How do you hide a 50-foot whale shark in the Galapagos? An up-close view of the head and mouth of a 50-foot whale shark. Kicking back on the couch in the salon of the Sky Dancer watching the movie Hunt for Red October, I had to laugh at the ironic parallel between the movie's plot and the day's events. In the movie, naval vessels play cold war hide-and-seek. An hour before the movie started, I acted out my own hide-and-go-seek game with a whale shark nearly the size of a submarine.Contrary to belief, whale sharks (rhincodon typus), as big as they are, are not the easiest animals in the ocean to find. Some divers will go to great expense and time, traveling to remote and exotic locales without ever seeing one. During late June through October, some of the planet's largest specimens, up to 50 feet in length, converge on Darwin Island in the northern Galapagos.To see one of these behemoths suddenly loom into full view seemingly from nowhere, steaming a course in your direction, is enough to make your heart leap. As quickly as they appear, they vanish into the shadowy depths. My buddy described the sensation of his first encounter, ''like being passed by a city bus that was attacked by a paint ball gun.''As the movie droned to climax and the October eluded its pursuers, I began to imagine that somewhere below there was a particular 40-foot whale shark snickering at me! Ahhggg! Glancing at my watch, it was just 20 minutes until the next dive. Perhaps the next round of the game would belong to me, Mr. Rhincodon typus. Wild & WoolyPositioned directly on the equator, 590 miles west of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands' biosphere is almost beyond description. Inside the 87,000-square-mile marine reserve, species more indigenous to cooler regions - sea lions and penguins, live virtually side by side with a host of sharks, reef fish and sea turtles commonly found in more tropical climates. Among several of its 17 primary islands and surrounding rock formations, marine iguanas, giant land tortoises and tropical sea birds capture the imagination as they stare back at visitors with complete innocence.Often, just the voyage to Wolf and Darwin Islands on the northern tip of the archipelago can be a quick reminder that this will not be a trip to Disney World. In addition to the 16- to 18-hour crossing of predominately open sea with wave heights frequently running to 6 feet, one must deal with both surge and currents during dives.In place of coral reefs, huge boulders and step-shaped ledges composed of volcanic rock follow the bottom's progression down a steep slope. Most are covered with tiny barnacles sharp enough to do a nasty job on bare skin or a wetsuit.There is also the water temperature to consider. June through October, water temperatures fall to a cool 69 to 75 degrees. But the island's big-ticket show-offs make it worthwhile - Galapagos, silky and whale sharks, schooling hammerheads, bottlenose dolphins, sea turtles, eagle rays and schools of tunas and jacks. M/V Sky Dancer When the Sky Dancer was launched, I was ecstatic to invited to tour the Galapagos again aboard the newest member of the Peter Hughes family. The boat was originally scheduled to begin operation in March of this year; however, service began in late May.One hundred feet long, the ship's architecture shows a large profile relative to its length. This proportioning provides its 16 passengers and eight-member crew with generous space compared to many other live-aboards. Eight double-occupancy guestrooms are split between the lower and upper decks. Outside, the large, semi-enclosed aft dive deck provides more than enough room for divers to suit up without bumping into one another. The deck also includes an immense, two-tiered camera table, an excellent feature. However, the size of the camera rinse tank was only enough to dunk one unit at a time.Due to the Galapagos' geography and sea conditions, diving from the ship is a rarity. Sky Dancer's two 22-foot outboard-powered inflatables take groups of eight divers plus dive guide right to sites for each of the day's three to four dives. Touring the Islands of EvolutionThe seven-day itinerary focuses on the north and central region islands, including three days in Wolf and Darwin. Special 10-day excursions also include the southern islands of Espanola and Floreana, with a loop through Santiago and Fernandina islands. Taking advantage of this extended itinerary is far more visually rewarding. Far from human habitation, thousands of sea birds, such as blue footed boobies and the giant waved albatross, go about their daily lives ignoring our presence. Visitors must step over sleeping sea lions and marine iguanas to get ashore. The opportunity to observe both marine iguanas and penguins feeding in the shallows of Fernandina is an exceptional experience, almost as good as playing hide-and-seek with a whale shark. For reservations or more information about diving the Galapagos, click on the home page below.
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