Downey Duck Galapagos
 

November 2007 onboard the Sky Dancer

It was our first dive at Darwin's Arch when someone spotted the silhouette of a whale shark! Everyone took off after it. Then we saw another one. Wow--two whale sharks on the same dive-how great is that! Then we saw 35 more over the next four days. This was our second trip to the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador. We thought the first trip was pretty good, but this trip was amazing!

We arrived in Quito, Ecuador late at night after a delay in Houston. Six of us gathered outside the airport after collecting our luggage and going through customs, and waited for our pre-paid transfer to our hotel. They must have decided it was past their bedtime, because they never showed, so we hired a cab for $5.00 each (including tip) and headed off for our hotel, Mansion del Angels, about hour away. The taxi driver wasn't exactly sure where it was, and the neighborhood was looking a bit shady (and not just because it was dark out), but one of our group members spotted a plaque with the hotel's name on the wall surrounding the hotel.

Mansion del Angels is a former, what else, old mansion, now a beautiful bed and breakfast boutique hotel with 10 rooms of various sizes. Each room has a private shower with hot water, television, and safe. Breakfast is included in the third floor glassed in patio and consists of a small buffet with cereal and home made breads as well as pancakes and eggs. Afternoon tea is provided around 5:30pm in the sitting area. Everything was very clean although the entire house was chilly. I don't think there were any provisions for heating the house at all, except a space heater in our room, but there were cozy comforters on all the beds and fluffy robes to use during our stay.

We spent two nights at the mansion, doing a day tour of Quito's beautiful old cathedrals, one with gold plating everywhere, visiting a Panama hat shop, driving up the mountain for a bird's eye view of the city, lunch on the edge of a howling volcanic crater which we couldn't see due to the fog, and finally visiting a small science center sitting on the actual equator, where we saw how flushing toilets were affected and how easy it was to balance an egg on a nail. A great day, although Quito's high altitude made it harder to breathe and give some altitude headaches.

Next morning we were transported back to the Quito airport where we caught a 737 to Baltra, with a short stopover in Guayaquil. There we hopped on a bus for a very short ride to the dock where sleeping sea lions greeted us and we boarded a panga for another short ride to our home for the next 10 days, the liveaboard Sky Dancer.

Since our plane had been delayed, we were told we would not be doing the mandatory check-out dive until the next day. We ate a late lunch and just as we were beginning to unpack and relax, the captain changed his mind and we scrambled to get ready to dive. Our dive lasted about hour in murky, shallow water, just long enough to get weighted properly and get out of the water before dark. It was a pain, but good to get done so it wouldn't interfere with the real diving starting the next day.

The Sky Dancer is about 120 feet long. The top deck is the sun deck with lounges and chairs-part of it is also covered. We didn't spend much time up there because there wasn't much sun, but it was a great place to dry gear at the end of the trip. The next deck down has four cabins and the Captain's quarters. The main deck contains the dive deck, galley, dining and salon areas, and small bar. The lower deck has the crew's quarters and four more cabins. There's plenty of room to spread out-on the couches, at the dining tables, or out on the dive deck.

The diving was done from two pangas stored up on the top deck and lowered each morning. We checked our Nitrox, geared up, and stepped into the pangas. The box of fins was handed down, then our cameras. The floor of the zodiac-style panga was flexible, not a one-piece rigid floor, so it was more comfortable moving through choppy seas. Everyone back-rolled into the water on the count of three, then cameras were handed over. We followed our guides during the dive, but we could lag behind to take pictures. At Wolf and Darwin we congregated on the wall, watching for hammerheads and whale sharks; if a whale shark was spotted we took off, if not, we started drifting with the current after about 20 minutes, often spotting interesting things (like more whale sharks) out in the blue. Divers surfaced as they ran out of air or time, but the maximum limit was one hour. Surfaced divers took off weight belts, handed up tanks, and hoisted themselves, or were hoisted with help back into the panga. There were no ladders.

Each diver had his spot on the dive deck. The seating area was made out of aluminum, with a plastic basket below for personal gear. It was nice because one didn't have to lift a seat lid to get at anything, and personal gear aired out better. Fins were kept in two large baskets, separated according to panga.

This was the last 10 day dive trip allowed, at least for the time being, in the Galapagos, as everything is in flux. We were told that the park service now wants to enforce rules that were always there, but never enforced.

We started off with two dives in the colder water of Cousins Rock; we saw eagle rays, sea lions, and sea horses, then did a climb up the hill to the Bartolome light house, and snorkeled with the penguins before making the 14 hour trek to Wolf Island.

At Wolf we saw dozens of hammerheads, turtles, Galapagos sharks, and dolphins that were jumping out of the water like crazy. A diver surfaced early after one dive due to a mask problem. She and the panga driver were alone in the boat when a large dolphin miscalculated and jumped into the panga, crashing into the driver from behind and sliding into the panga so its jaw got caught under the front portion of the movable floor. His thrashing also caught the diver who was screaming for help. An Aggressor panga towed them back to the Sky Dancer where the staff started unscrewing the flooring to release the dolphin. When the rest of us divers arrived back at the Sky Dancer, all crammed into the remaining panga, we saw 5 crew members hoisting the dolphin back into the water, blood everywhere. The dolphin swam away, I hope it survived. I shudder to think what could have happened if the panga had been full of divers. The driver suffered a concussion and the next dive was cancelled to repair and clean the panga. A finned shark was spotted at Wolf lying on the bottom, also upsetting. We did our only night dive at Wolf, looking specifically for red-lipped batfish, which we found by the dozens, but it sure felt cold down at a hundred feet!

Darwin's Arch is only a couple hours from Wolf; we spent four days there, seeing whale sharks on every dive but one, and lots of good hammerhead action. Several dives we saw whale sharks within a minute or two of entering the water. It was amazing how well they blended in until they were almost upon us, and then we had to kick like crazy to try and catch up. The smart people without cameras just sat and watched the show. By the end of each four-dive day, we were pretty tired, and ready for a good dinner.

The food on the Sky Dancer was pretty good. Breakfast was a small buffet of cereal, toast, juice, and fruit; pancakes, waffles, and eggs could be ordered. Lunch was also buffet-style, starting with soup, salad, and warm biscuits, then various hot dishes, ending with fresh fruit for dessert. At lunch we made our dinner choices-usually fish or meat. There were many shrimp dinners. The only meal I didn't like was the last night's lobster-for some reason it was very chewy. Of course there were delicious snacks and hot cocoa or tea between dives.

Four days of diving with 37 whale shark sightings left us content as we headed back to Wolf Island for another day of diving. A small school of eagle rays hung close by for two separate dives as we clung to the rocks in the current-an awesome sight. We also had some great hammerhead action that reminded me of Cocos Island.

We made two dives at Isabella Island after the 14 hour ride back from Wolf, where we saw manta rays, a couple of mobula rays, and a fur sea lion. This water was colder and some people decided to stop diving at this point. In the afternoon we did a very interesting 2 hour land tour on Isabella, seeing marine iguanas, sea lions, and various birds.

The last two dives of the trip were at Gordon's Rock, which was really cold. The first dive was kind of a bust because the water was murky and there was no current, but the second dive the six of us still diving stayed above 30 feet where it was warmer; we found lots of great small stuff-nudibranchs, gobies, and a nice octopus.

The last afternoon was spent at the Darwin Center visiting the land tortoises, and souvenir shopping in the town. One final night on the boat and it was back to the dock, where there was a sea lion saying good-bye, and we boarded the plane back to Quito and another night at the Mansion del Angel.

Next morning three of us headed for the Amazon Basin, taking a half hour flight from Quito to Coca, a two hour boat ride down the Napo River and finally a two hour paddle up a small creek in a dugout canoe to the Napo Wildlife Center, which sits on the edge of a small lake. NWC, owned and operated by the local community, consists of 10 luxury (for the Amazon) cabanas and a large dining area. We spent 3 days visiting parrot clay licks, watching for monkeys leaping through treetops, hunting for Caymans at night, climbing a 100' tower into the canopy, and taking part in a native cleansing ceremony, among other activities. We began our stay not sure what we were getting into, but by the time we left we could have stayed longer. Our last morning we headed back down the creek in the dugout canoes, back up the Napo River, flew back to Quito and spent one last night at Mansion del Angels before an early morning flight home to Pittsburgh.

We consider this entire trip one of the best we've ever experienced, one we'll remember forever.