Scuba Diving Photos
Galapagos Live-Aboard: Darwin Buddy
Silky Sharks, Galapagos Islands
In the Galapagos, apex predators like this silky shark thrive.
The action comes nonstop at Wolf Island. In the hazy distance, there are more scalloped hammerheads in the water column than I could ever count — hundreds. They fill my entire field of vision, cruising effortlessly against the current but remaining at a careful distance from our noisy crew of divers. Occasionally an individual breaks rank and swims toward our position. The species is notoriously skittish and prone to bolting at the sound of scuba. I hold my breath reflexively, in hopes that it will come in close. Twenty feet. Ten feet. Six feet. Closer. Suddenly, a nearby diver exhales a loud cloud of bubbles and spooks the sleek shark, which rockets off into the blue.
No worries, there are countless more in range, each one a potential close encounter. And that’s not counting the other exciting species in the water at this site called Landslide, off the southeast corner of the remote rock islet. Here, swift rivers of water draw divers’ most coveted pelagic species — manta rays, dolphins, whales, oceanic sunfish and several species of sharks — in mind-blowing numbers and consistency. It’s a benefit of fortunate geography.
The Galapagos Islands erupted from the deep Pacific in the middle of nowhere more than 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The remote volcanic archipelago sits at the center of an incredible convergence of oceanic currents, warm and cold. Smack dab on the equator, it is bathed in a steady flow of nutrient-rich waters from all directions that fuels a rare incubator for diverse biomass. Marine life large and small thrive here, from the tiniest seahorse to the most majestic manta, much to the delight of the group of 12 divers I’ve joined, parked on car-size boulders, braced against the ocean’s flow at 60 feet below.
For the moment, we’re transfixed by a squadron of plump spotted eagle rays flapping lazy laps back and forth, as if posing for our cameras, until they’re confident we’ve all gotten their best sides. Their slow pace invites close inspection of the intricate and splendid patterns adorning their backs. They seem larger than the ones I’ve seen in other parts of the world. Everything in the Galapagos seems bigger and more plentiful, especially the sharks.
As our bottom time grows short, we leave the shelter of the boulder field to drift off into the blue where the tender will fetch us. Typically, I find safety stops to be a time for not only physiological decompression, but also a good meditative mental flush. Not here. Instead, the action heats up dramatically. One by one, curious silky and Galapagos sharks slip into proximity. In just a few minutes, there are nearly a dozen, zipping in and out of our group like an aerial dogfight, fighter jets versus hot-air balloons. I fight the fight-or-flight alarm ringing in the most primitive part of my mammalian brain — and enjoy the show. A faint chirping ruckus in the distance signals the sharks’ swift evacuation. A pod of rowdy bottlenose dolphins is frolicking just on the edge of the 60-foot visibility. I can’t remember the last time I wanted a safety stop to last for an hour.
My first trip to the Galapagos was a horrible tease. I tried a land-based itinerary on Isla Santa Cruz, which offered a great combination of day-boat diving and island excursions, plus a chance to mix in the local culture. The experience was a beneficial, well-rounded introduction to the region and its diverse ecosystems, and I developed a real affection for the place and its people. But despite memorable dives at Isla Floreana, Isla Santa Fe and Gordon Rocks that featured frisky sea lions, manta flybys and a school of black-striped salema that literally obscured the sun, I left dissatisfied. I didn’t have that sensory-overloading underwater experience this destination is renowned for — the kind of experience you can have only on a live-aboard.
Moaning sea lions offer a wild welcome to divers at the dock in San Cristobal, a sleepy seaside village populated by local fishermen and traveling surfers that’s one of the Galapagos’ main population centers. After a short hop over the Pacific from Guayaquil on the Ecuadorian mainland, I was collected at the airport by crew from the Darwin Buddy and delivered promptly to the state-of-the-art motor yacht. Like its sister ship, Wolf Buddy, the sleek 120-foot, Euro-styled vessel was designed by and built specifically for divers, and the details make a difference, from the trio of well-equipped camera stations to the twin dive-deck heads and the expansive two-level dive deck (one of which can be enclosed and heated on chilly days). Guest quarters are some of the largest live-aboard suites I’ve ever had the pleasure of sleeping in, a benefit that is especially welcomed in the head, where double sinks and a human-size shower resemble a proper hotel room. All of the creature comforts — a large staff-to-guest ratio, warm towels after each dive, and a constant supply of international and local Ecuadorian dishes, with fresh fruits and vegetables at every sitting — are served up with warm Galapaguenan hospitality.
The next eight days would showcase the most famous dive sites in the region, including Cousins Rock, Punta Vincente Roca, Roca Redonda, and Wolf and Darwin islands. I was champing at the bit.
What’s the human threshold for mind-blowing underwater experiences on a single dive trip? It’s a relative scale, but the Galapagos is certainly the place to test that equation. In my experience, the certified onboard Galapaguenan naturalists guiding every dive put us in the right spots to catch all the action in the safest way possible — and made it fun at the same time. But be advised, this is not the right destination for your first live-aboard mission. Conditions demand advanced training, good buoyancy control, and experience in cold water, strong currents and blue water. It is definitely a destination to work your way up to, and well worth the effort. Here’s why I’ll go back in a heartbeat:
>Variety On the first day of real diving (not that the checkout dives weren’t awesome), I lucked into four of the region’s most exciting creatures — hammerheads, manta rays, dolphins and schooling jacks — all in a single, astounding view.
>Abundance Making a safety stop amid a massive school of barracuda, hundreds strong, with as many big black eyes trained on my every move, was as fitting a finale to a dive as any I’ve experienced.
>Rarity As if the seemingly endless stream of hammerheads parading past the boulder-strewn shelf weren’t impressive enough, a lone sailfish appeared in the blue and proceeded to strike a throbbing baitball for a solid 10 minutes before the ball dispersed.
>Exuberance On one surface interval, we were treated to a rollicking snorkel session with a group of curious, acrobatic, somersaulting sea lions in a protected rock inlet. I’ve never felt so ungainly in the water in my life, or laughed so hard through a snorkel.
That’s just a taste of what I traveled so far to experience — twice. One of the planet’s most vibrant intersections of man and marine life, the Galapagos Islands — and the Darwin Buddy live-aboard — delivered.
5 Reasons to Dive the Galapagos Aboard Darwin Buddy
>Mega Megafauna Ocean currents bring in the plankton, which is closely followed by the filter-feeding big boys (and girls): whale sharks, manta rays and whales. Is it possible to see all three on one dive? Affirmative.
>Glorious Isolation Chances are good that you’ll be the only divers on the prime sites at Wolf and Darwin. Beyond the awesome, uncrowded diving, being on the water at night under a blanket of stars with very few humans around is rapturous (and humbling).
>Sharks on Parade Scalloped hammerheads, silkies, blacktips, tigers, whitetips and Galapagos sharks are present in some lineup or another on every single dive. Shark lovers will be in heaven.
>Tiny Tuxedos The only species found north of the equator, endemic Galapagos penguins are a signature sight at Isabella and Fernandina, typically zooming by at 30 feet. And it saves you a trip to Antarctica to cross them off your bucket list.
>Creature Comforts Not only is the yacht posh, spacious and comfortable, but the service is on point. Few things in diving are more satisfying than a warm towel and a hot snack after a cold dive.
Need to Know
> When to Go Diving is great year-round. June through December is prime season for whale sharks; from December through May, scalloped hammerheads and manta rays appear in greater numbers (though they’re present year-round).
> Dive Conditions Water temps average in the high 70s in summer (January to May) and low 70s in winter (June to December). Due to currents, some islands have much-colder conditions, including Isabella; temps can dip into the high 50s. Many dives require hanging onto barnacle-encrusted boulders — bring sturdy gloves.
> Operator Darwin Buddy (along with sister ship Wolf Buddy) is a 120-foot motor yacht with twin jet drives that accommodates up to 16 passengers in eight staterooms. The expansive dive deck can be enclosed and heated. Diving tenders are rigid inflatables(buddydive-galapagos.com).
> Price Tag The eight-day Complete Galapagos Experience itinerary costs $4,950 from May to December and $4,500 from January to April (per person, double occupancy), including three dives per day with nitrox, airport transfers, land tours and optional night dives.