January 26, 2017 – Two incredible dives with the Manta Rays…

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Today was the day I would see whether my diving skills were still keen. It had been at least eight years since I last dove, but I was pretty certain I wouldn’t have any problem remembering the basics. Jeff and I had gotten our certifications in 1971 (!) and though diving hasn’t been a regular activity for me over the years, it’s been frequent enough to have kept me reasonably current. Daniel and I had gotten an advanced certification which in Mexico back in 2003 and we dove together in Croatia off Dubrovnik. I had a quick breakfast and was off to the dive shop which was across town and about a twenty minute walk.

Our dive site on the south side of Bartolome

Our dive site on the south side of Bartolome

Spotting a sea lion

Spotting a sea lion

Check in time was 7:45am and walking across town I got to see everyone getting ready for the new day. Children leaving their homes and walking to school, shop keepers opening up and the first catches of the morning coming in at the fish market with the friendly see lion waiting for scraps that the feet of the fisherman cleaning their catch. It was another beautiful day on the island and I couldn’t wait to get on the boat. I met up with my fellow divers for the day and we proceeded to have a briefing on our two dives for the day. We would be diving on the south side of Bartolome Island for the first one and then on to Cousins Rock for the second. There were eight of us in total with experience and I was in the middle, though given the long lapse since my last dive, I was really the novice of the group. Experience ranged from a few dives up to over a 1000 dives for one gentleman from the UK who was diving with his wife. We loaded into taxis (small pickup trucks with room for five) along with our gear and headed off to Itabaca Channel to meet up with our dive boat. I was with a couple from Belgium and a young man from Brooklyn who I ended up diving with.

All is well

All is well

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A school of king angelfish

A school of king angelfish

A dive boat is perhaps the quintessential opposite of a day cruise boat in that it’s really designed for a single purpose and that’s not to spend too much time above the surface. The boat was full of gear and as soon as we were all loaded, we departed for Bartolome, a little over an hour away. Our boat consisted of two benches on both sides that we sat on with our tanks beneath our feet and along the back of the boat with our wetsuits. During the trip, Quike, our dive master sat with each of us in pairs to go over more of the details of the dive such as our first meeting place, depths, underwater topography, underwater signs and what to expect with currents, though that could quickly change once we were on our way. Before arriving to our dive site, we all started putting on our wetsuits, not always an easy task in a moving boat as the suits are tight and require lots of tugging and pulling.

Fellow divers

Fellow divers

A stingray

A stingray

A spotted puffer fish

A spotted puffer fish

Eagle Ray

Eagle Ray

A green sea turtle

A green sea turtle

I was in the second group of four going off so it was stand down until the first group had all their gear on and checked. The crew did everything for us such as helping us into our BC vests, but each of us is ultimately responsible for making sure our tanks are full and turned on and that our regulators work properly. Once all of this was complete, we rolled off the side of the boat and were on our way. The visibility though not perfect, was very good and we quickly descended to a shelf at about 15 m. Once there, we regrouped and began to explore the area around Bartolome. There were huge schools of fish everywhere, but in very short order we spotted the things that some only dream of seeing underwater. Huge green sea turtles passing by, sharks, huge schools of fish, and then, literally out of the blue, came the one thing we had all wanted to see but didn’t think we would as we had been told it wasn’t the right season. A huge manta ray, the biggest of them all and the size of a small truck came slowly by us and then an entire school of manta rays came sailing by. It was like watching a slow motion ballet as they gracefully cruised beside us as we all sat in awe. The first manta set the tone for the rest of the dive as we saw many more of the behemoths throughout the day. They were just spectacular!

Manta ray

A huge manta ray

Manta ray up close and personal

Manta ray up close and personal

Manta ray

Mobula (Devil) rays

Manta ray

Mobula (devil) ray

School of manta rays

School of mobula (devil) rays

School of manta rays

School of mobula (devil) rays

The currents around the islands can be quite tricky at times and there’s no way one would attempt diving here without an experienced dive master who knows the area well. We were hanging on for dear life at times as the current blew everything by us and to loose your grip meant you be sent careening downstream and away from our group. Luckily, there were lots of handholds to grab without damaging anything as you must be very careful not to grab any coral which could cause damage.

Quike Moran, dive master

Quike Moran, dive master

I’ve always had a problem with my air utilization when diving which causes me to run low on air before most others do. Daniel has always been a master at this and would frequently still have air when the dive master was running low. I had told Quike this before we began the dive and luckily, these dive masters all carry their spare regulator (known as your “octopus”) with an extra long hose so when I was running low, he gave me his octopus and I just trailed a bit behind him using his air. We did this until the next person ran a bit low and then I went back on my own tank so the other diver could use the Quike’s octopus. This worked well so that we all were ready to ascend together expect for the two more experience divers who had conserved their air. Just after we began our ascent, which takes some time to do safety stops along the way, a small group of hammerhead sharks came by so we missed them. Luckily, I had seen a number of them the day before off of North Seymour when on our boat so I didn’t feel too bad about it. After all, we had seen the manta rays and that was spectacular.

Galapagos penguins on Bartolome Island

Galapagos penguins on Bartolome Island

Our dive boat and fellow divers

Our dive boat and fellow divers

After we were all back on board, the crew brought out snacks of cantaloupe, pears and Oreo cookies for us to snack on as we were heading to the site for our second dive. We’d have to be on board for at least an hour between dives which was the minimum time given the depth we’d been to the time underwater. We passed along the edge of Bartolome and spotted a small group of Galapagos penguins, the northernmost penguin who survives here along the equator because of the cold currents that come through the Galapagos year-round.

Resting a moment

Resting a moment

Stingray

Stingray

As we reached Cousins Rock and had been above the surface for the mandatory interval, we once again got our gear together and dove down deep. We again saw several manta rays along with beautiful eagle spotted rays in a huge school. They were all lovely and so graceful as we watched them pass along by us. The dive was again spectacular and we had seen more than I could have imagined we would see in a single day. The experience reminded me what I like so much about scuba diving and I’m already looking forward to the next time I will have the opportunity to dive again. We began our trip back to Itabaca Channel and along the way had our lunch – not nearly as luxurious as the day before, but it tasted amazing after the great experience we had had. Everyone was on a high after having seen so many manta rays in one day and everyone agreed that this was one of their top dives ever. Considering that included a diver with 1000+ dives is saying quite a bit.

By the time we arrived back to the dive shop, it was well after 5pm and we had been told we’d be back around 4pm. Kathy would be waiting at home for me and I knew she’d be a bit worried about the time, but I had no way of contacting her. When I finally arrived home after walking back across town, she told me she had called the shop to see where we were and was told we had just gotten back. She still had some time to worry, though, and I was sad about that.

Once again, we relaxed before heading out for dinner which gave me time to clean up from my day and for Kathy to tell me about hers. She had gone to Los Grietas which is a swimming spot near Finch Bay and where you swim in a crack between the rocks. It is also brackish water as there is some fresh water coming in there. I was hoping that the snorkeling would be good for her, but unfortunately it wasn’t. She came back after swimming and went out to Tortuga Bay on her own before coming home early to meet me, even though I was very late.

Dinner was once again on our favorite street, but we decided to order plates of seafood rather than the whole fish. I had a delicious fish in shrimp sauce which meant that they put six huge shrimp on top a big portion of very delicately breaded fish that was incredibly tasty. Kathy had “pulpo diablo” or octopus cooked in a spicy diablo sauce. Oh yes, before dinner, we shared a grilled corn on the cob. Now this isn’t just any old corn on the cob, but rather a very special strain of corn with very large kernels that they grill and then serve with a garlic aioli sauce that is to die for. If I could have brought some home I would have in a second, but I don’t get along well with the drug/food sniffing dogs that work for the customs agents at the baggage carousels. While eating our dinner, four of my fellow divers came walking buy and took our recommendation to sit down where we were eating and order some similar dishes. We checked on them again after we were finished and they were all quite happy with their food, albeit they had ordered a ton of it. Somehow, though, I think they were going to do just fine with it.

Service with a smile - our waiter for two of our nights on Calle Kiosk

Service with a smile – our waiter for two of our nights on Calle Kiosk

“Calle Kiosk” seemed to be the place to be as we bumped into someone familiar every time we were there. There was a gentleman that got on the bus with us at the airport when we arrived who had stood out to both Kathy and I because of his very unique look – he had reminded me of so many wise men of the past, perhaps Einstein or Schweitzer, or someone of a similar ilk. Kathy had commented that she would have loved to paint him. I think we spoke a few words to each other, but when we sat down last night at our table on the street, he was across from us at another kiosk and we immediately took note and gave each other a nod. After his dinner he was sitting for a few minutes and then came walking over to us to introduce himself so we offered him a seat. His name was Mohammad and he was Iranian, an electrical engineer and had studied at Berkeley just a few years before we had been in college. He was now traveling the world and told us of the many interesting places he had been. We could have listened to him all night and I wanted to have dinner with him, but unfortunately for us, he was leaving for Isabella Island the next day. I’m certain that he found new friends there to share his stories with. He was the type of person who you felt you really wanted to know.

We were heading out well before sunrise the next morning for a day cruise to Bartolome with the hopes of some good snorkeling and hiking. It would be our last full day in the Galapagos so we wanted to make the most of it.

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