June 6-13, 2010 Galapagos Sky Charter Report from Peter A. Hughes…

Galapagos Sky Liveaboard Diving

My adventure to this incredible destination started on June 5th with an on time 4:25 pm departure from Miami International Airport (MIA) aboard American Airlines.  Check-in at Curbside at MIA was a breeze but my carefully executed plan for my 68lb dive bag (AA international baggage allowable limit is 70lbs) resulted in a US$50 overweight charge.  The approximate 4hr flight to Guayaquil (GYE), while crowded, went off without a hitch. After a couple or three of AA $7 glasses of red wine, the crowded “accommodations” aboard the Boeing 737-800 were a bit more bearable. My thoughts continually drifting ahead to the “Exceptional DivEncounters” to come…

We were met at the Guayaquil International Airport (GYE) by the Hotel Oro Verde (our hotel of first choice in Guayaquil http://www.oroverdeguayaquil.com). After a short ride, efficient and friendly check in, it was off to the bar for a night cap and then to bed in the spacious and well appointed guests rooms of this beautiful hotel.

Sunday June 6th:  A 7am wake-up call came as requested, allowing ample time for a shower and an excellent buffet breakfast in one of the several lovely hotel restaurants.  Our group met in the hotel lobby for our 9am shuttle bus back to the Guayaquil domestic terminal for our 10:45am departure to San Cristobal in the Galapagos Islands aboard Aerogal Airlines http://www.aerogal.com.ec.

When we arrived at the Guayaquil airport for our domestic flight, we were met by our Ecoventura/DivEncounters staff Mariuxi and Jorge, who directed us thru the inspection process needed for all passengers going to Galapagos.  Mariuxi and Jorge had already organized our check-in, in advance, what a pleasure. They issued us our boarding passes, and all we had to do was “breeze” through security to the boarding lounge for our on-time departure (this process is standard for all Galapagos Sky Guests).

The Aerogal flight, aboard a Boeing 737-200, met all international expectations and after a short 1.5 hour flight we landed in San Cristobal Island in Galapagos.  We proceeded thru the Galapagos National Park (GNP) check in area where our national park entrance fees had been pre-paid for us by DivEncounters/Galapagos Sky.  We were then greeted by several members of the Galapagos Sky crew who took care of retrieving our luggage and transferring it to the Yacht for all guests.

We were guided to our air-conditioned bus where we enjoyed a short 5 minute “city” tour to the waterfront where our two “pangas” (dive tenders) with their pangueros Beder and William (tender drivers) “cruised” us out to the M/V Galapagos Sky riding gently at anchor in the harbor.

Guest luggage caught up with us a short 15-20 minutes later and the rest was a blur of cabin assignments, safety briefings, safety drill, unpacking, equipment setup, lunch and then DIVE!!!

This charter’s 13 divers were soon split into 2 groups of 6 and 7 between the two pangas. They were quickly christened as the “sharks” and the “dolphins”. Our dive guides Natasha and Fabricio rotated between the two tenders with every dive so that each group had the opportunity to enjoy their company as well as their exceptional underwater adventures.  The tender departures were also rotated with every dive so that each group was able to be first on multiple DivEncounters.

Galapagos Sky pulled anchor and proceeded on a one hour ride to Isla Lobos. Here we “dove-in” on our first underwater exploration. We did a short 20 minute check out dive to insure all our equipment was functioning properly and to get our buoyancy correctly adjusted for the extra thermal protection needed for the cooler water of Galapagos. Temperature range throughout the cruise was between 20C/68F to 24.5C/76F.

During our 20 minute mission, the frisky and mischievous sea lions of Isla Lobos made the 12 feet / 4 meters to 18 feet/ 6meters dive a blast. They twisted and twirled and “dive bombed” us and made for great photo subjects. Before we knew it our dive was over leaving us “hungry” for more.

After a nice hot shower, we all enjoyed an excellent dinner served with very good bottles of red wine. Shortly after dinner we all retired early to bed, anxious to see what exceptional underwater adventures the dawn would bring.

Monday, June 7: We arrived early in the AM at North Seymour, where we prepared for our morning dose “Nitrox”.  This dive can at times be a bit challenging due to strong currents, but today the current was mild which did not provide the ideal environment for the “Usual Suspects”. With that said, our DivEncounter did include: sea lions, white tip reef sharks, mobula rays and the fly-by of two large spotted eagle rays (by wilson). Not too shabby for a “mild” dive, right???

Next on our schedule was a short sail to Baltra Island for refueling. Once our tanks were full, we preceded to Bartolome Island for a snorkel with Galapagos penguins (the second smallest penguins south of the Equator) around Pinnacle Rock (one of the most photographed scenes in Galapagos).  We then went ashore and climbed to the top of Bartolome Island for some amazing photographic opportunities and an explanation of the endemic plant and animal life by our naturalist Fabricio Carbo.

Enjoying an excursion at Bartolome

Tuesday June 8:  Overnight our captain lulled us to sleep as he navigated from Bartolome, as we awoke this fine Tuesday, we were presented the sites (sheer cliffs rising from the sea) and the sounds (thousands of sea birds) of Wolf Island where our anticipation was growing by the minute.

It was then simple: hot breakfast, dive briefing, and DIVE!!!  At Wolf Island we did 4 dives, 2 morning dives and 2 afternoon dives.  It was here that we saw our first schools of hammerhead sharks and several very large (perhaps pregnant) Galapagos sharks. Along with pelagic with sharp teeth, we also observed a variety of other pelagic species of fish such as jacks, trevally, tuna, wahoo, pacific barracuda, eagle rays, large snapper, and equally large grouper. If that wasn’t enough, the volcanic slope we were perched on was teeming with tropical fish that sadly, tend to go unnoticed due to the “big” stuff.  From time to time we had to keep our eyes on the wall as several large moray eels, when not hiding in their lairs, were fully exposed slithering along just out of reach of our fingertips.

Wednesday thru Thursday Morning June 9 and 10:  Another early morning departure from Wolf Island put us on location, on time, for our first dive at 8:30am at Darwin’s Arch, just south of Darwin Island.  We spent the day here making 4 dives –same schedule as the day before. Darwin provided the Exceptional Underwater DivEncounters that proved the highlight of the trip. As scheduled, we remained at anchor overnight in the lee of Darwin Island allowing for three additional pre-lunch dives before our scheduled 1pm departure back to Wolf Island.

Darwin’s Arch yielded water temperatures averaging 24.5C/76F, and a collection of Exceptional Underwater Adventures. It is impossible to paint the true picture for you of how extraordinary these dives were: virtually hundreds of hammerheads interspersed with very large & equally curious Galapagos sharks allowing for wonderfully “up close & personal encounters”. Out in the blue, a magnificent silky shark made a brief appearance, and then 2 black tip sharks in a bait ball followed by 2 very impressive bull sharks cruising along the bottom (apparently unaware of “everything” scampering hurriedly out of the way at their slow & majestic approach)!!!

Had we ended our trip here, it would have been an unforgettable adventure…BUT, there was more “MUCH” more…Our group of 13 divers in the span of 7 dives in one and a half days logged a total of 17 exceptional underwater encounters with the “Big Ones”, the always incredible whale shark (the biggest fish in the sea).

From the smallest animal that we encountered, at approximately 16feet/5meters to the largest at possibly 35-40feet/11-12 meters, these marine animals never fail to amaze enthrall and bring absolute joy to any diver that is fortunate enough to be graced by their presence. In the wild, in their natural environment, in their full magnificence, these gentle giants of the world’s oceans demonstrate zero fear of man-their only predator!!!

The dives at Darwin’s Arch defy description as in addition to the encounters previously described we also experienced eagle rays, pacific green turtles, two separate underwater dolphin encounters, a single giant yellow fin tuna, wahoo stalking along the upper edge of the wall as they struck at bait, schools of Pacific cervalle that darkened the sun, giant trevally, schools of small tunas & bonito, very large snappers but a surprising lack of the large grouper as seen at Wolf Island.  The tropical fish were sometimes so thickly packed they restricted one’s view of the approaching sharks.

At 12 noon sharp we departed Darwin Island for the long (approx 18 hrs) navigation back to the central island of Isabela were we did 2 pre-lunch dives.

Friday, June 11:   As beautiful as Cape Marshall in Isabela Island can be it was unfortunately, a bit anti climactic after the adrenaline pumping DivEncounters of Wolf and Darwin.  We sighted eagle rays, mobula rays, Pacific green turtle, several white tip sharks and a school of the endemic salemas.

After these dives and during lunch we sailed across the channel to Puerto Egas on Santiago Island for a land walk with our naturalist Fabricio to see the marine iguanas along with many other species of reptile, plant and bird life including the beautiful Galapagos hawk.

A relaxing evening of wine and “whale tales” of the previous days dives, made for a perfect complement to the gorgeous setting sun.

Evening Cocktail

Saturday June12:  That lovely voice singing “Mornings come, breakfast is ready” drifted as it had the previous mornings thru the intercom to alert us that another day and more Underwater Adventures were awaiting us… Gordon Rocks, a partially collapsed volcanic crater, allowed us our last 2 dives of our cruise and presented us with the coldest water we had encountered 20C/68F.

Gordon Rocks was one of the first dives I ever made in the Galapagos 12 years ago and it is a dive site that can thrill as often as it may disappoint.  The early morning with overcast sky added to the chilly atmosphere of our first dive but WOW-was it worth it!

The overcast sky quickly turned into a beautiful sunny blue and Gordon Rocks delivered: schooling hammerheads (again), white tip reef sharks, golden rays and what is always a rush, the frisky and very mischievous sea lions-what a way to close out the week!!

But wait, again, there is more….our lovely shipmate Patricia all the way from Madrid, Spain who chose to snorkel above us for the second dive was blessed with a personalized Exceptional Underwater Adventure as she was in the presence for 25+minutes personal whale shark encounter!

Yes, her 20 minutes of video confirmed her claim, so now I can only say a HUGE THANK YOU to the Galapagos Sky Crew and to my dive and cruise buddies; Patricia, Irina, Alison, Lee, Ryan, Michal, Wally, Stephane, Jose, Ronald, Daniel and Santiago, and as always…keep an ocean mind…

Peter A. Hughes

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