to do a couple of passes. The current and surge began to pick up dramatically after a while so we decided to hang on to some rocks and just enjoy the show that was unfolding. The 12-foot manta had reappeared and kept swimming back and forth and interacting with some of the divers. Two smaller mantas slowly swam by just above us and then 2 eagle rays decided to join the performance and began doing pirouettes for a few minutes. Just then a large school of about 50 hammerhead sharks came into view and astonishingly decided to swim right over top of us. As I was busy trying to get a photograph overhead I didn't notice the large manta had crept right up in front of me about 2 feet away, so close I could have easily touched it, and was just looking at me. Someone finally decided to tap me on the shoulder and point out the obvious oversight on my part. As he turned and swam off a sea lion, as if right on cue, dive bombed us and began doing circles around us visiting each diver as if to say hello as several turtles swam by us. The entry in my log book sums it up, "we must have died and gone to SCUBA heaven". It will definitely be tough to beat this dive, easily the best I've ever done.

The remainder of the time was occupied with a tour of the Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora to see the famous Galapagos tortoises followed by a trip inland to see them in the "wild".

A final night in Puerto Ayara for a farewell dinner and it was back to the boat for a night of rest before the long journey home. All in all an amazing trip. 

Final notes

There was concern before this trip that the oil spill may have affected some of the dive sites or wildlife but we saw no evidence of any problems during the entire week. Apparently the majority of the spill was carried out to see by favorable currents. Only time will tell for sure.

The water temps were abnormally high all week usually sitting at 80 degrees. I think we were lucky that the sharks showed up in the numbers they did given that they usually prefer colder temps. Makes you wonder if there could have been even more sharks with cooler temps. Intriguing thought.

Besides the shortcomings of head office in the States the boat and crew were just first class. Couldn't have asked for much more.

I would definitely recommend the Galapagos for those who ever get a chance but diving is definitely not for the faint of heart. You should be very comfortable in the water.

Jamie, the dive master, also did an amazing job helping us avoid overweight baggage charges when we flew out of Baltra by pooling everyone's luggage.



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