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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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October 2022    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 48, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Tiburón Explorer; Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

comfy boat, exciting diving, and COVID

from the October, 2022 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver,

It had been five years since my last trip to the Galápagos Islands (on another liveaboard), and I knew that August conditions would be a lot colder since it was traditionally a cool and rough time of year. Roger that!

Tiburón Explorer at anchorAfter a short ride to the first dive site -- diving is exclusively from RIBs, rigid inflatables -- I back-rolled in, and, negatively buoyant, I descended immediately because of the current. We were at Baltra Island and a site known as Garbage Trash, a memento to when, after WWII, the U.S. Navy left lots of trash behind (now long gone). As soon as I hit the 69°F degree water, I was cold -- but not as cold as I would be a few days later. Though this first dive in low visibility was the usual weight-check mess, where we also demonstrated basic mask and regulator recovery skills to the DMs, I enjoyed a few razor surgeonfish, lots of parrotfish (including bumpheads), and whitetip sharks.

My trip, organized by a New York dive shop and run by Reef and Rainforest, had 14 divers, all from the U.S. We flew first to Quito, allowing an extra day in case lost luggage had to catch up, which was not a problem. It was my first trip to the Andean capital city (I'd previously flown in and out of Guayaquil on Ecuador's coast), and it was breathtaking, literally and figuratively, at an altitude of around 9,300 feet. The next morning, after a 4:45 a.m. trip to the airport from our old-city hotels, it was a 2.5-hour flight to Baltra. We disembarked at the world's first all-green airport, were met by the boat crew, and made our way to a jetty to board RIBs out to the boat.

Commissioned in 2020, the Tiburon Explorer is beamy, 125 feet long, with 11 crew, 16 guests in 9 staterooms, with a large salon, an upper deck with hot tub, and décor reminiscent of the glitz of a disco -- gold-painted trim, flashy lighting, and white furniture; tacky in fact. It's something of a disjunction if you are accustomed to nautical interiors. The upper deck cabins boasted lots of windows, quite glorious; cabins on the lower deck were roomier but less bright. Indeed, it's a comfortable craft, but I was disappointed John Travolta failed to appear.

After our Baltra dive, we dived nearby Mosquera Island and were turned loose on Seymour Island for a walking tour with a ranger to view nesting frigate birds and blue-footed boobies. The sun felt good! I also encountered lolling sea lions, iguanas, and the comedy of the frigate bird males displaying their bright red throats for the lady birds' delectation.

After the walk, we began our 16-hour crossing to Wolf and Darwin Islands -- it was rough, and I relied on Bonine to prevent nausea -- waking the next morning at Wolf to clouds, rain, and rough water. But that first dive set the tone for the famed Wolf and Darwin diving: clouds of Pacific Creole fish, fine-spotted morays galore, lots of big green turtles, sharks (more on them in a minute), and, best of all, dolphins above and below the water. The 73°F water seemed balmy after our previous dives.

The crew -- all men -- was amazing. Diving is all in groups (no solo diving or night diving in these waters), and they even offered divers private guides at $100 per day. A diver traveling solo and a family agreed for their peace of mind. Every Galápagos dive guide is also a park ranger, sworn to protect the environment and a source of all kinds of information. Head dive guide Daniel gave several fascinating presentations on geology and shark migration. He and Jonathan handled the briefings and alternated between guiding groups one or two (or, as they styled us, Mantas and Galápagos Sharks).

The large dive deck had more than sufficient storage in under-seat bins. The cubbies and many outlets for charging next to the large camera table were especially important (no in-cabin charging permitted), though the quality of the charging strips was underwhelming. I found it odd that there was no rinse tank for our rubber, only for electronics. But, the crew washed out suits at the end of each dive day as if they expected urinary continence from everyone.

Galapagos MapFor an extra $100 for the week, one could use aluminum 100s rather than the 80s. I chose a 100 for its slightly better buoyancy; I don't use a lot of gas and returned every time with well over 1000 psi. But I was glad for the padding. The weights available were klunky - all increments of kilos (2.2 pounds), which did not allow any fine-tuning (my buddy felt overweighted, and I suspect others did as well). After gearing up, I walked across the deck and down to the panga, where I was carefully helped in. Divers who wanted their tanks and BCDs pre-loaded were cheerfully accommodated.

At Darwin's Pillars (formerly Darwin's Arch), the hits just kept on coming. Our first dive there, a 7 a.m. entry, treated us to a parade of sharks in a ripping current. I clung to a ledge at 52 feet and let the sensory assault delight me as Galápagos and scalloped hammerheads cruised by, interspersed with barred snapper, leather bass, wrasse, and parrots. On a slightly deeper ledge, I rolled over and let the view fill with the graceful, muscular undulating hammerheads. The next dive was even more magical, with less current, allowing me to move gently with the flow rather than cling to a rock. Huge schools of jacks surrounded us on our blue swim to our safety stop, with massive 500+ pound yellowfin tuna streaking through like missiles. I was rolling around in a sea of pure fish! The final dive at Darwin included a whale shark, delighting the whale shark virgins.

So how cold was it? The water never got above 73°F, and later dives around Fernandina and Isabela were a bone-chilling 61°F. I brought a 7mm steamer, two polyolefin steamers, two 3/5 hooded vests, and a Venture heated vest, and I wore all of them at once! My buddy dived in her drysuit, and even she was cold on some dives. I loaned my Thermalution to one slim, shivering diver, and she was still chilly. Several divers were not very experienced and seemed not to notice the cold like us older, more experienced divers (is it their anxiety? I was prepared for colder-than-usual conditions, but this exceeded my worst imaginings.) Clearly, the 2022 La Niña conditions made things bitter. I checked my log from 5.5 years ago, and the coldest I recorded then was 68°F. The outside air temperature didn't help much -- it was often cool and overcast, so sweatshirts and fleece were the order of the day.

Tiburón Explorer ratingBy day two, the dive schedule had already fallen behind. Almost no dives left on time -- the first was scheduled at 7 a.m. -- and I usually spent 15 minutes waiting while fully geared up. Admittedly, getting everyone geared up and out quickly is like herding cats, but the dive staff should have cracked the whip and ensured we got all our scheduled dives. Our 19-dive trip became 18, and several of the 18 were shortened because of time constraints. For a trip as expensive as this, every dive is costly, and it hurts to lose a dive to poor time management by the dive staff. I didn't feel this rushed on previous trips; my buddy was here for the fourth time, and she felt the same "hurry up and wait."

As you can imagine, all this diving made everyone hungry. Every breakfast included eggs cooked to order with mushrooms, onions, ham, peppers, or cheese, French toast and pancakes, turkey bacon, yogurt, and lots of fresh fruit. Lunches and dinners always included seafood (go figure!), like shrimp, calamari, octopus, and fish -- sometimes fried, sometimes grilled, once as ceviche. There was always a nonseafood option, usually beef, chicken, pork chops, and, once, a huge roast turkey. A variety of pastas were often served; my favorite was flat pasta rolled around a savory spinach core. Snacks, such as chicken wings, cheeses, and fruits, were put out daily; I particularly loved the yucca puffs with honey. We ate at two tables in the salon; from the buffet, the crew dished out portions too large for many of us. It would save food if divers created their own plates. Beer, wine, and simple cocktails were included; naturally, your first adult beverage signaled the end of your dive day. After dinner, the nights were quiet, with some folks lingering in the salon to edit their photos on their laptop, watch movies, or read.

One anomaly about the cabins that I hope the company will address: despite admonitions to conserve towels and water, there is almost no place to hang anything! Each cabin had one small towel bar and one hook for two people. Come on, install more towel bars and hooks, and make it easier for us to be good citizens! Otherwise, the cabins were comfortable with lots of dry storage. Shampoo, conditioner, and shower gel were by L'Occitaine, though oddly, there were no shower caddies or places to put anything in the shower other than the floor. I liked the beds, and each cabin had a large flat-screen TV for accessing a library of movies and documentaries. Every day, the staff left towel art -- from rays to swans -- on our beds!

Twin cabin on the Tiburón ExplorerPossibly the loveliest dive of the trip was at Secret Caverns off Wolf Island. I rolled in after 4 p.m., as the light was glowing, and, with torches alight, we made our way into the cavern. It was strewn with huge boulders, between which large green turtles snoozed. Marble rays glided by. I swam through a narrow opening into a chamber where we surfaced and played our lights over its dome. Swimming out of the cavern, with the light silhouetted against the triangular opening, was like being reborn.

Our route included three days at Wolf and Darwin and three dive days at the much colder southern sites of Baltra, Fernandina, and Isabela. When I dived at those equatorial sites five years ago, I lucked out with horn sharks and mola molas. No such joy on this trip. At Punta Vincente Roca, where I'd previously marveled at mola molas at a cleaning station, I groped along miserably in 61°F water in pea-soup viz. Like Scarlett O'Hara, I swore to myself that I would never be cold like that again! Cabo Douglas off Isabela was nearly as cold, at 62°F, but began with marine iguanas contentedly munching on algae, one of those "only in Galapagos" sights. Deeper, I enjoyed watching surreal red-lipped batfish waddle along the sandy bottom. A wonderful spotted Pacific beakfish and harlequin wrasse rounded out the sightings.

Scalloped hammerheads - a keynote species at DarwinOur final dives at Cousins Rock near Santiago Island were easier, with 69°F water and decent viz. The striated accretions of lava formed ledges filled with black coral (yellow-green here), lots of fish, and a handsome brown Pacific seahorse. The rocks were gorgeous, like igneous millefeuilles.

In September, one had to be fully vaccinated to enter the Galapagos Islands, and something was lurking. Two divers had felt puny for a few days. When they announced they had tested positive for COVID, I ran to my cabin to check myself. After 2.5 years of dodging the COVID bullet, it got me. I isolated and refused the land trip to see the giant tortoises, knowing that it necessitated a bus ride, and watched "Ford V. Ferrari" in my cabin instead. My buddy told me the tortoise trip was okay, but the time in Puerto Ayora was tedious, awash with cheesy souvenir shops (think of tee shirts with slogans like "I like boobies"), and the restaurant dinner close to inedible.

I'd brought Paxlovid, which I began right away. I didn't feel very sick but felt terrible about traveling home, knowing I was positive. I kept my N95 glued to my face and distanced as well as possible but marveled at the unmasked around me. Surely, I was not the only person traveling while sick. After I got home, things degenerated. Bacterial pneumonia followed COVID, which was far worse. I recovered, but the experience certainly changed how I felt about the trip. Sometimes, a trip is so overshadowed by something -- like lost luggage, terrible conditions, or in my case, COVID -- that it's easy to lose sight of it.

In retrospect, however, this was a very good trip. The cold water, exacerbated by La Niña, couldn't be helped; conditions are what they are. The boat is roomier and more comfortable than most, the crew good, and the joy of being with so many magnificent animals abides. Next time, I will probably choose a warmer time of year. I just hope that the crew will tighten up their time management so no one has to miss dives.

-- - A.E.L.

Authors Bio: Our writer, a retired university professor, has written for Undercurrent for almost 20 years. An experienced diver (over 3700 logged dives), A.E.L. has dived all over the warm-water world.

Divers CompassDiver's Compass: Lots of American and European airlines serve Quito. Flying to Guayaquil is also an option . . . . Regional flights should be coordinated by a travel agent who knows the area . . . . The airfare between the mainland and Galápagos runs several hundred dollars . . . . . The Quito airport hotel, the Wyndham, is walking distance to the terminal . . . . An 8-day, 7-night trip on the Tiburon Explorer retails for $7,195; add a few hundred for fuel surcharges, nitrox, rentals, Galápagos entry fee, and tips, and you're well over $8K . . . . Onboard satellite internet is $140 for one device; it is strong enough only for texting, WhatsApp audio calls, and light email . . . . U.S. dollars are welcome, but bills no larger than $20 are preferred.

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