co-written by dive buddy banggigay
The Pre-trip Drama
And so The Big Day arrived, June 14, 2012. We were to meet the Aggressor representative at the cafe of Casablanca, opposite the pier. Excitedly we hauled both our asses to the San Cristobal malecon promptly at 1:30pm. The cafe is closed. No Aggressor representative. Hmmm.
I looked at my watch for the hundredth time in 5 minutes. I realized this is South America but surely there should be other divers?
When Vangie arrived 2 days before, she met a couple from Spain at the airport who were to be on the Aggressor with us, who were staying in Casablanca but right now, are nowhere to be found. Vangie went to the pier to ask around while I tried calling Leslie. The number you dialed is not valid, it says in Spanish. Wtf??
As my heart threatened to jump off my chest, I took a deep breath and scanned my brain recalling my relationship with Leslie. I found her on scubaboard.com on Galapagos Diving and have seen her post on the forum recently. We were communicating since 2010 and had about 20 email exchanges. I occasionally receive Galapagos promotions from her. Surely she can’t be a scammer?
Could this be a long con? It involves about USD 9,000 and what do I know about her? She has a website, a bank account, a paypal account, no physical address, a phone number that doesn’t work, and who coincidentally not in Ecuador when I was. And what about the couple, were they planted? I wanted to ask Vangie if she talked to them first of they talked to her first. If this is a con, I’d feel really stupid because I insisted on booking with Leslie. There is an Aggressor agent in Manila, though hardly a friend, but whom Vangie knows personally. And I’d be so guilty dragging her into it.
I’ve always been thankful that in over one year of traveling, nothing valuable has been lost or stolen. And the only time I was scammed was by the tram controller in Budapest for 20 euros. Could this be my episode of “Holiday from Hell”?
Oh yes, I can be a tad dramatic. But at the speed of thought, these only went on for about 10 seconds. And then of course we found the Aggressor representative Nelson, who will be the boat manager and our dive master. And we will become really good friends with the Spanish couple, Marina & Edu.
If you rather skip the drama, which I totally get, head directly to the dive highlights, follow this link –> http://youtu.be/eyaY0zCRNgk
The Galapagos Dives with Aggressor
The dream dive trip is 8 days but we only have 5 days of 3 dives per day. It’s rather few considering the price tag of the trip. We were told that it was determined by the park authorities and not by Aggressor. We tried to negotiate for more dives but to no avail.
Officially there’s no dive on the first day but we geared up to do a check dive to test the gear and figure the weights to be used. Except for my mask, we rented everything from the boat. With 7mm wetsuit, I needed a hefty 10 kg (22 lbs) of weights! Vangie had 12 kg (26.5 lbs). The number sounded crazy because we’re used to warm water diving, ergo diving only with rash guard and board shorts, and so usually carry only 3 kg (6.6 lbs). The rentals on Aggressor were very good. They’re quite new and no leaky hoses. Except for the booties they gave me that should have been thrown out 5 years ago.
The next day marks our official first day of diving. We did Punta Carreon, twice, and Cousins Rock. The first 2 dives were very disappointing where the most exciting things we saw was an eagle ray and a solitary colorless soft coral. Are you serious? I saw 2 eagle rays and 5 turtles snorkeling at Isabela. We were so pissed that Vangie and I surfaced after 30 minutes on the 2nd dive. There’s no point in taking in more Nitrogen. The 3 girls from Thailand surfaced almost the same time. We looked at each other incredulously. Wtf? This is the Galapagos?
Incidentally, the diving setup is new to us (me and Vangie). There will be briefing before the dives. We will have a dive master leading the dives. We all descend at the same time but we don’t surface all together. Depending on your air consumption and/or desire, you surface with your buddy. You don’t even need to inform the guide. In the Philippines, everyone surface altogether. And dive guides usually act as sort of a dive nanny. Each diver were provided with a horn, a dive flag and a GPS locator. It was impressive yet scary to think that we may need to be searched with a GPS device.
The 3rd dive at Cousins Rock was better. A school of eagle rays greeted us at the beginning of the dive. There were farm loads of green sea turtles, a big marble ray and a white tip shark. Better, but still not the Galapagos we knocked out our life savings for. Where the hell are the schools of hammer heads?
The good thing that came out of this silly first day dives is that it quickly bonded us with the 3 Thai girls (Apple, Bee, & Kru Eh). As a joke, we were being snotty that being used to diving the Coral Triangle, we’re a little harder to please. I call it one dive, Apple declared superiorly. We laughed.
The next day we woke up to the view of Wolf. Nelson did the briefing and gave us an exciting Chinese seafood restaurant menu worth of things we will encounter under. Schools of Hammerheads? Of course. Whale sharks? Well… he wasn’t as confident. 0.01% he said.
We back rolled into choppy water and then down. True enough the hammerheads were everywhere! to your left, to your right, up, and down. Vangie and I couldn’t stop pointing things to each other and screaming to our regulator. Then about 5 minutes into the water, Nelson banged his tank excitedly. The water was quite murky so you don’t see anything but I had a good hunch on what it must be. And so I finned. Hard! And so did everyone else. The current and surge there made finning so difficult. Having no point of reference with the murky water, it felt like I’m going nowhere. And then a huge dark shadow appeared, like dark clouds before a storm. Unbelievable, the 0.01% chance just happened. A whale shark!
When we surfaced, we called it a definite dive!
We did all 3 dives in Wolf. We didn’t see the whale shark again but the rest of the underwater characters where present: rays, hammerheads and other sharks, turtles, and the much disliked creole fish.
The dolphins were all over us on the boat and so we jumped into the water after the third dive to go snorkeling with them. Just as we were coming out of the water, somebody shouted, rays! rays! So we dunked in again. I dropped my snorkel in the process so I went in without one. It doesn’t matter as I think I’m better off without it. And there the graceful school of eagle rays waltzing at 3 meters. That concluded our amazing day at Wolf.
I was almost ready to say ‘great!’ after the DM briefing, when he mentioned Darwin has warmer water. But he did not forget to mention that expect about 3-4 knots of current. I was converting in my head, knots to km/h, when I decided that these numbers won’t make sense to me so I might as well ask how it is relative to our previous dives in Wolf. He was quick to reply ‘just about that’. So, ok! It’s rock n’ roll time again! Not that we are intimidated with the very strong current, in fact we get more excited about the dives cause it’s like saying 99% chance of diving with schooling hammerheads. But of course, I need to psyche in my head how we’d go about with our dive plan.
Giddy to jump to what was dubbed as world’s capital of scalloped hammerheads, for the first time, I already prepared and cleaned my UW cam casing the night before the dive. But irony of all ironies, only 5minutes into the dive, my case got flooded with sea water. And since we did a negative entry, we went straight to 20m and going back to surface to attempt salvaging the cam would be futile. Afterall, come on?! It’s my first dive to this hard-to-reach island, Darwin! So, I went on to the dive with my group without worry of how my cam was faring.
True enough, Darwin’s current is not a joke. We had to fight our way to hide behind a huge coral stone so as not to be swept away. There were even times where we have to crawl to a spot where our DM thinks huge sharks school. On most times, I had to either adjust my mask cuz its sucking my face already or I had to snag it cuz it would be blown away. I even had to put on more weights too (read: i was 2kg overweight), so I can somehow control more my buoyancy and won’t find myself back to the surface because of the crazy current direction.
BUT, all these were nothing, as we were rewarded each time with huge hammerheads, Galapagos sharks, white tip, black tip, and even silk sharks! There was one sweet spot I have to say the best we had! It’s like sitting at the front row of a no-less than awesome Pelagic show. We were too close to hammies we can see the 3 lobes on its head!!! They’re so used to divers they would approach you and become almost face-to-face with you. I don’t know how many times I startled when huge ones came too close then hastily turned away as they noticed our bubbles. Smaller ones come in huge schools and bigger ones come in small groups. They were so many we lost count already!
At one point, I had to turn my back from the spectacle of what indeed rich marine life, because I was soooo excited, screaming here and there with my regulator on my mouth, callin the attention to my buddy or I realized I was already palpitating. I was breathing too hard, enthused of the teeming marine life around me, that I had to close my eyes and relax myself a bit. Otherwise, I’d run out of air quicker especially we’re either staying at the bottom most of time or fining against the strong current which made us exert more effort and thus breathe more.
On the lee side of the current we found rest at the sandy bottom part where the red-lipped batfish and garden eels can be found. It’s entertaining to see the synchronized motion of these garden eel as it pokes out from the sand and buries itself again into the sand. Red-lipped batfish was also interesting how odd it looks for a fish and how peculiar it moves too.
Each dive was like a dream! It’s more than what I imagined Galapagos to be. All those superlatives I read about how fantastic Galapagos is were not enough to describe the experience!
Roca Redonda & Punta Vicente Roca
You see, after diving Wolf and Darwin, our boat think it would be difficult to please us even more. Those two islands were so amazing we actually thought of requesting the Boat Manager, N, to stay longer and skip the other dive sites. But of course, it’s not possible given the restrictions set by the National Park of Galapagos and the flexibility of the program set by Aggressor.
Dreading the colder water of Isabela, ranging from 19-21C, put on another 3mm vest underneath my 7mm wetsuit. Even those who were used to cold water diving, like our other dive buddies, they added thickness to keep them a little warmer especially with the Humboldt (or Cromwell?) current prevailing at west coast of the island.
Funny how our dive plan went, when someone asked for probability of seeing a Sunfish (as this site was known for some Ocean Sunfish sighting), DM was quick to reply that there was a very slim chance but he will do his best to bring us to the right spot. He also added, for the past 2 expeditions of the Aggressors, there was no recorded sighting of the atypical fish. He can though promise 100% sighting of schools of hammerheads again, barracudas and some beautiful macro surprises.
For the past 5 days, we can only complain of one thing – gearing up! The 1st dive early in the morning is particularly bad having to go through the ordeal of donning the thick wetsuits first thing in the morning. And it didn’t help that I have to move quicker (than usual) because everyone else was always ready way before me. Even during synchronized backroll, you have to go straight to the bottom or you’d be left behind by your group as the strong current can sweep you away in matter of seconds. I’m pleased though that I had no problem in this department, as we are used to negative entry already.
I have underestimated though the current around this island as I found ourselves caught several times into eddies, down current and huge surge. My buddy and I had to grab each other’s hand at one point to flight against the down current that was sucking us to greater depths. We were diving on EAN and going beyond your depth limit is a BIG no-no! But water can play tricks with your senses, especially when there are beautiful, colorful and bountiful things around you. Sometimes, you won’t realize you were already -40m (sometimes more!). So presence of mind was imperative! If it’s any consolation though, my buddy and I have been diving for ages that we know our diving profile already. We can almost estimate how much air still left in our tank, how long it can still last, etc. And even to other dive buddies in the group, with dive logs doubling or even tripling our total, our confidence with each other’s level of diving was somehow understood.
Roca Redonda & Punta Vicente Roca were our last dives of the trip. It offered us a different beautiful landscape underneath. The walls are covered with Galapagos black coral, Gorgonians, Orange Cup Coral and varying colors of tube anemone. It has astounding rock formation seemingly creating cascades going to the depths.
Sea horses, schooling Creole fish (no, university of it!), Harlequin Wrasse, King Angelfish rendering its cleaning service to Hammerhead, and huge Zebra Moray eels are just the few attraction of these sites.
As we inch our last minutes of our final dives we enjoyed playing with the warm bubbles from volcanic vents underwater on one part of the dive. I moved my face closer to the source and let the warm bubbles tickle my already cold face.
We have started our slow ascent when we were graced with wall of Pelican Barracuda. It’s so many I attempted to swim along side with it!
Then as if what we saw are not enough, our DM gave us the signal to follow him to a direction not far from us! Lo and behold!!! It’s a huge Ocean Sunfish!!! It’s crazy how close we were and how it even got closer to us. Unmindful of the divers around it, it stayed for a bit, showing off its huge flat body whilst its mouth remained open like it was so ready to have its photo/ vid taken by the ogling divers! I was so ecstatic as I actually didn’t expect to see it in this trip, and so much so to be that close!
I was still reeling the feeling while doing our safety stop at 4m when a cute penguin came playing by! This is what we love about Galapagos too, even on shallow waters, sea lions, dolphins (that come in group) accompany us as we conclude our dives. How bout that for a safety stop, yeah? :D
Aggressor II – the boat
We were impressed of the interiors of this 100 ft long fleet with 4 decks to address every need of discerning passenger. Our Deluxe State Room at the Lower Deck, equipped with flat screen, headboard light and safety vault was well maintained, efficiently designed and cleaned by the Crew everyday. At the Main Deck, houses the main Salon and the Dining Area where we spend most of our time mingling with other divers (whom eventually we became friends with), whilst we share varied, sumptuous and delectable dining experience. The Dive Deck also at the Main Deck, where all modern, well maintained and new dive equipment & gears were kept and organized and even numbered for each diver’s safe keeping of personal gears et. al. mask, gloves.
The sun deck remains my favorite part though. It gives me time to chill and recollect the past dives I just had while sun basking and sharing a drink with a fellow diver or two. Sunsets over the deck are gorgeous! In the afternoon where breeze is at its best, it’s the best place to take nap between dives too!
Crew is very helpful, attentive and respectful of us. I particularly like a crew who willingly and cheerfully does everything to help the divers. From the dining area, to hopping on the dingy to cleaning our rooms, he does things like he was tailor-made to do it.
It’s not a cheapest fleet among the liveaboard dive yachts in Galapagos, but we are pleased of its quality service and sophisticated built.
Diving Galapagos can be done land-based or liveaboard. We did both. But doing it liveaboard is the best way to really explore the islands and the only way to reach our favorite spots – Darwin & Wolf. We took the trip at the beginning of the peak season and thus price comes in premium. And because of Galapagos National Park’s objective to limit tourists ruining the beauty of the islands, they restricted direct flights that land in Galapagos – thus again, giving us a limited choice for fleets, flight schedules and not to mention prices. So my advise is to search deals with cheap flights to US online before booking for the date for the live-aboard.
It sure made a dent in our savings but every cent we shelled out for this trip is worth it! Underwater we were presented with amazing and teeming marine life – both pelagic and macro, and on the surface rugged yet awesome beauty of the island landscape and creatures only found in the Galapagos! It’s difficult to imagine not doing it the way we did. Away from cares of our day to day grind, from the polluted city life, right there at the far flung part of the Pacific, we are fortunate to have such incredible experience in Galapagos! Again I was reminded of how small I am and how vast the beauty is around me!
It’s been almost a month since we did that one great dive trip, but the novelty has not faded. I am still thrilled (and sometimes having those little chuckles) everytime I talk about it to family and friends.
Galapagos, no wonder, is every diver’s dream!
Watch this video where a lifetime of dive compressed into a week! Or in this case, into 5minute video =)