Departure: Galapagos Day 7

Sea Lion

At last, it was time to return to land. Before our final stop in the Galapagos, we would venture to see the island’s symbol of endemic and endangered species: The Galapagos Tortoise. Huge, shy creatures, they could be found throughout “farms” where they are protected from hunting and other threats.

Galapagos Tortoise

At last, with a heavy heart, and the sway of the boat still in our steps, we returned to San Cristobal, where we had embarked only a week prior.

Sea Lion

With a few hours remaining before our flights, we visited a nearby Sea Lion Refuge, full of squealing pups and protective mothers.

Sea Lion pup and mother

When we finally arrived to the airport, we learned our flights had been delayed, although no reason was given. We passed the time reminiscing of the week’s journey, almost in a state of shock that it had already ended. For a week, we had been disconnected from the world, submerged in a place where dolphin speak and waves filled the void and where hand signals convey life-saving messages. As we turned on our phones and electronic devices, connecting to the outside world for the first time since our arrival, we were greeted by news of an impending hurricane in the Northeast United States – the destination of a few of the travelers, including myself.

Yet even that news seemed to hold no meaning – it was of another place. It wasn’t until en route, shaken by the turbulence of the hurricane, that I felt the weight of the world awaiting my return.

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South of the Equator: Galapagos Day 6

Day 6: Cousin Rock

Sunrise South of the Equator

Our diving in paradise quickly came to an end, and we started the journey south. Crossing the equator, we awoke to a different world. Restful marine iguanas and alert Galapagos penguins shared the sun spread across the rocky side of the island. In the shallow waters, illuminated by the sun, we could see hundreds of sea turtles seeking that sacred warmth.

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The Dive masters recommended a heavier wetsuit – our days of tropical diving in the Galapagos were at an end. Bracing ourselves with hoods, gloves, and 7mm suits, we jumped into the icy waters.

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The world had changed. Yellow hard corals stood out amongst a desolate landscape. The colors were duller and the animals were scarcer. Clinging to an anchor, a few sea horses. ‘Hopping’ through the sand, hardly distinct in color, a batfish.

Mola mola

And then a dark shadow. Obscuring the sun rays, we looked to see the quickly retreating form of a mola mola. In this low visibility, and with its speed, I found that, unlike the whale sharks, catching up with these large, bony fish would be a waste of precious air. Fortunately, with patience, we continued to see these huge, and incredibly strange, creatures. Occasionally one would pause, turning on his side with his mouth towards the surface, in hopes of attracting fish to participate in this “cleaning station”.

Galapagos Penguin & Iguana

As we neared the island, a quick flash of movement passed us. And then another. Black and white. These little penguins were too fast to capture in camera, much less within the limits of our human vision.

Flightless Cormorant

Another flightless bird also investigated our strange group of bubble-breathing humans. The flightless cormorant, a special variety of a common marine bird which has lost its ability to fly in an attempt to venture the seas among penguins and fish.

Blue-footed booby
Although not endemic, the well-known Blue-footed Booby is another symbol of the Galapagos Islands. We found them decorating the island rocks as we took a short tour in one of the zodiacs, catching our first “top-side” glimpses of marine wildlife such as seabirds.

Mexican Horned Shark

Certainly, the loss of warm waters was made up for by the strange assortment of creatures here, many endemic to the Galapagos Islands.

Seastar

A Paradise: The Galapagos Day 5

Originally Written October 2012

Day 5: Wolf Island, Shark Cove and Landslide 

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How do you describe paradise? How can you accurately describe a fleet of eagle rays gliding in perfect formation, as schools of hammerhead sharks pass overhead and a turtle accompanies you?

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How can you begin to imagine the sensation of diving alongside a mammoth whale shark, following her into the vast blue, your air supply depleting as your tired legs and lungs gasp for air, only to find yourself surrounded by nothing more than schools of fish and pure emptiness? How do you describe such an immense amount of biodiversity filling your field of vision?

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What does it mean to playfully roll about in the surf, with Galapagos fur seals as your companions? Their large eyes holding a curiosity equal only to your own.

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Here, even the fish hold their own vanity in showing off their bright hues and fantastic displays of fins and scales. Like dancers of the sea, they are.

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The clear, blue water allowed us to see for meters in any direction, allowing us to accompany as many as 12 whale sharks on a single dive. Throughout the dives, the incessant chatter of dolphins distracted our ever-searching eyes, hopeful for the sight of any kind of macrofauna. Our search was not in vain, as we were rewarded with a show of marine life that put the most impressive aquariums and marine collections to shame. As pods of dolphins played overhead, and even below, a constant stream of hammerhead sharks could be seen in almost any direction. The friendliest Galapagos Sea Turtles also made an appearance, gently gliding alongside our cameras for some photographs before departing into the currents.

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What we saw at Wolf Island during a day of diving goes beyond any expectations, or even dreams, of what we hoped to see.

Dive Plan

Max Depth: 25 m / 80′

Dive Time: 60 min

Visibility: 8 – 12 m

Temperature: 22 – 24 C

A World Within Itself: The Galapagos Day 3, Morning

Originally written October 2012

Day 3: Wolf Island, Shark Cove

Hammerhead Sharks

“Diver’s Paradise.” “The Golden Grail of Diving.” “One of the best diving sites in the world.”

These phrases, among others, have been used to describe the underwater experience associated with Islands Wolf and Darwin.

Both sites are world renown for dense schools of Scalloped Hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini).  As you can see from the photo, these guys pose a minimum threat to humans. They tend to be shy and would often dissipate into the surrounding blue whenever we, a group of noisy bubble-makers, tried to approach.

This apparent abundance can be deceiving – these creatures are listed as endangered and are threatened by shark finning and by becoming entangled in nets meant for other fish. Fortunately, these sharks, among other species of sharks, were recently protected at the CITES conference in Bangkok this past March 2013.

Spotted Eagle Ray
Other members of the shark and ray family filled the site. Schools of Silky Sharks, Galapagos Sharks, huge stingrays, and even fleets of spotted eagle rays crossed our paths. Spotted Eagle Rays (Aerobatus narinari) can be found in the Gulf of Mexico and other tropical seas. Their dark coloring with white spots distinguish them from all other types of rays. Like other rays, they eat mostly crustaceans, shellfish, and other creatures that can be found on the sea bottom. Their strange looking snouts even help them dig in the sand in search of food!

While the undulating bodies of the hammerheads seemed graceful against the ocean blue, and the gentle ‘flying’ of the eagle rays made them appear like flocks of birds, the almost militant march of the silky sharks was both heart-stopping and intimidating. As I lay against a rocky outcrop, I watched as a formation determinedly swam in front of me, less than a meter away. Minimizing my breathing, I hid against a rock waiting for the silkies to venture closer.

Silky Sharks
I eventually did have a close encounter with Silky Sharks, needless to say I felt less brave without the ‘protection’ of my noisy scuba gear.

Dive Plan

Max Depth: 30 m / 100′

Dive Time: 50 min

Visibility: 10 – 18 m

Temperature: 22-25 C

A World Within Itself: The Galapagos Day 2

Originally Written October 2012

Day 2: Cabo Marshall, Isla Isabela

Isla Isabella

The island of Isabela lies east of San Cristobal. We journeyed overnight to the northern point, which would provide an ideal point of departure the following day for the islands of Wolf and Darwin.

After a dive briefing, we prepared for the first dive with a range of gear. Some wore 5 mil wetsuits while others donned semi-dry or even dry-suits. Nearly every diver made a final safety check on camera and video equipment, hoping the o-rings would hold. The mere review of signals for different animals we would see throughout the week left us full of excitement and eagerness to jump into the clear, blue waters.

King Angelfish

We boarded the zodiacs, small vessels that permitted the group of divers to explore the reef in two smaller groups; each led by a local guide and Divemaster.

Yellowtail Surgeonfish
Hard corals and benthic animals dominated the coral reef, providing a strong base of nutrients and habitats for a wide array of creatures. Parrotfish grazed on the corals as scorpion fish, as still as stones, sought to blend into the rocky surroundings. Schools of king angelfish (Holacanthus passer) and Yellowtail surgeonfish (Prionurus laticlavius) filled my vision.

Barracuda

As I floated weightlessly away from the coral, I found myself in a school of barracuda. Usually curious of shiny objects, such as diving gear, these barracuda seemed unperturbed by my presence.

Manta Ray

Manta Rays glided overhead, following the ocean current in search of plankton and other microscopic food items.

Octopus

A careful eye could spot an octopus hiding in the small holes of the reef, awaiting nightfall. Occasionally, we would come across a white tip reef shark (Triaenodon obesus) resting amidst the rocks and corals. Non-threatening, the shark would quickly swim away in search of a new resting spot if disturbed by the oncoming group of divers.

White-tipped Reef Shark

Sharks are an important part of the marine ecosystem in the Galapagos, and the main draw for tourists and snorkelers. As we soon discovered and Islands Wolf and Darwin, the Galapagos is abundant with schooling hammerhead sharks, silky sharks, and even whale sharks. Although it is illegal to fish them, the abundance of sharks and competitive nature of the economy has prompted illegal shark finning.

This was one of the few underlying conservation issues I discovered at nature’s paradise in the Galapagos.

Moray eel

Dive Plan

Max Depth: 20 m / 66′

Dive Time: 60 min

Visibility: 6 – 12 m

Temperature: 19 – 21 C

A World Within Itself: The Galapagos Day 1

Originally Written October 2012

Day 1: Arrival to San Cristobal

Conservemos Lo Nuestro

After a long journey from JFK in New York, to Miami, Florida, and then to Guayaquil, Ecuador – we had finally arrived to our port of departure: San Cristobal.

In total we were eleven divers of the Cousteau Divers Expedition, led by Pierre-Yves Cousteau, the youngest son of Jacques Cousteau. We would be departing for an eight-day voyage on sea to discover the wonders of the Galápagos Islands.

The first underwater encounter occurred just minutes from San Cristobal on the Isla Lobos, a popular hangout for sea lions. Although it was just a short dive to test our diving abilities, we were accompanied by an overtly friendly sea lion.

Like a pet dog, the sea lion playfully swam through our group, contorting its body in unimaginable ways and blowing bubbles at us. Another sea lion soon joined and together, humans and animals, we tumbled through the waters.

Galapagos Sea Lion

Their behavior was so canine, so domestic, it was not hard to see how sea lions share the same genetic roots as domestic canines.

Afterwards, we returned to port to explore the local shops. It was hard to tell if the town was run by people or by sea lions, as the creatures slept on benches, blocked paths, and covered the beaches. Rather than react aggressively to the curious bystander, they seemed happy to pose and show off for the cameras, although a few recently awoken sea lions seemed less than amused by “intruders”.

This brief introduction to the immense biodiversity that awaited us in the Galapagos National Park motivated our team for the upcoming journey.

San Cristobal

Gulf Diving: “The Ledge”

Originally written September 2012

Sometimes, the best things in life are right in front of you. After a summer of diving all over Florida’s coasts, I discovered a hidden gem of a dive site practically right off of the coast of my parents’ home in Palm Harbor, Florida.

Clearwater, Florida

Dive Charter: Tanks-A-Lot Dive Charters

Bent Knife - natural reef ledge out of Clearwater

Hidden an hour or two from a bustling suburban setting lies the “Bent Knife” ledge – one of the few natural reefs I have explored along the greater Tampa area coast. Halimeda algae covered the site, proving that algae can sometimes be an important substrate and habitat in marine ecosystems. Hard and soft corals grew amongst the algae, all supported by a rocky ledge stretching for a good distance. One could travel along the top of the ledge, searching amongst the Halimeda for nudibranchs and tropical fish, and then return alongside the ledge, peering into the nooks and crannies for urchins, anemones, and toadfish. A lucky diver may even find an oddly shaped frogfish or batfish on the site.

Florida Regal Sea Goddess (Hypselodoris edenticulata)

When I descended upon the ledge, I bubbled in excitement at the sight of this royal blue and gold nudibranch, known as a Florida Regal Sea Goddess (Hypselodoris edenticulata). After further exploration, it became apparent that this nudibranch was actually quite abundant on the site. I had never seen one before, so it was amazing to see so many at this site. The dive charter explained that this is a fairly new occurrence. There was a time when nudibranchs were scarce, but, fortunately, they have been making a comeback over the past few years and are now regularly found at the ledge. Perhaps, this speaks to the health of the water. Invertebrates tend to be more susceptible to changes in water quality and temperature. An improvement in such conditions could spur the abundance of delicate nudibranchs.

Anemone and sea worms

The site was also covered in anemones and small sea worms, appearing to be translucent fans. In every small hole in the side of the ledge, one could discern the tentacles of a Warty Sea Anemone (Bunodosoma cavernata). Anemones are a type of cnidarian, which makes them related to corals and jellyfish. They are generally sedentary, staying in one place and using their mouth and tentacles to capture prey and for defense.

Long spined urchin (Diadema antillarum) and Warty Sea Anemone (Bunodosoma cavernata)

Another important invertebrate abundant on the site was long-spined sea urchins (Diadema antillarum). Sea urchins are grazing herbivores that eat algae, thereby preventing it from overgrowing the reef. Their removal of algae creates a patch of space that allows corals and other benthic animals to grow and flourish. In 1983, a mass mortality event of long-spined sea urchins occurred throughout the Caribbean waters. It is believed that this massive die off resulted in algae overgrowth in the coral reefs, further exacerbating the endangered status of hard corals like Staghorn and Elkhorn. The die off was due to a water-borne pathogen, to which the long-spined urchins were extremely susceptible.

Abandoned stove

During my dives in the Keys, I hardly observed any invertebrates, which seemed an odd contrast to the abundance at this site just outside of Clearwater. Perhaps this further speaks to their fragility and susceptibility to coastal run off, human collection activity, diseases, and changes in water temperature. Whereas the dive sites in the Keys were very close to shore and frequently visited, this ledge was much further from the coast and seemed to be hidden from divers and human activities. Except for the occasional stove… which looked to be obviously dumped at the site as either trash or as a failed attempt to create artificial reef habitat as a means to attract fish that would be good for fishing.

Spotted sea hare (Aplysia dactylomela), thank you Capt. Heidi for finding this guy for me!

One of my favorite invertebrates is the sea hare. Previously, I had found a few of these strange sea slugs washed on shore, the Atlantic Sea Hare to be specific. During my second dive on the ledge, I was delighted to see a Spotted Sea Hare (Aplysia dactylomela). Although not a pelagic like the Atlantic Sea Hare, both share common features of appearing rabbit like and inking as a self-defense mechanism when startled or trying to escape a predator (or a diver carrying said Sea Hare to a location where I could then see it).

Spotted batfish (Ogcocephalus pantostictus)

Another bizarre creature happened across my path, the Spotted Batfish (Ogcocephalus pantostictus). These benthic, “legged” fish are especially adapted for life on the bottom. They are distinct from frogfish, another legged benthic fish, in that their body is laterally compressed, giving them a similar appearance and shape to rays.

Toadfish
This site, hidden off the coast of Bradenton, Florida, demonstrates the beauty that lies beneath Florida waters even north of the Keys and the need for further protection of these natural reefs.

Marine Exploration through Photography, Adventure, and Economics