A return engagement to the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands has always been one of my dream dive destinations, promising mind-expanding encounters with countless hammerheads, massive mantas, curious sea lions and many more exciting creatures. But my first visit in 2009 was plagued by a host of uncontrollable mishaps — including a frightening tsunami warning that cancelled two days of diving. Sadly, the experience was ultimately unfulfilling. In fact, it was a horrible tease that I feared I might plague me forever — unless I got a rematch. A return trip shaped up in January 2012, but in light of past heartbreak, would my expectations be too high?
Moaning sea lions give a wild welcome to divers at the dock in San Cristobal, a sleepy seaside village populated by local fisherman and traveling surfers that’s one of the Galapagos’ main population centers. After a short hop over the Pacific from Guayaquil on the Ecuadorian mainland, I was collected at the airport by staff from the Darwin Buddy and delivered promptly to the state-of-the-art, diver-designed 120-foot motor yacht. The next eight days would showcase the most famous dive sites in the region, including the landmark Wolf and Darwin Islands. And I was chomping at the bit to see the best of everything. Here’s the full report.
In a harbor crowded with impressive expedition-ready vessels, the Darwin Buddy stands out from the crowd. It looks are, in a word — slick. Launched in September 2011, along with its sister ship, Wolf Buddy, the Ecuadorian-built, aluminum-hull cruiser has sleek, Euro-yacht lines and a spacious, thoughtfully designed layout. The well-organized dive decks, arranged on two levels — including one that can be enclosed for added comfort in bad weather — offer ample room for up to 18 divers to gear up safely and comfortably. There’s a super convenient head on deck, plus twin camera tables with multiple electrical outlets give photographers amole room to tinker. And six hot showers ease the après dive transition.
Inside, the salon is split between a large dinette with buffet and a lounge area with bar and couches, with cool, contemporary finishes completing the upscale ambiance. The ship’s wide 27-foot beam creates heaps of room to spread out here, especially in front of the 50-inch flat screen TV. Guest quarters are undeniably the largest live-aboard suites I’ve ever had the pleasure of sleeping in, a benefit that is especially welcomed in the head, where double sinks and a human-sized shower feel more like a proper hotel room.
Dining, which is ample and often, is a three-course mix of international and local Ecuadorian dishes, with fresh fruits and vegetables at every sitting. Warm drinks and snacks are proffered after each dive. And the self-serve coffee/espresso machine saved my mood several times a day.
Overall, the Darwin Buddy raises the bar for live-aboards serving the Galapagos, thanks to combination of smart design, top-shelf finishes and diver friendliness. For info, visit buddydive-galapagos.com.
Saturday Arrival/Check In; afternoon checkout dive at Lobos Island
Sunday 3 dives at Cape Marshall
Monday 1 morning dive at Wolf Island; 2 afternoon dives at Darwin Island
Tuesday 3 dives at Darwin Island
Wednesday 3 dives at Wolf Island
Thursday 1 morning dive at Roca Redonda; 2 afternoon dives at Punta Vicente Roca
Friday 2 morning dives at Cousin’s Rock; afternoon visit to Fausto Llerena Tortoise Breeding Center
Saturday Morning visit to San Cristobal Interpretation Center; check out/departure
Run with the same high standards as the PADI Five Star IDC Buddy Dive Resort in Bonaire, Darwin Buddy’s dive operation is well-organized and well-equipped. In my experience, the on-board certified Galapaguenan naturalists guiding every dive performed as seasoned pros and put us in the right spots to catch all the action in the safest way possible — and made it fun at the same time. Be advised, the Galapagos Islands is not the right destination for your first dive trip. Conditions demand advanced training, strong buoyancy control and experience in cold water, thick wetsuits, strong currents and blue water. This is definitely a destination to work your way up to, and well worth the effort.
Day 2: Isabella Island
Site: South Cape Marshall
Conditions: 78-degree water, 40+ foot visibility, slight southerly current
Life: Scalloped Hammerhead sharks, giant manta rays, bottlenose dolphins, white tip sharks, thick schools of black stripe salemas, plentiful jacks,
Highlights: The most exciting creatures of the region — hammers, mantas, dolphins and schooling jacks — all in one view, simply astounding. Taking a safety stop amidst a giant school of barracuda, hundreds strong. Frolicking on snorkel with acrobatic, somersaulting sea lions in a protected rock inlet.
Day 3: Morning at Wolf Island, Afternoon
Site: Shark Bay
Conditions: 80-degree water, 60-foot visibility, moderate, variable currents
Life: Ridiculous numbers of hammerheads, free-swimming moray eel, sailfish, bottlenose dolphins, Galapagos sharks, black tip sharks, green sea turtles.
Highlights: The endless stream of hammers parading past our spot on the boulder-strewn shelf; a lone sailfish striking a throbbing bait ball; dolphins looping and barrel rolling around us on the safety stop.
Afternoon at Darwin Island
Site: Darwin’s Arch, The Theater
Conditions: 80-degree water, 60+-foot visibility, strong, variable currents
Life: Giant schools of jacks, plentiful hammerheads, Galapagos sharks, seahorses, coronet fish, trumpet fish, green sea turtles, copious green moray eels
Highlights: Really getting to know the hammerheads through close inspection that allows for study of every little detail of their amazing morphology; bouncing off volcanic bounders in the strong afternoon current
Day 4: Darwin Island
Site: Darwin’s Arch, The Theater
Conditions: 80-degree water, 60+-foot visibility, moderate to strong current
Life: Heaps of hammerheads, red sea horse, loads of turtles, lobsters lurking in cracks, Galapagos sharks, schooling jacks, wahoo, yellow fin tuna
Highlights: Yellow fin tuna bolting by on the hunt; thick jack schools with mated pairs, the female turned black to signal readiness; whale shark spotted on surface interval inspires shark hunt on next dive, without luck, unfortunately.
Day 5: Wolf Island
Conditions: 80-degree water, 60-foot visibility, moderate current
Life: Eagle rays, white tip sharks, crazy number of hammerhead sharks, Galapagos sharks, silky sharks, black tip sharks
Highlights: Squadron of 12 eagle rays making lazy passes in front of our group, most times cruising motionless, as if to show off; Cortez rainbow wrasse spawning in a agitated dance like fireworks; curious silky, black tip and Galapagos sharks in the blue; dolphins playing nearby on safety stop
Day 6: Isabella Island
Morning Site: Roca Redonda
Conditions: 64-degree water, 30-foot visibility, strong current
Life: blue stripped nudibranch, octopus, schooling barracuda, hammerhead sharks and bottlenose dolphins
Highlights: swimming among furmoles, venting volcanic gasses bubbling from the sandy bottom; nearly blinding school of barracuda hanging still in the current; dolphin encounter on snorkel during surface interval
Afternoon Site: Punta Vincente Roca
Conditions: 60-degree water, 30-foot visibility, moderate current
Life: Red Lipped Batfish, bullhead sharks, nudibranch, frogfish, octopus, scorpionfish, seahorses, harlequin wrasse, triplefin blenny
Highlights: Exploring the heavily encrusted wall for macro finds; starring down the truly bizarre red lipped batfish on the sandy bottom; buzzed by flightless cormorant on its way to the bottom at 90 feet; sea lions playing in the surge on safety stop; stalking Galapagos penguins during surface interval on snorkel
Day 7: Cousins Rock
Conditions: 70-degree water, 30-foot visibility, moderate current
Life: plentiful sea lions, black coral trees, green sea turtles, scorpionfish, moray eels, hawkfish, marble rays
Highlights: Making eye contact with sea lion pup, while its mother watch from above; shadowing a massive marble ray as it cruised the bottom