Oh My God… The Galapagos Islands

Six hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador, straddling the equator, lay the Galapagos Islands Archipelago.  Thirteen major islands – one over eighty miles long and a number of much smaller ones, make up one of the most unique eco-systems in the world.  It is no wonder these islands figured prominently as Charles Darwin developed his famous “natural selection” theory.  Isolated by hundreds of miles of ocean and fed by seven different ocean currents, the Galapagos Islands are truly an evolutionary laboratory.  Below the surface are more fish than I have seen anywhere else in the world including Indonesia, and some of the land animals defy description.

As the currents bring in nutrients to drive the food chain, pelagic predators follow to complete it.  Your head needs to be on a swivel because everywhere you look you see something amazing.     Apex predators like Orcas are common along with Hammerhead, Galapagos, Silky, and White-tip sharks.  Whale sharks meander by amid schools of Hammerhead sharks while pods of dolphins cruise just below the surface.   Manta and Eagle Rays, schools of Jacks and Barracuda, the occasional Yellowfin tuna or grouper, are present on almost every dive.  Large gatherings of docile White-Tipped Reef sharks rest quietly on the sand waiting for night to turn from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde.  At the end of the day as you try and bleed off some of the adrenaline, you look back in amazement knowing that what you have just seen is a treasure unique in all the world and a true wonder of nature.

These images represent only a small sampling of what the underwater world of the Galapagos Islands hold.  It can be hard even for seasoned underwater photographers to hold it together the first time they see a Whale shark the size of a school bus swim right at you.  You’re suddenly made to feel very small and insignificant.  Autopilot kicks in as you remember what you came to do and you start shooting as fast as your strobe will recycle.  After kicking as hard as you can for as long as you can just to try and keep up, you veer away just as the tail fin gently sweeps past you.   And when you think it can’t get any better than this, you turn and see 15 or 20 Hammerhead sharks a mere 20 feet away or a pod of dolphin cruising above you.  I don’t know if it’s the adrenaline or what but the rush is addictive and you find yourself grinning from ear to ear.  You can see the same symptoms in your fellow divers as each is plucked from the choppy surface into the RIB for the ride back to the big boat.     

I spent two weeks in November of 2008 aboard the Big Blue, a live-aboard dive boat cruising the Galapagos Islands.  Six of those days were spent up at Isla Theodore Wolf and Isla Charles Darwin commonly known as Wolf and Darwin.  Ninety miles of ocean separates them from the other islands in the archipelago.  The water is noticeably warmer and it’s definitely where the action is although the southern islands hold their own surprises as well.  I will tell you that it was the most strenuous diving I’ve ever encountered.  The currents were constant and an ongoing consideration for each dive.  We also did a few land tours watching Frigate birds and Blue-Footed Boobies battle for food (actually the Boobies caught the fish and the Frigate birds would steal it from them as the Boobies returned to their nest), giant tortoises, sea lions (in and out of the water), small Galapagos penguins (in and out of the water), and the cutest two week old sea lion pups waiting on the beach for their mothers to return.  Since most of the islands are an Ecuadoran National Preserve and the animals have almost never been hunted, they have no fear of humans.  Access to the various underwater and land sites is restricted and enforced to minimize the human impact on the indigenous creatures.   

I can see why many divers rank the Galapagos Islands as the top dive destination in the world; for me it was simply the experience of a lifetime.

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