Alison Goes GaGa in Galapagos!

Author: Alison Bygrave

Galapagos... the ‘ultimate’ diving destination on any diver’s wish list and for my non-diving friends the only comparison would be a trip to the moon! Galapagos has always been somewhere so special, so magical and so spectacular: a place that only a lucky few experience.

DivEncounters is the worldwide representative of the luxury live-aboard M/V Galapagos Sky (formerly the M/V Sky Dancer of the Dancer Fleet). Co-founded by Peter Hughes and Santiago Dunn, DivEncounters’ luxury live-aboard cruises visit all of the top dive sites in the Galapagos – including Wolf and Darwin Islands on every trip. Only 4 boats in Galapagos have licenses to visit Wolf and Darwin, so that is a huge plus for Galapagos Sky.

My brief was to travel out to the Galapagos and put DivEncounters mission statement to the test... ‘DivEncounters’ mission is to find the most exceptional underwater adventures on our planet – and deliver them to you in luxury style.

Well mission accomplished and did they past the test ... read on ...

Prior to leaving for this trip I can honestly say I was nervous about diving there! Yes me! I have been an active PADI instructor for the last 9 years. I have worked and dived in many places around the world and clocked up a good 3,000+ dives! Why should I feel nervous?

The Galapagos has always held a certain ethereal mystery for me. Everyone must have heard of the phenomenal diving but Galapagos is also known for strong currents and sometimes cold water, thermo clines and challenging conditions. Having spent most of my career in warm water I wondered how I would get on in these cooler conditions. I am used to very strong currents, but not when I am dressed head to foot in 7mm neoprene! After many discussions with fellow dive buddies I packed a full body lycra suit, a rash vest, a hood, 5mm gloves and a ‘Forth Element’ Proteus 7mm semi-dry suit. I hoped that this would cover all eventualities!

Like every other traveller recently I was hoping the Volcanic ash cloud was not going to cause disruption and my BA flight down to London was not going to be cancelled due to the BA strike. Neither the strike nor the volcano affected my travel plans (phew!).

I flew from Manchester down to London on Friday night and checked into my hotel ready for my 0300 wake up call! From London I flew with Iberia changing plane in Madrid. Leaving the UK at 0600 I arrived in Guayaquil, Ecuador at 1800 (total travel time including touchdowns of around 18 hours although I had been up a total time of about 23 hours).

I was met at the airport and taken by taxi for a 10 minute trip to the Hotel Continental where efficient and friendly staff gave me a welcome letter advising flight times to San Cristobal for the following morning. I headed straight to bed making use of the free WiFi but skipping the complimentary coffee, not that anything could have kept me awake!

After a very welcome sleep I enjoyed an wonderful breakfast and headed back to the airport to meet the rest of my group. I was met at the airport by Ecoventura/DivEncounter staff who had organised our check-in in advance and took care of our baggage leaving us nothing more to do than head to the departure lounge!

We took off for the Galapagos at 1045 and landed at San Cristobal. Now the real adventure was to begin! The very comfortable flight across to San Cristobal took an hour and a half. On landing we were met by members of the Galapagos Sky crew who whisked us off to the waterfront, again taking care of our luggage. My bags magically appeared in my cabin a few hours later!

On boarding the vessel I was amazed at the five star luxury that I would make my home for the next week! Nothing had been overlooked to achieve the highest passenger comfort. The vessel has eight private en-suite cabins with either two twin or one queen-sized bed. Each cabin features a private head/shower, mirrored cabinet and wardrobe, bathrobes, hairdryer, towels, dressing gowns and biodegradable, marine-safe unlimited toiletries.

The elegant M/V Galapagos Sky is fully air conditioned and features a spacious lounge area and fine dining area and boy was it fine dining! I could have been at the Ritz! The dinner was waiter served and Hugo, our friendly waiter, served up oysters, calamari, ceviche and duck with plum sauce, to name just a few of the tantalising dishes that tickled my taste buds during the voyage, not to mention the fine wine that accompanied every evening’s mouth watering three course dinner and the endless snacks that appeared from the galley in between dives. The vessel operates an open bar policy including wine, beer and liquors but of course reminds us of the danger of excessive drinking and diving. One gin and tonic while watching the sunset after a fabulous day’s diving is, for me, the perfect end to a perfect day!

Onto the diving … the most fun packed, crazy, fantastic, adrenalin-racing, heart-pumping and phenomenal diving I have ever experienced world over!

Our check dive began on Isla Lobos with a 20 minute dive to check correct weighting equipment function and thermal protection. Water temperature ranged throughout the cruise from 20C to 26C at Darwin.

To our delight, within minutes the sealions came to play! These gentle, beautiful and inquisitive creatures kept us both amazed and amused as they proudly showed off by twisting, turning and dive bombing us as if they were on a photo-shoot. They posed for everyone and gave us a glimpse of just what the Galapagos had in store for us.

Monday took us to North Seymour where nobody needed the early morning alarm call in eager anticipation for the next underwater adventure but all partook in the hot buffet breakfast, hard to resist as the smell of bacon wafts tantalizingly in to your cabin!

Sleeping White Tip Reef Sharks, Mobula Rays, more sealions and two Eagle Rays gliding through the blue were on the morning dive menu followed by snorkelling with Galapagos Penguins. And as a ‘rest’, in the afternoon we climbed to the top of beautiful Bartolome Island with our naturalist Fabricio. I learnt so much about the history and ecology of Galapagos on the land tours and with the highly informative but entertaining briefings which took place each evening on the booby deck! (The name caused much frivolity and endless jokes but, sadly, it was not named after a sunbathing mermaid but after a Blue-footed Booby, one of the Galapagos’s most famous birds.)

On Tuesday morning I awoke to the delicate sound of singing birds and sunlight beaming through the cabin window. I could see Wolf Island!

As I rolled backwards off the panga (rib boat) for our first dive my heart was beating ten to the dozen, this was it, this was Wolf Island, the much talked about dive site. My anticipation of what lay ahead caused a surge of adrenalin as I descended into the unknown. I immediately felt the beating current, almost as strong as my beating heart. I made contact with my buddy and quickly attached myself to the ledge that lay below us. I hooked onto the reef and felt like a piece of clothing hanging on a line in a force nine gale! I really hoped at this point that my reef hook was strong otherwise I would have to explain how I started the dive in Galapagos and ended in Cocos! Equipped with my EPIRB (emergency position-indicating radio beacon), provided to each guest by Galapagos Sky, I had no need to worry about anything other than looking into the blue. Suddenly I had my first glimpse of a school of Scalloped Hammerheads followed closely by countless Galapagos Sharks, Yellow-fin Tuna, jacks, trevally, wahoo, Pacific Barracuda and Eagle Rays. It was as if my clothes line was at a drive in movie!

After about 25 minutes of being hooked on the reef we let go and flew like birds into the blue. I felt as if I was wrapped in a hammerhead blanket. Which ever way I looked all I could see was hammerheads: hammerhead silhouettes, up, down, left right, above, below, as far as the eye could see it was a truly magical moment.

We packed in three more hammerhead-intoxicating dives and as the sun sank behind Wolf Island we sat on the Booby Deck in the fading light enjoying an alcoholic sun downer, reliving today’s events and wondering what could possibly be in store for tomorrow. The words ‘big’ and ‘fish’ had been mentioned but their real name (Rhincoden typus) was never spoken so as not to ‘jinx’ our chances.

On Wednesday another day of great anticipation dawned and as I looked out of my cabin window in the distance I could see Darwin’s Arch rising dramatically above the ocean in the morning light. The briefing was ‘big’ and the same as yesterday! Pulling on my 7mm wetsuit had never been so easy, it felt like butter as I was so eager to get in the water!

We dropped in onto numerous hammerheads, but they were so yesterday! It is amazing how one’s expectations change throughout the trip. I just wanted more and more and more and more is exactly what I got!! The current on this dive was much less frantic allowing us to perch unaided on the edge of the volcanic ledge that became our hideout for the next seven dives. The atmosphere between the group was charged with expectation. Hammerheads cruising past, tropical fish teeming around the ledge almost obscuring the view, shoals of trevally intercepting the sunlight as they cruised above us. At this point I was filming a bait ball overhead with my camera zoomed to the maximum to catch ever shimmer and detail of these beautiful fish, when my viewfinder suddenly showed a square-like image with a mouth the size of a BMW enveloping my screen in darkness. I knew instantly what this vision was and within seconds an 11-metre Whale Shark skimmed over my head. Being blessed with long legs, and with my Mares Quattro’s poised for action, I surged forward to try and catch up with this magnificent creature. I wanted to try and capture this truly majestic and once in a lifetime moment on camera (little did I know that another 14 encounters would be occurring over the next 6 dives!).

Rapidly depleting my air I powered against the current to come face to face (well eyeball to eyeball) with this gigantic fish. Only then was I able to take stock of its truly colossal size. At around 11 metres it was easily 5 times my own body length, the only way I could believably quantify the size of this enormous, gentle giant.

After a couple of minutes, knowing how far I had swum, and with the group fading further and further away common sense prevailed and I had to let the Whale Shark continue its journey.

As it breezed past me I caught sight of the three ridges running along each side of the animal and the skin prominently marked with a ‘checkerboard’ of pale yellow spots and stripes. The dorsal fin passed my line of sight followed by the sweeping of its tail (home to many remoras!) as it cruised on its way.

Trembling with euphoria at the encounter I had just witness I made my way back to the group whooping with delight. Nobody could speak a word. A unanimous sense of accomplishment could be felt through the water. Having returned for only a few minutes and my heart not even back to resting pace it was take two! The second whale shark blocked out the horizon and within a split second was cruising overhead making the giant trevally look like goldfish. During our day and a half at Darwin we had no less than 17 encounters with the ‘big fish’ and to add to the menu: turtles, Silky Sharks, Bull Sharks, schools of tuna, bonito, wahoos, barracuda and jacks to name just a few.

On Thursday after our third dive it was sad to say ‘goodbye’ to Darwin and began our long steam back to the central island of Isabela, arriving the following mid-morning.

We made two great dives at Isabela. At the beginning of the week these would have rated as top notch but after the previous day’s activities they seemed to have a little something missing, or rather a big something! We then made our way to Puerto Egas on Santiago Island for a land walk with our naturalist Fabricio to look at the marine iguanas, sealions and many other Galapagos endemic species of plants, reptiles and birds.

The evening drew in and back onboard we all retired to the Bobby Deck to talk about the last few days events, looking over each others photos and reminiscing about our incredible dives.

Saturday, our last diving day, was spent at Gordon Rocks. Gordon did rock and failed to disappoint with schooling hammerheads, White Tip Reef Sharks more rays and, to end the dive on a spectacular high, a last appearance from our fun loving and mischievous sealion friends, not to mention a special and private snorkelling finale with yet another whale shark for one of our lucky group members!

That afternoon we took a trip to the Charles Darwin research centre to visit, among others, Lonesome George! The only one of his species left and despite many ‘ladies’ being made available for him to provide an off spring he is still Lonesome George! It is, apparently, work in progress! I learnt these creatures are not sexually mature until the age of 50, so at 72 he is a mere spring chicken and with a life expectancy of 150 he has plenty of time!

That evening we took a panga into Puerto Ayora and enjoyed a group farewell dinner. We then set sail for San Cristobal.

Sunday morning we said our fond farewells to Galapagos Sky and her phenomenal crew and made our way back to land. With our sea legs visible we had a slightly wobbly tour around the Interpretation Centre, a fantastic and informative project making sure the Galapagos islands are kept as close to their natural habit as possible (while our guide went to the airport to check us and our baggage in - what a great service). We then took a short bus ride to town where we enjoyed a cup of Galapagos coffee before making our way to the airport. Another great flight back to Guayaquil where we said some more goodbyes to new found friends who were all now going in different directions.

The rest of us made our way back to the very elegant Hotel Oro Verde in Guayaquil for our last night. As if we hadn’t spent enough time in the water we all made our way to the jacuzzi, sauna and steam room for a relaxing afternoon before indulging in the hotels exquisite fondue dinner, a definite must if you stay here! The vast and inviting beds with their crisp, white linen were very appealing after a farewell drink-too-many in the bar with my new-found friends.

Monday’s morning light flickered through the window and with my flight not departing until 1800 I had plenty of time to enjoy a leisurely breakfast before taking a jaunt into the heart of Guayaquil to do a bit of last minute exploring in this fascinating city before leaving for the airport and my journey home from my trip of a lifetime.

Can DivEncounters find the most exceptional underwater adventures on our planet and deliver them to you in luxury style – you betcha!

Galapagos Sky (Alison Bygrave)

Into the blue! (Alison Bygrave)

Whale Shark (Alison Bygrave)

Whale Shark (Alison Bygrave)

Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks (Alison Bygrave)

Scalloped Hammerhead Shark (Alison Bygrave)

A bait ball lures in the predators (Alison Bygrave)

Millions of fish! (Alison Bygrave)

Fur Sealion (Alison Bygrave)

A Spotted Eagle Ray swoops past our girl in The Galapagos (Alison Bygrave)

Galapagos Sharks are tricky to get close to (Alison Bygrave)

Yellow Trumpet Fish (Alison Bygrave)

Whale Shark (Alison Bygrave)

Hawksbill Turtle overhead! (Alison Bygrave)

Star fish scattered on the sea bed (Alison Bygrave)

Galapagos Sealion (Alison Bygrave)

Time for sunbathing... (Alison Bygrave)

A Galapagos Sealion poses for his photo (Alison Bygrave)

Benches aren't for humans, silly! (Alison Bygrave)

Darwin's Arch (Alison Bygrave)

ALison has perfected her apres dive routine! (Alison Bygrave)

What better way to end the diving day! (Alison Bygrave)

Marine Iguanas (Alison Bygrave)

This is Ecuador... (Alison Bygrave)

Carpe diem (Alison Bygrave)

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