The Animals of the Galapagos – and out of air 25 metres underwater

Diving in the Galapagos with the right operator is normally a safe experience. Five Fingers island off San Cristobal with its various swirling ocean currents and deep sea drop-offs is, however, somewhat hazardous and more suited to advanced diving. Some years back a couple of divers were taken to 65 metres by down currents for a few minutes. They didn’t even realise until they looked at their computer back in their boat.  For that reason not many people dive there.

Running out of air:
Our group had three experienced guides familiar with the site and only two clients. Although I had only 8 dives, I had been convinced that we had sufficient support if the need arose. After descending to the depths of the ocean floor, it became clear that, due to my anxious state and level of experience, my oxygen consumption rate was disproportionately higher than the rest of the group. As planned I continually kept the lead guide informed of my level so I was rather surprised that we hadn’t turned around when my supply started reaching very low levels. Finally we turned around but whilst on the way back to the boat, the oxygen supply ended and we were still 25 metres underwater!  A flash of horror shuddered through my body and the full sense of my vulnerability hit me as the unpleasant possibility of death entered my mind. If I was separated from the group I wouldn’t have had time for proper decompression.  The guide quickly passed me his alternate air source and we went up slowly; all was OK. The second dive went better and we circled the island twice hugging the rocky coral face that drops down into oblivion.  The current surged us (and all the fish) back and forth several metres with every wave cycle (perhaps comparable to Gordon Rocks).

What are the Galapagos?
The Galapagos are an archipelago of volcanic islands 1000 kilometres off the coast of Ecuador and are often associated with Charles Darwin’s inspiration for the theory of evolution. Since their discovery was relatively recent, they have mostly managed to escape all three major extinction events following homo sapien global domination. Animals that flew, drifted or swam over from the continent evolved to survive here in their own natural environment bubble and were protected from human destruction and other predators by a large stretch of ocean.  As soon as these majestic islands became frequented by humans, certain species like giant tortoises started to disappear.  Unlike 99% of the world’s animals, many were not used to normal predators and especially not those of the two legged variety. To their detriment they had no time to evolve an instinctive fear of humans.  However, it seems that tourism and capitalism  have encouraged some infrastructure for their protection with various rehabilitation programs for threatened species in place. Would this place be mined for resources or (more) overfished otherwise?  (Pure speculation on my part).

This history of no natural predators allows a delightfully close viewing of the wildlife. Hundreds of sea lions lie about town in San Cristobal playfully dive bombing you whilst you snorkel; sea turtles and the only marine iguanas in existence are oblivious to your presence; penguins swim near you.   Perhaps this is what the world would have been like before the spread of humans…

TIPS: The Galapagos can be very expensive but it is possible to budget reasonably.  With care I found prices for accommodation and food to be only 50% more than mainland Ecuador.  Even the dive courses weren’t much more expensive than other areas if you go to the right place (see below for prices).  Once you start doing cruises prices head off into the stratosphere.

It’s obviously incredibly touristy but the exuberant, rich and diverse animal life is fascinating. Visitors should aim to have minimal impact with the inevitable encounters and give them the space they need. Brief descriptions of the three main islands:

Santa Cruz:

  • Good diving sites with opportunities to sea hammerhead sharks (try Gordon Rocks, North Seymour, Mosquera). Scuba Iguana were a good dive operator. I found Puerto Ayora to be the busiest and least relaxing place in the Galapagos.  Dive courses are a lot more expensive here than San Cristobal.
  • Agencies: I had good experiences with Natural Selection and Galapagos Dreams.

Santa Isabela:

  • The quietest and perhaps most beautiful place to stay with some interesting hikes.
  • Los Tuneles is a snorkelling option that involves a boat ride west along the coast from the main town. We didn’t get in due to the large surf that day. For ten minutes we were circling just outside the impact zone; not safe. They know there’s a chance that you won’t get in before you even leave but they don’t tell you. No refund. Choose a day when it’s calmer if you can. One boat overturned with tourists shortly after my time on Santa Isabela.

San Cristobal:

  • Excellent surfing (over shallow rocks!); I had a couple of incredible days at Tongo Reef and managed to rent a surf board (although there isn’t a vast selection).  It’s a 30 minute hike to get to the break and getting out over the slippery rocks is a little challenging but the rides are world class.
  • Has the most economical places for dive courses (e.g. Open Water was generally $350 for SSI or $450 Padi): I’d recommend both Planet Ocean and Blue Evolution dive companies.  I did my basic Open Water and Advanced SSI at Planet Ocean and it included a ship wreck and night dive (where I disappointingly dropped my instructor’s gopro in 120 feet deep water; not a nice feeling).  SSI is newer and cheaper than Padi but seems to be a very similar course and (I’m told) is respected globally like Padi.
  • Leon Dormido / Kicker Rock is an exceptionally impressive dive site and Five Fingers (if they’re going).  Other than that there seemed to be less options than Santa Cruz.
  • There are hundreds of sea lions right in town lying on the esplanade.  At night the sandy beach town becomes covered with them, it’s quite a spectacle.
  • Hotel San Francisco was a good budget option on the sea front in town – $15 private room with bathroom
  • If you do a cruise around the islands the west side of Santa Isabela holds some of the most remote accessible areas. There seemed to be quite a few options from the agencies in Santa Cruz, if you’re flexible with dates it is probably worth picking up a last minute deal when you get there.  Organising before even arriving in Ecuador seemed to be the most expensive option.  Expect to pay up to the $1000 or more for just a few days if you book it on the islands.


5 thoughts on “The Animals of the Galapagos – and out of air 25 metres underwater

  1. Wow, you got a lot of underwater footage. We even used the same song in our most recent videos! Glad the instructor had some extra air for you; that sounds very scary.

    • Yes it was scary especially because of the notorious nature of the currents in the area. I felt fine once under his oxygen.

    • Haha, yes I only saw your video today! I promise I didn’t copy you 🙂 Outstanding music video track isn’t it?

  2. How much was your flight out there? Did you manage to find anything reasonably economical? When we were searching last year we could only find $500 at the lowest from Quito.

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