YOUR UL­TI­MATE LIVE­ABOARD GUIDE TO GALAPAGOS

THESE EN­CHANTED ISLES GIVE UP THEIR SE­CRETS AS YOU CRISSCROSS THE EQUATOR

Scuba Diving - - Front Page - TEXT AND PHO­TOS BY BRAN­DON COLE

Thank good­ness for the lowly bar­na­cle. I’m locked in a death grip with these lit­tle glove-shred­ders, barely re­sist­ing a wicked cur­rent threat­en­ing to rip me away. My view in the “the­ater” be­low Dar­win’s Arch is one of the finest in the un­der­wa­ter world. A wall of big­eye jacks holds on the right, a cloud of steel pom­pano to the left. A green tur­tle sweeps by, list­ing to star­board and spin­ning about in the mael­strom, seem­ingly out of con­trol but cool as only an­cient rep­tiles can be. Cre­ole­fish in the mil­lions are ev­ery­where. And just be­yond the cur­tain of scales are the ham­mer­heads. In hyp­notic waves, dozens as­cend to take cen­ter stage briefly be­fore glid­ing back out of sight.

One glimpse of their alien beauty, or a sin­gle photo of that im­pos­si­ble pro­file, is enough to bring divers from across the globe. Of my 15 dive bud­dies aboard Galapagos Ag­gres­sor III, half con­fess dur­ing our wel­come din­ner to a burn­ing wish to see ham­mer­heads. Galapagos is the ul­ti­mate des­ti­na­tion for many divers, and for a good many rea­sons be­sides ham­mer time. Over a week­long cruise jammed with ad­ven­tures above and be­low, we will visit eight is­lands and cross the equator four times. Dar­win’s En­chanted Is­lands and the Ag­gres­sor crew de­liver an abun­dance of an­i­mal sight­ings, chal­leng­ing dive profiles, panga rides and land ex­cur­sions.

Our live­aboard odyssey be­gins in the Ecuado­rian ar­chi­pel­ago’s cen­tral is­lands. The oth­er­worldly vol­canic land­scape of

Bar­tolome Is­land has our vote for most post­card-per­fect panorama. Pen­guins wad­dle about at ocean’s edge next to iconic Pin­na­cle Rock; dives at Punta Martinez and Punta Car­rion along boul­dered slopes and mini walls in­tro­duce us to the lo­cal ma­rine denizens and help us get our un­der­wa­ter groove be­fore the long haul north to the promised land.

Steam­ing 125 miles overnight, we awaken at re­mote Wolf Is­land. While the crew pre­pares the dive deck and launches two in­flat­able dive ten­ders, we gather on the top deck with cups of joe to share ex­pec­ta­tions for the day ahead. Birds di­ve­bomb into heav­ing seas while head-high rollers pound the rocks to ex­plode up­ward in fu­ri­ous spume. Bot­tlenose dol­phins leap 50 yards away, which I take for a good omen.

Nel­son — cruise di­rec­tor, nat­u­ral­ist and guide — opens the brief­ing, an­nounc­ing: “Your train­ing is over. Up un­til now, the div­ing was just for prac­tice. There’s a beau­ti­ful cur­rent to­day, and we have a surge too. Wel­come to Wolf Is­land.”

This is where we gain an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for bar­na­cles. At Land­slide, we drop into fish soup at high boil. There are par­rot­fish and goat­fish, jacks and hog­fish, puffers, wrasses and cre­ole­fish. Bar­rel-chested Galapagos sharks power through the fishy clut­ter — these 10-foot­ers aren’t shy about ap­proach­ing us for a look-see. Ham­mer­heads saunter past above and be­low. Tur­tles and rays con­gest the air­ways. Viz is about 25 feet, in part due to happy plank­ton (nu­tri­ent-rich up­wellings abound in Galapagos), in part due to seething crowds of fish. The cur­rent is for­mi­da­ble; the surge above 50 feet is flip-you-up­side-down strong. With­out the hum­ble, stead­fast bar­na­cle, we would be doomed. We per­fect a “hunker and drift” tech­nique, al­ter­nat­ing be­tween rel­a­tively sta­tion­ary mo­ments grip­ping bar­na­cle-cov­ered rocks, and spir­ited, warp-speed drifts as we’re pulled in­ex­orably south­ward. It’s ex­hil­a­rat­ing and ex­haust­ing, wild and woolly. At 40 min­utes we kick out into the blue to re­lax, and stare in awe as 50 ham­mer­heads slide be­neath us.

We catch our breath at Shark Bay, where a mild cur­rent car­ries us past mounds of mush­room-shaped coral. The place is ab­so­lutely crawl­ing with

mo­ray eels, some leer­ing from shad­owy lairs, oth­ers free-swim­ming or draped across coral heads like toothy, spot­ted feather boas. More sharks, of course, and tur­tles too, but the real show­stop­pers are a hun­gry ea­gle ray snuf­fling along obliv­i­ous to us, and a school of at least 300 yel­lowfin tuna.

Though our days blend to­gether in com­fort­able rou­tine, the va­ri­ety of ex­pe­ri­ences and en­coun­ters prom­ises dis­tinct mem­o­ries. At Dar­win Is­land, there was the mad-dash sprint with the bus-size whale shark. Off Fernandina Is­land’s Cabo Dou­glas, ob­serv­ing ma­rine igua­nas feed­ing un­der­wa­ter im­mersed our buddy Celia in her own National Ge­o­graphic doc­u­men­tary. Mark from Australia was keen to pho­to­graph the red-lipped bat­fish, and suc­ceeded mas­ter­fully. Our lucky group even swam with false killer whales, and watched a sperm whale lift tail flukes high into the sky.

My buddy, Melissa, rev­eled in the stark con­trasts above the waves, writ­ing in her jour­nal about the “iron-red cliffs of Bal­tra Is­land frosted with ghostly white palo santo trees, the un­du­lat­ing black curves of by­gone lava flows alight with bril­liant, skit­ter­ing Sally Light­foot crabs.” At Is­abela Is­land’s Punta Vicente Roca, two dives in re­fresh­ing 65-de­gree wa­ter along a wall smoth­ered in or­ange sea fans and yel­low black corals re­warded us with ocean sun­fish, play­ful sea li­ons, and 6-inch-tall sea­horses. We saw four dif­fer­ent ray species (mar­ble, mob­ula, ea­gle and golden cownose) at Cousins. And in the high­lands atop Santa Cruz Is­land, we kneeled next to the fa­mous gi­ant tor­toises for which these amaz­ing is­lands are named.

Our voy­age of dis­cov­ery re­in­forced the al­lure of the Galapagos Ag­gres­sor III live­aboard life­style: Sleep soundly, eat well, ex­plore boldly, ex­pe­ri­ence fully and, of course, dive, dive, dive. Re­peat daily, re­mem­ber­ing to be­gin breath­ing each time the ma­rine (and ter­res­trial) life takes your breath away.

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