Top 10 Dive The Galapagos Moments Of The Year
The Galapagos will so spoil divers that it could ruin diving anywhere else. After maybe 2 days, you grow accustomed to turtles, sea lions, eagle rays, white-tipped reef sharks, schools of barracuda, schools of many tropicals, and more. Many of the normal sightings in the Galapagos, things here in such abundance they are ‘normal’, would MAKE the dive if you saw just one in so many other places.
Often, I’ve ascended from a dive thinking, “Gee, that was pretty bad,” only to have excited newcomers rave about all the sightings once we were in the boat….same dive, two perspectives. Most of those same newcomers notice themselves that 4 days later, even they are saying, “Sea lions, sharks, rays, eels, turtles…yeah, but what else?” But they will also tell you that every dive they do after the Galapagos is subject to a standard set by the Galapagos.
As the founder of Dive The Galapagos, I can’t speak for the entire team involved in our tours, so in essence, these are my favorite moments of the year. You’ll see that the honorable mentions below outnumber the Top 10. I probably need a Top 50 list to get it all in there. But…counting down.
NUMBER 10 – GOING INDEPENDENT:
As an independent rather than an employee, I could do things I could never do before. For example…with guest approval, we took 2 policemen to snorkel in the magical Los Tuneles who had never been there before and on their salaries, could never afford to go. One of them could not swim and yet, went snorkeling for the first time in his life. Getting to share moments like this was not something I could ever do in a corporate setting where the ethic revolved purely around profit and sales. There were lots of moments, but the laughter and joy of someone snorkeling for the first time ever sure ranked right up there.
NUMBER 9 – CAUSES TO BELIEVE IN AND AMAZINGLY COOL CLIENTS:
David Shuman, Veterinarian and diver, from Santa Cruz, CA and his passionate proactive efforts around our preferred means of “Making A Difference” in the Galapagos…the K9 unit with dogs trained to sniff contraband such as shark fins, seahorses, sea cucumbers, etc. David rounded up donations from colleagues and arrived with what we estimated to be about a 40 kilo (over 80 pounds) sack of medicines and supplies for the dogs plus a cash donation. To say his gift was welcome is such an understatement.
So many of the dog handlers end up taking money out of their own pockets to pay for things like vitamins or medications for the dogs they work with…and the average policeman’s salary is fairly low, so to say they are not dipping into deep pockets is an understatement. That type of commitment in addition to the job these dogs do is a big reason we so want to help.
NUMBER 8 – WHALE SHARK SIGHTING:
No I wasn’t at Darwin and no, I wasn’t even diving. In June, I had just surfaced from Gordon Rocks and climbed into the boat when there coming directly towards us at the surface was a juvenile whale shark, mouth agape. He/she couldn’t have been bigger than 20 feet long, but WOW, a juvenile whale shark! I grabbed a snorkel and jumped in as quietly as possible. Being one of the last in a relatively strong current, only 2 of us were now even close to him/her. I got to swim alongside at a distance of maybe 6 feet for a few minutes. By the time the rest of the divers caught up, the activity motivated him/her to run away. Amazing how fast they can be when they want to be.
Later in the year, I was privileged to experience 26 more whale shark sightings, all at Darwin and all adults, mostly huge pregnant females.
See a video clip of what it’s like to chase Ms. Big in the blue at Darwin.
NUMBER 7 – GIANT STINGRAY:
Saw him at Devil’s Crown in Floreana. I knew it was big and naturally I had no camera with me, but seeing a special a month or so ago on tv about what was claimed to be the largest stingray ever, I realized how much bigger our sighting was. (Note: Even though all online reports of this stingray state ‘freshwater’, it was actually an estuary with a higher salinity than most estuaries…so not really fresh water.)
Now, I didn’t measure, but the guy in Floreana had to be have been at least 12-15 feet across. He looked more like a manta size ray than a stingray. No fish tale. He was huge. I just hung above him for awhile looking. On the same dive, I saw the smallest stingray I had ever seen in the Galapagos. He/she couldn’t have been more than 1.5 feet across. The Devil’s Crown (Corona del Diablo) is now off limits to divers.
NUMBER 6 – GIANT MARBLED RAY:
Spotted at Gordon Rocks. This prompted the dive guide with 20 plus years experience in the Galapagos to ask me how in the world I spotted him which I perhaps loved as much as seeing him because I spotted him, not the guide. He is a man who is one of a rare few who can sight at 30 meters in 20 meter visibility, a skill I envy. Hidden under a rock I found the largest marbled ray I had ever seen. He was about 8 feet across. I couldn’t see all of him, but enough to go grab everyone to come look. The one with the most experience, our DM, was the most impressed because he understood better than others what we were seeing.
NUMBER 5 – HAMMERHEADS:
Spotting hammerheads up close. Gordon Rocks. We entered at the northeast corner and a down current quickly pulled us to about 110 feet, something we didn’t really notice at first as our attention was so focused on the hammerheads around us. Dive guide gets our attention and we all ascend a bit, grab the rocks to stabilize in a relatively serious current and then we watch the hammerheads around us. I had spotted them here and there, but this was the first time this close. I was hooked. They became the “it” creatures of the Galapagos Marine Reserve for me.
One guy with us was a German dive agent who is perhaps the biggest dive snob I’ve ever met…and I say that as a compliment with respect and admiration. He has well over 3000 dives, travels the world and that day, while the rest of us held onto rocks and hung like windsocks in a stiff breeze, he just hung motionless above us like Emma Thompson in “Angels Over America”. I didn’t know which was more intriguing…him hanging there in that current or the hammerheads around us. I later asked him how he did that and he told me that in strong currents, you can usually find a space in the current. I spent the rest of the year trying out that theory. Once at Darwin, I think I understood.
NUMBER 4 – SNORKELING WITH HAMMERHEADS:
July: Diving had been great even though visibility was poor. I couldn’t really count, but had seen at least 50 hammerheads at Mosqueras…one, a group of what my buddy later said was 35, we saw from 3 different angles and never very far away. Who cares about viz when you have 35 hammerheads in clear sight? I’ve developed the habit of often being the last to ascend in the event I need to be of assistance to any divers still in the water. On this day, I was alone out in the water rather than hanging onto the boat rope when the sailor yells to me that there are fins circling me everywhere. I assumed he was trying to scare me, so yelled, “Cool! Where? I want to see.”
Once I’m out of gear and up in the boat, I realized he was not kidding. There are fins everywhere! Without hesitation or thought, I grabbed a snorkel and jumped immediately back in the water. I could lift my head and still see fins everywhere, but was having no luck seeing them through my mask with my face in the water. It took nearly 15 minutes before I had a hammerhead pass me within 6 or 8 feet. By then, 4 of us were snorkeling, not just me.
The thing about this is that, all my life, I felt like prey at the surface. I have never liked swimming in the ocean, only diving. When I’m diving, I feel a part of the environment and always thought man had not been in that environment long enough for marine animals to develop any particular reaction to man beyond the natural reaction of ‘That’s bigger than me.’ I never felt I was a threat nor was threatened when diving, but some primal fear of swimming kept me out of the water. So that the day came when I jumped into a sea full of fins without any trace of fear, I knew I was different. And there just aren’t enough moments in life that so clearly let you know you’ve changed. It was certainly one.
NUMBER 3 – GALAPAGOS SHARKS AT WOLF:
Unlike the central islands where the Galapagos Sharks seem to avoid man when possible, the Galapagos Sharks at Wolf aren’t in the least bit intimidated. And they are so much bigger than the ones further south! I love having one of these 10+ foot creatures come a few feet away. I’m not sure why there’s such a difference between the Galapagos Sharks at Wolf and the ones in the central islands unless it’s A) Safety in numbers as they seem to always be in groups at Wolf and solo in the central islands. B) They are larger. C) Divers aren’t fishermen so there’s no conditioned response that equals threat.
And while it may only be my imagination, they seem to have a personality I’ve never seen in hammerheads or whale sharks or white-tipped reef sharks or black tips or silkies. It’s like they seem smart, determined and you know what they could do but you also trust they won’t. Perhaps that’s mutual respect. Whatever it is, hammerheads remain at the top of my shark loves, but the Galapagos Sharks at Wolf are a close second.
NUMBER 2 – SNORKELING WITH MANTAS:
So what it’s not diving? We snorkeled with 10 giant mantas for 30 minutes. This was a magical day! I once told my old boss we should develop a trip called ‘the manta hunt’. Every time I went to one of my favorite places in the Galapagos, Los Tuneles, we spotted mantas just before arriving. Once again, going independent means you can do whatever you want. The way I see it is that if I want to do it, my guests are going to enjoy it, too. No, that’s not about profit margin. That’s about wanting to share what I love.
So on my first independent trip, I asked everyone to get into their wetsuits, have fins and mask nearby and be ready to get in the water as soon as we sighted the mantas. I knew from before that if you waited until you spotted a manta to get suited up, you missed the moment. Sure enough, we spot mantas. Boat stops and we slip in.
It wasn’t just a manta, it was 9 males chasing one poor female and providing us with a spectacular show in the process. For 30 minutes we watched their circling figure eights, sometimes arching your back up out of the sea to avoid them using you as a parasite rub and other times unable to avoid being clipped by their wings. Yes, they were that close! It was astounding to watch this convoy…this conga line…this row of mantas one after another after another after another just passing right before your very eyes. For 30 minutes! This was not a “Wow what a cool sighting just passed us,” this was a sighting that just didn’t go away. We finally left them, still pursuing the now wounded female.
See a short clip of that day.
PS…just before we mingled with the mantas, we had watched several turtles waiting their turn for a mounted female who got away before that could happen…I don’t think I’ve ever been to this particular site without seeing turtles mate and once saw eagle rays mating, but this was a first with the mantas.
NUMBER 1 – HUNDREDS OF HAMMERHEADS:
Swimming into a bank of hundreds of hammerheads at Darwin. This had been the moment I had waited for. I know, I know that for everyone else, it’s all about the whale sharks. Me? I had waited to see a wall, a cloud, a bank…a whatever you want to call it… of hammerheads. They were in front of me, behind me, above me, below me and on both sides. I was in the middle of hundreds of these ancient prehistoric oddities so alien, so beautiful, so strange and alluring. I did not want it to end. I stopped swimming…just hung there, still, watching and almost crying from the awe of the experience. All too many things in life are better afterwards than in the moment. Not this experience. It needed no time to ripen. I wish I had the words, but there are some things that words cannot possibly do justice to…only feeling can.
If I were given 3 wishes to use on anything, but only 3 to use for my entire life, I might very well would have used 1 to have this experience.
As usual, no camera (only way to guarantee great sightings), but here’s a little clip from my little camera that gives you a hint of what it was like.
–Playing with a wall of more than one million black-striped salemas…a wall so thick, it seemed like you entered a cave. And I find it amazing to be enveloped by thousands upon thousands of fish and yet, no matter what your movement, they never touch you. People can’t avoid touching other people in such crowds. I don’t understand how fish can…but they do. (see photo below)
–Snorkeling or diving with juvenile sea lions at Los Tuneles, Plazas, Champion, Mosqueras. They are such ridiculously fluid acrobats under the water. The juveniles love to play with you. If you roll, they roll. If you dive, they dive. They’re like puppies who can’t get enough. (see photo below)
–Red Lipped Batfish at Punto Cormorant. So many you begin to think, “Okay, what else is here, I’ve seen enough.” Nothing quite like laying in the sand face to face with one of these bizarre fish inches away. (see photo below)
–On a live-aboard, I was lamenting the fact that I wished I could just jump in the water to get out of my wetsuit, rather than rushing downstairs in full wetsuit to my cabin for the bathroom after a dive. Those of you who dive in 7mm understand full well the amount of work that entails. In a playful moment, the Dive Guide (friend) pushed me in the water to make his point about how strong currents are at Darwin. It was all I could do to hold onto a rope he also kindly tossed before having to be dragged back up onto the dive deck. Humility needed achieved.
–Though very un-PC and something I neither do nor advocate, a DM placed a sea cucumber on my hand to show me how all the tiny little tentacles on the bottom will stick to your hand. That they looked so creepy (in the context of feel) but felt silky smooth, perhaps like the inside of your cheek, was a big surprise. (see photo below)
–Attempting to ‘burn’ the water out of our ears. (see photo below)
–Learning from a DM I work with to always pick up anything that isn’t organic on the bottom of the sea and while Darwin would disapprove, I also enjoy righting upside down sea stars now, too.
–Listening to a ‘conversation’ between a DM and a penguin.
–Watching divers who haven’t been in the water in a long time acclimate, relax and enjoy.
–Seeing the awe in Galapagos diving through divers’ eyes who are there for the first time.
–Being face to face with mantas or having to duck for turtles who don’t seem to mind landing on your head.
–Learning how young sea urchins cover themselves with shells to keep from being eaten by sea stars, and then watching them do it.
–Seeing a young leather bass taking cover in a sea urchin.
–The hobbit-like structure of coral in shoals at Wolf.
–Anytime I get to fly over shoals, by a wall, etc. I love a good ride.
–Last, like dessert, many of the incredible people I was privileged to share the diving with, both Dive Guides and divers. I never knew I could enjoy traveling with strangers as much as I have this year. I learned so much and laughed so much and loved, loved, loved the diving we experienced together. I don’t know if divers, in general, are just my tribe or if Dive The Galapagos just attracts a certain ilk of ‘buena gente’, but whatever it is, it sure was good. I cannot thank you enough. (see photos below)
And below are a few random photos:
Here’s wishing everyone an amazing new year. This year, I dream of zero shark finning on the planet!