Ed.'s note: For this article, RSD Photography Director Stephen Frink interviewed Wayne Hasson, managing director of the Aggressor Fleet of live-aboards, about his family's cruise to one of the world's most famous advanced destinations.
My wife Ann and I recently returned from the Galapagos Islands, where we led 10 kids with their parents on a spring break dive vacation. Who would have thought that the Galapagos could be a family destination?
We've all heard about the strong currents, the downwellings, deep diving and cold water, not to mention all the sharks. But if you think that the diving here is only for advanced divers who want to push their skills to the limits, it's time to take another look. You can also find great sites here with no current, in warm, shallow water, assuming that's what you're looking for.
A Kid-Friendly Boat
For this adventure, we had both Galapagos Aggressor boats chartered to cruise in tandem (28 passengers, including 10 kids, age 7 to 14). I have to admit that the crews on our boats were reluctant about the whole idea of kids on board, but the experience pleasantly surprised them. Most of the crew used their free time to interact with the kids. Kids were coming in the wheelhouse for piloting lessons, learning Spanish, navigating by the stars, working puzzles, flying kites, and helping parents gear up for their dives. There were evening performances by the girls, dancing to the music of Aaron Carter and the Backstreet Boys, while the boys seemed to most enjoy teasing the girls. We had plenty of PG videos on board, so that also occupied them in the main salon.
Kids have amazing energy, so while their parents might consider relaxing with a good book after a day of diving and land tours, the kids were constantly dreaming up other things to do. Surprisingly, every child picked up the fish identification books nightly to thumb though the pictures to learn names of the local marine life. While we all appreciate our kids learning about the Galapagos Islands in school, there is no better way to learn than from direct experience, and this trip offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for that experience.
Just before the trip, a few parents said that they really hoped their kids would remember this trip, being so young. They were relating to the fact that we adults seem to remember very little about our childhood. Most had memories from about nine years old, and some remembered especially significant moments in their life earlier. But I reminded the parents that most of us have very few visual references from our childhood. Maybe some 8mm films in the closet and a few photos, but our parents didn't have all the high-tech imaging equipment we have today. We all agreed that we should take lots of photos and video, and keep it all safely stored to ensure that our kids have memories of the adventure. So that was our assignment: first, show the kids a good time, and second, record the adventure.
Swimming with Sea Lions
The trip started out like any typical dive trip with divers raring to go. On the first dive, at North Seymour, while the parents went off in two of the dinghies for their dives, I decided to take the kids to a sheltered cove close to the anchorage. My goal was simply to get the kids acclimated to the water in an area where they could stand up if necessary. At this point I wasn't even sure if there was anything to see, except maybe a few fish and, with any luck, a sea lion or two. Since there were many sea lions sunbathing on the rocks when we approached, I was pretty confident that the kids would see them under water. Sea lions are like puppies, and you just can't get in the water around the Galapagos without seeing them. But I was hardly prepared for their extreme curiosity. Within minutes, we were surrounded by playful females and pups.
Then I remember the story I told the kids before leaving the boat: "We gotta watch out for the bull sea lions. They'll be a lot bigger than the rest of them and if one comes around us barking like a dog, that means back off." You can imagine what they all did when they first saw Mr. Big—it was back to the dinghy and get me out of here. The tender was anchored within a few feet of where the kids were splashing around, so getting them to safety was no big deal. Some of the kids actually scaled the side of the tender themselves, while others were screaming, "Get me out! Hurry up!" I managed to calm everyone by telling them to simply stay still and that this big guy was not going to hurt us. One at a time they put their faces back into the water and peered out in the blue for a closer look.
After we climbed aboard an hour and a half later, we talked about the sea lion's space and all the kids learned that Mr. Big was just like their own dad trying to protect his family. He wouldn't simply approach them to bite them. He was just going to bark to let them know when to back off.
After the first dive, a few of the parents stayed back for the next dive and joined me with their kids in the same area we visited earlier that day. As it turned out, there were lots of fish here. We also saw a few eagle rays, and the first shark (a white-tip) was spotted by most of the kids, which caused considerable excitement. We even took the older kids under water here in less then 10 feet of water with full scuba. These kids were already trained with scuba and have all been though the PADI Bubblemaker program in the pool. The other kids were on SASY (Supplied Air Snorkeling for Youth) on the surface; they had also been previously trained to use this gear and were very comfortable with hanging there, breathing air like the rest and enjoying the experience.
Into Shark Bay
Guiding kids in the ocean is not only rewarding, but carries great responsibility. In open water, the only boundaries set are ones that we establish ourselves. This is something we had to address when we visited Wolf and Darwin islands.
No land tours are allowed here, but the divers on board considered this to be a highlight of the trip thanks to high-voltage pelagic encounters. We steamed overnight in calm seas. We all awoke well rested at Wolf Island with a huge school of dolphins jumping in our wake. This was a reminder that we were on to a new adventure, to a pristine area visited only by a small group of serious divers, and only for the past 10 years.
The adults went off to one of the signature drift dives, while I stayed back with the kids and we jumped in off the back of the mother ship to find a little action ourselves. The first hammerheads showed up around the boat right there in the anchorage. While the parents were on a drift dive seeing hundreds of hammerhead sharks, the occasional hammerhead that came in view for the kids was an amazing thrill.
The water is quite warm here, and there is no need for a wetsuit. That afternoon I decided to take the kids on a real adventure and we went to the other side of the island to Shark Bay. This is a dive where divers can go right over the edge to see huge schools of sharks (including Galapagos sharks), and the adults did this. But the kids had a great time staying on the surface and simply watching the action. We didn't encounter the hundreds of sharks that the divers saw on this dive, but we did see smaller schools coming up in the shallows with us in groups of 10 or 15. The wall drops off here, and we were hanging close to shore in only 10 to 30 feet of water. The visibility was 100 feet plus, so we could see plenty. Our divemaster was under water with his video camera taking video of sharks and then panning over to us on the surface. We have looked at this footage over and over since we have been back, and I gave my kids a copy of the group video the crew put together. They have it in their VCR constantly it seems. I also have other copies packed away so when this one wears out from overuse, we'll have another one ready to go.
Sharing the Experience
There were many fun and exciting parts of this trip, including kids jumping on my back for protection at the first sight of a small school of hammerheads. They also had very close encounters with penguins and marine iguanas. But after only a few in-water experiences, even the younger kids were all swimming around like crazy trying to get an even closer look.
Several of the adults were skeptical at the beginning of the trip. They were not convinced the Galapagos was the right place for kids. Even some of the kids believed that everything living under water was out to get them. Actually, the kids' attitudes seemed to go off in two extremes. At the self-confident end, there was one little guy who claimed to have no fear of these creatures and wanted to ride a hammerhead shark. The other extreme was my son Davis, who is very cautious by nature, and it took all week for him to be completely comfortable.
For me, it was a terrific experience. I want to share my love for the ocean with kids, and there is possibly no place better than the Galapagos, for both the topside and underwater natural attractions. I get a lot more enjoyment out of watching kids light up when they see something incredible in the ocean than seeing it again myself.
I learned much from this adventure and now have a new concept in mind to promote family vacations that involve open-water experiences. Parents will find that sharing their experiences in open water with their children can be just as much fun as their own scuba adventures, and possibly more rewarding.
Dive In: Galapagos
Getting There: Direct flights from U.S. gateways to Ecuador land in either Quito in the Andes or Guayaquil on the coast. There, you overnight before jetting to the Galapagos the next morning, where you and your stuff are efficiently shepherded to a live-aboard dive boat—the only option for diving the archipelago.
Money: You'll need at least US$100 for entry fee and pier tax to enter the national park.
Weather: There are two seasons at the equator—warm and wet January to June, with clear skies and occasional heavy showers. June to December is the cooler, drier period when seas can be choppy.
Water Conditions and Visibility: Water temps vary widely throughout the islands, ranging from 65F to 80F on the surface, but dropping to to the 50Fs at depth. Vis averages 75 feet, but can range from a few feet to more than 100, depending on conditions from island to island.
Galapagos Aggressor I and Galapagos Aggressor II (800) 348-2628, (504) 385-2628.
Lammer Law (800) 648-3393, (284) 494-2490.
Mondriaan and Rembrandt Van Rijn / Oceanwide Expeditions (800) 453-7245, (281) 987-9600.
MS Sea Cloud (800) 544-3483, (909) 698-3189.
Peter Hughes Diving, Inc./Sky Dancer (800) 9-DANCER, (305) 669-9391.