January, 2016 Trip Report – Peter Hughes
M/V Galapagos Sky – Jan. 10 – 17, 2016 – images by Philip Hamilton
“Godzilla El Niño!!” The words bring fear to our hearts and horrible memories of what I personally witnessed during one of my earliest trip to the Enchanted Islands of the Galapagos in 1998 – death wherever you looked as a result of that El Niño … so it was w/ some trepidation and maybe “fear” when I set off on my above referenced trip this year at the height of our “Godzilla El Niño!!”
I am delighted to say: My trepidations and “fears” were unfounded … while there had been reports of excessive rain fall (this IS the rainy season) all else was normal and the rains had brought obvious life (and joy) to nature’s inhabitants of the islands – greenery everywhere and the wildlife obviously enjoying the change from dry to wet season.
Sun. Jan 10 – This is the day for signing in, gearing up, safety briefings etc and then doing our usual “check out” dive at Cabo Lobo – not a great dive due to heavy north swell brought about by the changing moon that created a large ground swell and an almost zero visibility situation (10’ / 3m) but still served our purpose – to get everyone checked out for proper weighting etc due to the frequently “more than usual” thermal protection worn while diving the Galapagos.
Mon. Jan 11 – Our itinerary called for an excellent hike up Bartolomé Island to view the signature Galapagos views (and as seen in the movie Master and Commander.)
Our hike was followed by lunch and then two dives in the afternoon at Cousin Rock – viz was good (almost 60’ / 18m and water temp 72F / 20C) – lots of diversity here – deep, steep wall that just “calls out to me” every time I do the dive – I invariably freak out our Dive Guides – oh well, such is life – but highlight(s) of these two dives included White Tip Sharks, Eagle Ray, Turtles, school of Pacific Barracudas, Moray Eels out & about, Scorpion Fish, schools of Grunts, Snappers and (my favorite and a sure sign of a healthy environment) a huge school of endemic Black Stripes Salemas and of course, the ever present and persistently playful Galapagos Sea Lions!!
As soon as divers were back onboard we proceeded on our overnight journey north to Wolf Island.
Tues. Jan. 12 – Two AM dives scheduled, first at The Landslide and wow, didn’t we all quickly realize that our “Godzilla El Niño” really was having no adverse effect of the wild life – the good news was the viz was easily 100’ / 30m and temp (I was smiling ☺) a comfortable 79F / 24C – definitely warmer than usual even for this season and probably the result of El Niño – but NO ill-effect on the marine life! The current was relatively strong (always needed for the best marine life action) but easily managed by all – a huge school of Hammerhead Sharks down around 100’ / 30m where the viz remained excellent but the temp had dropped to a still warmer than normal 74F / 21C – cruising w/in the school of Hammerhead Sharks were several smaller schools of (my favorite) Galapagos Sharks – these were imbedded w/ the Hammerheads, something I had never seen before, and were a bit larger in size than the Hammerheads, w/ patience both Hammerheads & Galapagos Sharks made many passes well w/in excellent photographic reach of all w/ cameras – due to the great success of this first dive our guests requested an encore so “second verse same as the first” and the experience was repeated to the delight of all – the action continued!!
Lunch and then a “wee nap” and time for third dive – we divided into two separate groups w/ one panga (inflatable dive tender) w/ some choosing to repeat yet again The Landslide, while the rest of us elected for something different so off we went The Elephant at the Southern end of Wolf Island – viz remained excellent and water temp as before – another steep wall but this wall that was virtually “crawling w/ Moray Eels” – some in their holes as is normal but an unusually large number of them out cruising along the wall w/ us “like good dive buddies should,” only one or two Hammerhead Sharks were sighted on this dive but our highlight beyond the Moray Eels were all the truly HUGE Snapper – one in particular – that were there in impressive numbers, many grouper (soon to be 100% protected at both Wolf & Darwin Islands – end of 2016) and also a HUGE school of Oceanic Trigger Fish offered good photo ops as did the multitude of Turtles – one couple happily mating!!
This is the beginning of Turtle mating & nesting season and the Pacific Green Turtles of the Galapagos represent (thankfully) a healthy and growing population – we saw them on every dive – and we saw them mating on several other dives too!
A night dive was on the schedule but after the “action of the day” we all elected to enjoy the sunset on the Dolphin Deck and Gonzalo (Speedy Gonzalez as he has now become known) kept us well supplied w/ Gin & Tonics, Pisco Sours, Beer & Wine as per individual choice – a wise decision as the salon was deserted almost immediately after dinner was over – bed time for all!
Wed. Jan. 13 – We departed from Wolf Island in the early pre-dawn hours for Darwin Island – the farthest northern island in the Galapagos archipelago – to dive the famous Darwin’s Arch, arguably one of the world’s best dives – usually??
Unfortunately, The Arch was a little disappointing to those of us (yours truly) who have seen it really kicking @$$ and “ON” as it usually is but today it was a bit “calm!!” BUT, don’t get me wrong, by any other standard it was great diving: viz was an astounding (for Galapagos) 100+’ /35m and temp again a comfortable 80F / 24C at the surface – can you see me smiling ☺?? The current calm and that was probably the reason for the lack of the usual shark action at this so highly regarded site. The UP side was that we could swim off the wall and look back and see the entire face of the Darwin Arch drop off as I have never seen before – it was a beautiful sight and one that was jam packed w/ fish – tropicals by the thousands and cruising pelagic such as Cervalle Jacks, Black Jacks, Bluefin Trevally, Yellowfin Tuna (one very large one) to name the most obvious but it was the viz allowing for the “vista view” of the entire drop off that dropped my jaw – a few Hammerheads were spotted, a single Black Tip Reef Shark and a school of Dolphins graced us w/ their presence as they did a slow fly-by during our safety stop.
As the day drew to a close we again split into two groups and headed in different directions – Darwin’s Arch has three points of entry so some of us wanted to be sure to try all three – the hard corals, the most prominent in the Galapagos archipelago are at the north west corner of the Arch and having all been lost to an El Niño back in the early 80s have made a wonderful comeback and were thriving – the rest of us decided to dive right under the Galapagos Sky, as from the surface we could see the Silky Sharks gathering – this proved a good choice as there were at least 20 (or more) Silky Sharks hanging around under the boat!
Thurs. Jan. 14 – We did an early, pre-breakfast dive at Darwin’s Arch but due to the continuing placid conditions decided to then immediately start our long journey back south stopping of course, at Wolf Island for two dives first – by popular demand The Landslide was chosen again and again, a good choice as the action (one never tires of such action) continued – huge school of Hammerhead Sharks w/ many large Galapagos Sharks embedded w/in the schooling Hammerhead Sharks, Eagle Rays (normal sightings at Wolf Island) cruising the wall, Moray Eels again out in force along w/ the usual cast of characters we tend to ignore – Moorish Idols, Kind Angel Fish, Banner Fish, Parrot Fish, Bump Head and other Wrasse, Spanish Hogfish and the list goes on … most of the group made both dives here at The Landslide electing to ignore the several other dive site choices offered as available at Wolf Island as they were just enjoying the non-stop Shark action too much to risk anything less – a few of us did however, peel off in one of the pangas for photo ops at one of my most favorite dives anywhere – The Pinnacle, but that is another story for another time – suffice to say one of those w/me, upon surfacing said: “Maybe the best dive of my life!!” It is a challenging dive due to “washing machine” like currents and frequently down and/or up currents too!
As soon as these dives were completed and all safely back on board the long haul overnight, back south to Cabo Douglas on the north west tip of Fernandina Island – we cross the Equator a total of four times on our weekly itinerary – Cabo Douglas is where we go to see the endemic Galapagos Marine Iguanas leave the warmth of the beach and head out to sea to feed – they dive down, hold onto the volcanic rocks and eat the algae but before venturing into the usually cold water of Cabo Douglas, they sun bath on the beach to rise their body temperatures so we make the dive around noon-ish.
Fri. Jan. 15 – While waiting for the iguanas to finish w/ their sunbathing we made a dive slightly to the west of Cabo Douglas – this was on another deep, steep wall and here the water temperature should have been much colder than it was but while viz was nothing like we experienced “up north” it was not bad considering the site – maybe 40’ / 12m and certainly cooler water temp of 74F / 21C which is warmer than the norm – the dive was good giving us the Harlequin Wrasse (looks a bit like a Japanese Goi Fish,) Turtles (they nest on same beach the iguanas bask in the sun on,) Black Tip Reef Shark, Marbled Ray and most interestingly yet another huge school of endemic Black Stripped Salemas –a definite source of a healthy eco-system as so many of the other wild life depend on this herring like fish for survival – pelagic fish, sea birds (Boobies, Frigates & Pelicans etc.,) Flightless Cormorants and of course, the amazing (little) Galapagos Penguin.
Once the dive (and wait) was over we were ready for the once in a lifetime experience of seeing the famous Galapagos Marine Iguanas feeding in the natural habitat but alas, we were to be disappointed –that north swell (great for the surfers and Galapagos is on the World Surf Circuit- altho’ not where we were at the time ☺) was in full force and due to the abundance of volcanic ash that covers the bottom the viz was almost non-existent – maybe 10’ / 3m at best – and the opportunity for excellent sightings and or photo ops of the marine iguanas was just not there.
We refused to be broken and headed for another of my personal, most favorite dives – Punta Vincente Roca – a strange favorite for me as it is possibly the coldest dive on our itinerary – I have experienced a temp at depth on this dive of 58F/ 13C!!
As we sailed towards Punta Vincente Roca I could not help worry that the north swell would mess up the viz at this great site too – we arrived and even from the surface, looking at it from the deck of the Galapagos Sky, it was obvious my fears were unfounded – conditions looked ideal!!
Our dive guides briefed the group on the need for some extra thermal protection as this was our COLDEST dive but no one (except me – I only had my Scubapro 5/4mm wet suit w/me and an old Henderson, polar-tech, hooded vest) seemed the slightest bit concerned – we got ready, boarded the pangas and were on the dive site w/in only moments – back roll (as always) expecting to have to control my scream as I plunged into the frigid water – what a (pleasant) surprise – no ice bath, comfortable, looked at my Galileo and saw an astounding 80F / 24C so off we went headed immediately out to the point where we know there is cleaning station for Mola Molas (Sun Fish) but w/ the water temp where it was, I was not overly optimistic – surprise!! As we approached the point we encountered two Mola Molas in the distance but continued past them to the point dropping down to about 110’/ 33m and there we had it – an amazing five Mola Molas all being cleaned at the same time – for once all divers had apparently listened well at the briefing and all remained pressed to the wall, none venturing out for that closer, better photo op – guaranteed to chase the Mola Molas – it never fails to do so – and everyone got their eye full of Molas Molas and amazingly, the Mola Molas were still all there when we departed – viz was better than usual, close to 60’ / 18m and water temp at depth still comparatively comfortable at 72F / 20C – on the way back into the bay the current was ripping against us but w/our adrenaline pumping this was no problem for anyone – along the wall on the way back we encountered more turtles (PVR is always a good place for turtles) and the ever present and playful sea lions and again, another large school of the endemic Black Stripped Salemas!! The deep, steep wall itself is magnificent covered in beautiful black and soft corals altho’ the colors of the western Pacific are definitely missing
I make this statement w/ my hand over my heart: This was the best Mola Mola experience I have had in 16 years of diving the Galapagos and to have it in such comfortably warm water was a real bonus!!!!
The group collectively agreed we could never top that experience so traded the second dive at this site (it would have been fourth dive of the day) for a snorkel trip instead – there is only one word to describe that experience – AMAZING!! Galapagos Shark, Eagle Ray, more Turtles and again persistently playful Sea Lions, endemic Flightless Cormorants “flying” underwater feeding – they “fly” underwater at an incredible speed – passing w/in inches of you like a mini-torpedo, Galapagos Penguins feeding, another truly giant school of Salemas, Marine Iguanas at the tide line and all manner of birds such as Blue Footed Boobies, Frigate Birds, migrating Sea Gulls, Terns etc – the end to a day that started a bit disappointingly at Cabo Douglas but ended w/ such a bang at Punta Vincente Roca that was all anyone could talk about at dinner that night. We departed PVR early evening for the overnight sail to Islote Dumb off Isla Pinzon for our last dive of the trip.
Sat. Jan. 16 – Only my second dive ever at Islote Dumb (weird name, that is why we use the islands name Isla Pinzon) and it was a GREAT dive – good viz for the Central Islands (50’ / 16 m) and again, not too cold ☺ (75F / 21C) and good marine life such as +/- 5 x Red Lipped Bat Fish, 4 x Sea Horses, Tiger Tail Eels, Mobula Ray, Marbled Ray, White Tip Shark, the beautiful Harlequin Wrasse, more persistently playful Sea Lions and yet another huge school of Black Stripped Salemas – over the course of the week this too, is more Salemas than I have ever experienced before – and the topography of the wall was gorgeous – beautiful Black Corals and it was amongst this that we found two of the four Sea Horses!! Temp for safety stop was a wonderful, warm 79F / 24C.
Conclusion – We have heard much about the 2015/2016 “Godzilla El Niño” and it (or something) is definitely “screwing up” the weather here in the USA w/ this weekend being the perfect example – perhaps some unusual weather happenings in Europe and elsewhere too, I do not know but what I can say, w/ certainty, from my recent experience in the Enchanted Islands of Galapagos is this: I experienced El Niño in the Galapagos (1998) and it was devastating! This year, so far, nothing witnessed giving cause for concern – yes, a bit more rain than is normal but this is the wet season and w/ the rain comes a re-birth of life – plants, land and marine mammals – mad mating everywhere you look – you can almost “feel” the joy of life among the Galapagos’ plant & animal population. Yes, the water was a wee bit warmer (can you see me smiling again ☺?) but this is the warmer season too and the marine life, w/ the exception of Darwin’s Arch was prolific and in “full swing” – Darwin’s Arch while “ON” 80% of the time does occasionally “turn OFF” from time to time, and this can happen at any time of the year. Yes, viz was probably the best I have ever seen it – the warm season is when the sky is the bluest, the sea the calmest, the sun the hottest and the viz the best (my favorite time of year) and this year it seemed maybe a bit more so –viz etc was amazing!!
I just cannot wait for my next scheduled trip – June 12-19, 2016 for our Scubapro DEMO Week – why not give us a call and join me – we have a couple of spots still available.
No more from me for now – thanx and as always … keep an ocean mind!!