Galapagos Islands Report
Adventure Diving Aboard M/V Sky Dancer
Copyright Ken Knezick - Island Dreams
Diving and Exploring the Galapagos Islands

Island Dreams' Ken Knezick has just returned from a tour aboard Peter Hughes' new Motor Yacht (M/Y) Sky Dancer live-aboard dive boat, plying the rich waters of the remote and unique Galapagos Islands. Ken's report details the experience of land touring and scuba diving these islands made famous by Charles Darwin. His report will endeavor to offer tips on how to maximize your own Galapagos adventure. But before you read on, perhaps you should take "Ken's Galapagos Diver Qualification Test." Don't worry, it won't long…there's only one question, and the answers are multiple choice:

If your response included incredulity, or a creative string of expletives, then you probably need read no further. But if your answer reflects sincere enthusiasm and the desire to learn more, then you are as crazy as I am, and by all means I encourage you to read on. The following story is not sugarcoated. I shall endeavor to explore both the assets and liabilities of the Galapagos experience. Enjoy, Ken Knezick

Getting There - It had been years since I'd last had the pleasure of visiting the Galapagos Islands. While aspects of this remote and enigmatic land remain timeless, the process of getting there has changed for the better. On my previous visit, access was via a South American carrier such as SAETA, with an obligatory transit via Miami. Today, American Airlines provides efficient service via Miami, and Continental Airlines offers daily direct service from Houston. The inbound cities are Quito, the capitol city in the north, or Guayaquil, a port city on Ecuador's Pacific coast. It's a 4-˝ hour flight just to Quito, and an additional hour on to Guayaquil, so if you have a chance to cash in some frequent flier miles for an upgrade, this might be a fine time to do it. If not, bring a good book, plan on taking a nap…and perhaps pack a lunch as well.

Quito or Guayaquil - In times past, seafaring Guayaquil was considered too tough a town for tourism, and Galapagos visitors were encouraged to make Quito their inbound city. The dawn of the 21st century finds economic woes in Ecuador sufficient to cause occasional political strife in Quito. This time around, we were advised that Guayaquil was the safer alternative. No worries though, it's just a simple, and safe, overnight. In my case, following Customs and Immigration, it was a quick shuttle ride from the Guayaquil airport to the 5-star Hilton Colon for a comfortable room, and a short night's rest. Arrange an early wake-up call next morning, a you are asked to be at the airport by 6:30 a.m. The flight departs Guayaquil at 8:30 a.m., for San Cristobal, the island with an airport in the Southeastern portion of the Galapagos Islands chain. In an old but serviceable 727-100 flight duration is approximately 1-˝ hours. Keep in mind that overhead stowage in this aircraft is minimal to non-existent. If they won't fit under your seat, expect to have your larger carry-on bags removed from you for gate-check. Pack your valuables and delicate equipment accordingly.

Arrival in Galapagos - Galapagos National Park was founded only in 1959, following more than a century of unchecked exploitation. Fortunately, Ecuador finally is becoming fully aware of the tourism value of this truly natural resource. On arrival in San Cristobal, a $100 USD per visitor park fee is costly acknowledgment that you are on the verge of entering a very special place. Some vessels bill their guests in advance for this fee, while others expect you to pay it upon arrival in cash. In any event, know the score and be prepared. With 65,000 tourist arrivals recorded in year 2000, we can all hope that the substantial funds thus generated are used to preserve and protect this remarkable and fragile environment.

The Galapagos Islands - If you can find the time prior to your visit, familiarize yourself with Charles Darwin's "The Origin of the Species." This 19th century chronicle of Darwin's seminal and enlightening voyage from England to the Pacific Coast of South American will open your eyes to the exceptional experience ahead. Darwin's realization was that the Galapagos Islands, born of volcanic activity between 700,000 and six million years old, are so distant from the Continent of South America that their flora and fauna had evolved with minimal genetic input from the mainland. While it was years following the voyage before Darwin published his then-radical concepts, it was his explorations of the Galapagos Islands that enabled him to theorize that this isolated locale represented a unique and solitary cauldron of raw evolution.

Adventurers of All Ages - Today, eco-tourism has certainly gone mainstream, and with more than 75 tourist cruise boats currently in service, Galapagos is at the forefront of the curve. As you stand in the arrival line at San Cristobal, it's enlightening to have a look around at your fellow travelers. You'll find yourself in the company of everyone from wide-eyed elementary school kids, to seemingly blasé teens in cool shades, to extremely well equipped "Golden-Agers" who look like they could out-hike you on a 20-mile trek. An astute ear will pick up languages from around the world. Converging from all corners of the globe, most of these tourists are here to join one of the more conventional cruise boats for a week or ten days of shore excursions, birding, and other wildlife encounters. It's only people like us, the "lunatic fringe of tourism," who come to the Galapagos specifically to go scuba diving.

Introducing M/Y Sky Dancer - Built from the keel up especially for this duty, Peter Hughes' new Sky Dancer began serving guests in June 2001. At 110 feet long, with four decks, she accommodates a maximum of 16 divers in double occupancy cabins featuring ensuite facilities and individual air-conditioning controls. The comfortable dining area and salon are sumptuously decorated in teakwood. Breakfast and lunch are offered buffet style, while the evening meals, accompanied by nice Chilean wines, are prepared to order and served to your table. The salon includes a fully stocked bar and alcoholic beverages are complimentary once the diving day is done. Served by a crew of eight, plus two dive guides, guests are afforded a high level of comfort and service. I was particularly impressed by the professionalism of Captain Raphael Albuja, as well as by the helpful demeanor he has instilled in each and every crewmember. It's one thing that these men perform their jobs very well, but for me it was the friendly, affable atmosphere that made the trip all the more enjoyable.

Galapagos Diving - There are a number of things that one may not immediately glean from the glowing advertisements encouraging you to dive the Galapagos. First and foremost of the things you should consider is that the water can be quite cold by Caribbean standards. In the Galapagos you may routinely encounter water temperature in the range of 62-78 degrees F., and that potentially even on the same dive! This calls for appreciably more neoprene than that which you may be accustomed to wearing, and a lot more lead too. To the uninitiated, it may feel cumbersome and confining; and accidentally losing your weight belt could be potentially life threatening. Another fact of life is that, while water visibility can be good, on some dive sites it may never reach more than 20-30 feet. Finally, know that certain dive sites can have absolutely ripping currents, while a handful are known for what are euphemistically called, "washing machine-like currents." All diving from Sky Dancer is done from one of two large inflatable boats. It is effectively all drift diving. While challenging for intermediate divers, and simply taken in stride by experienced, advanced divers, this is probably not the place for beginners. On the other hand, there is definitely a reward for perseverance. As one of the divers from my trip, Matt Stock, had to say after one particularly fruitful dive: "Wow! Without turning my head, I saw turtle, dolphin, hammerheads, and a whale shark!"

So What's the Attraction? - At this point, I've done what I can to sketch the potential difficulties surrounding Galapagos diving. Now it's time for a substantial dose of good news. The marine-life encounters possible in the Galapagos are virtually unequalled anywhere else in the world. It is possible to snorkel with sea lions, penguins, marine iguanas and flightless cormorants. When scuba diving, one may be surrounded by a plethora of beautiful reef fish, invertebrates, and big free swimming morays, plus huge schools of snapper, surgeon fish, Creole fish, jacks, and sennet. These are wonderful animals, found in a quantity rarely if ever found elsewhere in the world. But the fact of the matter is that this boundless swirl of pulsating life can just get in the way when it comes to viewing the big stuff! The attractions that truly make this journey worth the time, expense and substantial effort are the immense pelagic animals, including Galapagos sharks, silky sharks, hammerhead sharks, mobula rays, eagle rays, and the awesome experience of swimming with immense whale sharks.

Diving with Mr. Big - Years ago, filmmaker and supreme raconteur Stan Waterman dubbed the whale shark, Mr. Big. This nickname is well deserved, for the animals we encountered at Wolf and Darwin Islands ranged from 25 to almost 40 feet in length. The sensation of coming eye to eye with such magnificent creatures is nothing short of staggering. Of course their size is the first realization; but then as you watch them move, you begin to comprehend their equally gargantuan grace. With slow, languorous flips of their 8-10 foot high vertical tails, the whale sharks move their huge bodies through the stiff current with a seemingly indomitable force. On this trip, due to the experience and skill of Sky Dancer's Captain and dive guides, we were fortunate to enjoy many such whale shark encounters. As we hung onto the rocks, a whale shark would appear out of the gloom like an immense apparition. We'd venture out into the stiff current to meet it, exerting maximum effort to swim alongside for a minute or so, cameras clicking frantically. Then, beaten by the current, we'd stop and watch the animal's long body glide by, its huge tail stroke past us, and finally see it disappear again into the dark blue ocean. On some of the most exciting encounters, the whale shark would be preceded by an entourage of perhaps 50-100 hammerhead sharks. Then would come the stately main attraction, followed by yet another large retinue of hammerheads. For a scuba diver, swimming freely amidst such awe-inspiring wild animals affords an enlivening experience that mere words may not fully convey. Why not plan a trip and see for yourself?

Galapagos Seasonality - The Galapagos Islands experience two distinct weather seasons, with appreciable differences in climate. The warmer season runs from December through May. Both air and sea temperatures are warmer, and there is relatively little rain. If you don't like diving in cold water, this may be a better time to visit, for water temperatures will average in range of 74-78 degrees F. Consistently clear skies also make it a better time for topside touring and photography.

The alternate season is called Garua, which means light rain or mist. The Garua season runs roughly June through November. The Garua "garua" is such a fine mist, that its presence does not affect water visibility by run off. There are no rivers, springs or waterfalls bringing sediment to the ocean in the Galapagos group. However, the sky will generally be more overcast and both air and water temperatures will be cooler. In this season, divers should be prepared for water temperatures in the range of 66-74 degrees F.

Hammerhead sharks may be found throughout the Galapagos Archipelago year-round. During the warmer season, whale sharks may be found in the central and south Galapagos Islands, particularly Santa Fe Island, Enderby Island near Floreana, and Gordon Rocks near Santa Cruz Island. During Garua, the whale sharks congregate in the far northern islands of Wolf and Darwin. The chance of spotting whales, orcas and humpbacks, is better during Garua, but certainly not guaranteed. Whales can be spotted in many places: in the region between Seymour & Gordon's rocks, on the western side of the archipelago (Fernandina & Isabela), in between Marchena & the northern tip of Isabela, and in between Espanola & Floreana Islands.

Maximizing the Experience - Hopefully my attempts at description have wetted your appetite to see, and dive, the Galapagos for yourself. If so, in addition to your regular dive equipment and preparations, here are some suggestions that hopefully will add to both your comfort and enjoyment:

Nitrox Certification - Sea Dancer offers Nitrox, at $10 per tank, or unlimited Nitrox fills for $150 per week, and $200 for a 10 day cruise. If you are not yet Nitrox certified, I heartily recommend you do it for this trip. The depth of the dives is very conducive to Nitrox. The enhanced percentage of oxygen adds to your safety level, helps to alleviate fatigue, and enables you to feel warmer. So what are you waiting for?

Dive Suit - Water temperature in the Galapagos varies widely, and can routinely run in the mid-sixties Fahrenheit. Hence a serious wetsuit, or even a dry suit is in order. If you are in a wetsuit, it should be at least 5 mm. I strongly recommend that you also have a hooded vest and neoprene gloves. A simple trick that has worked well for me is to get a pair of neoprene socks to wear inside your booties. I've obtained mine from the bicycle equipment catalogs, which sell them in the Fall for Winter riding. They are inexpensive and can really add to your comfort level. In any event, come prepared for water temperatures much colder than a typical Caribbean dive trip.

Underwater Photo Gear - In the water you will find application for wide-angle and macro set-ups. If you have to choose one or the other, I'd suggest you come prepared for wide-angle, and hope to capture some of the big animal action. For that, a 20 mm or a 15 mm lens are probably your best options. The features of a housing would be very helpful, but unless you are very comfortable with it, manipulating a large system in a strong current could also become a liability. This is also a great place for video, which seems to routinely do better in the low light, limited visibility situations than does film.

On the Boat - Good live-aboard boats are proud of their air-conditioning. Well this is a GREAT boat, so plan on sweatpants and sweatshirt, at least one long-sleeved shirt, and perhaps a lightweight fleece jacket or pullover. I would always bring a pair of Chinese slippers, or something similar, to wear in the salon. Other than that clothing requirements are relatively simple - a few t-shirts and shorts, and good shoes for the shore excursions. Bring multiple, quick-drying bathing suits so you will always have a dry one.

Shore Excursions - To my taste, the land touring options of the Galapagos afford a great portion of the pleasure of the trip. Between dives, it is possible to walk among sunning sea lions, nesting blue-footed boobies, soaring frigate birds, amazing marine iguanas, and if you are lucky, even see penguins. As the animals know no fear of man, this makes for a wildlife photographer's paradise. One must literally step around the blue-footed booby birds that routinely nest on the path. With a tripod and long lens, due to the point-blank proximity of the wildlife, I sometimes had to back up to frame my shots. The light is not always bright, so some faster film may be in order. The shore is generally quite rocky, so come prepared with sturdy walking or running shoes, Tivas for "wet-landings," a hat, sun block, water bottle, and a small backpack to tote all of this stuff. As the transfer from the main vessel to shore is via inflatable boat, it would also be great to have a waterproof bag for your camera gear.

Seasickness Prevention - Anytime you are spending time on a live-aboard, or any other boat for that matter, you should do what you can to avoid the intensely uncomfortable sensations of "mal de mer." Definitely come prepared with an anti-seasickness medication, and use it before you become ill. For myself, Dramamine works just great. Bonine is even better, as it has less of a drowsiness side effect. Generally, I find that if I take one tablet a few hours before setting sail, that's usually all I need to get myself acclimatized to being back at sea. If you know you tolerate Scopalamine well, then perhaps Trans-Derm is a good option for you - but be aware that many people (20% or so) may experience major negative side-effects from it. Beyond the drugs, here are a few other factors that can also drastically affect your comfort level. Try to remain well rested, stay hydrated, avoid greasy or spicy foods, don't over-eat, and limit your alcohol consumption. If you do begin to feel sick, immediately get outside into fresh air, and try to keep your eyes on the horizon. Still feeling poorly and think you are going to be sick? Well then do it over the rail, into the sea, not in your cabin or mine, and on the downwind side of the boat, thank you very much!

The Bottom Line - M/Y Sky Dancer is an excellent dive platform, with a highly experienced and motivated crew. A Galapagos scuba diving trip is not for everyone; but divers with sufficient skill and ability can find it to be an unparallel experience in underwater excitement. Do not forego the pleasures of the shore excursions. They will afford you wildlife encounters just as interesting as those in the sea. Despite the time and effort involved, I certainly look forward to visiting the Galapagos Islands again. May you, too, have the pleasure of visiting the Galapagos, swimming with the awesome hammerheads, and coming eye to eye with "Mr. Big."

Yours in diving, Ken Knezick - Island Dreams Travel

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