Hammerhead sharks and more

Diving in the Galapagos Islands is a dream for most divers and was one of the main reasons I worked so hard to get my Open Water Certification before we left Canada. Diving here can be very challenging with the strong currents and cold temperatures.  As new divers, we are keenly aware of our limitations and it was with this in mind that we decided to sign up for the Advanced Certification course.

The course involves 5 dives, each of which develops new skills.  Two dives are mandatory: deep dive and navigation dive.  The remaining three dives can be selected from several specialities.  We chose:  multilevel diving, drift diving and buoyancy control.  The main benefit of taking the course from our perspective would be the one-on-one attention with the instructor.  I figured this was a good insurance policy for staying safe and out of harm’s way.

The dive shop we selected, Academy Bay, offered a competitive rate for the course and making arrangements in English with the Australian shop owner, Alice was straightforward.  Our instructor, Freddie, spoke English quite well (as his second language) and we felt confident that at least communication would not be an issue.   However, I did observe that this dive shop was rather disorganized in the way they handled the equipment (for example, they brought the wrong size wet suit for Chris) and lax when it came to following PADI procedures.  For instance, we were assigned our home work which we did, but only reviewed it with the instructor after the dive, not before.  We presented our PADI certification after the dive, and we never did get around to signing any medical or legal release forms.  They seemed content to take our word at face value.

Before our cruise, we did our first two dives.  The destination was Gordon Rocks which is reputed to be one of the most difficult dive sites in the Galapagos.  Frankly, I was terrified at the thought of diving here as I had read many, many warnings online about the dangers of this particular site. However, both Alice and Freddie assured us that conditions could be very safe (no current) or hazardous (strong current) and we would only know when we got there.  They would not let us go in the water if the current was strong.  And there was an alternate site close by if we needed it, Las Plazas. To help calm my fears, Alice decided to dive with our group that day, offering to accompany us if we dove at Gordon Rocks, a gesture I greatly appreciated.  In the picture below, I look surprisingly calm – I think at this point I had resigned myself to my fate.  I just hoped that this day, which happened to be our 9th wedding anniversary, would not end in calamity.

It turned out to be a very calm day at Gordon Rocks, but I was still not confident to do our first dive at that location, so we let the other divers go ahead as we snorkelled with sea lions. When they came up, the other divers confirmed there was very little current and they had an amazing dive where they saw hammerhead sharks, the Bola Bola Sunfish, and lots of rays.  The photo below is the Sunfish they saw.

At Las Plazas, the current was quite strong – stronger than Gordon Rocks today – go figure.  The plan was to just let the current take us along and when we were out of air, we would surface and the boat would pick us up.  At times we hung on to the rocks to slow us down a bit.  This was supposed to be our multi-level dive so we went down to about 24 m for ten minutes, up to 16 m for ten minutes, and then did the rest of the dive at about 12 m.  This could easily have been our drift dive.  We saw our first hammerhead shark on this dive!

Our second dive was at Gordon Rocks.  By now the water had become quite choppy, and there was a small current, but nothing we couldn’t handle.  I was still a little nervous so Alice joined us to give Freddie a hand in case he needed it; this helped calm my nerves.  This was supposed to be the drift dive so again we just let the current take us, grabbing onto rocks to slow us down a bit.

On this dive we saw a huge school of barracudas directly in front of us – it was awesome.  When we ended the dive, the sea was really rough.  It tossed us about as we were getting our gear off before climbing back into the boat.  It was too much for my stomach – as soon as I got on board I proceeded to feed the fish as I vomited over the side of the boat.  I was fine once the boat started moving, but until then, all I can say is that the fish were well fed that morning.

All in all, the first dive day was a resounding success.  First, we survived. Second, we accomplished our skills, and finally, we saw some pretty cool things underwater.  I don’t think I’d go so far as to say I had fun – I still find diving to be an exercise of determination to conquer my anxieties and fears.  But I was happy after the dive and enjoyed a feeling of accomplishment.

We did our second dive day after we ended our cruise.  Jasper and Dafne, our new friends from the cruise, also came along for this dive.  The dive was planned off the coast of Floreanna, an island about a 1.5 hr boat ride from Santa Cruz.  We had three dives planned:  deep dive, navigation dive, and buoyancy dive.

Right from the start, things went wrong.  First, we were told our instructor was ill and was not going to come with us. We later learned the real story: the dive master on this boat (Luis) refused to allow our instructor on board.  As far as he was concerned, if anyone was going to do any teaching, it was going to be him.  We were assured he was competent and could speak English.  Again there was some disorganization with the gear – scrambling to find the compasses for our navigation dive, and tossing in two dive computers and the underwater camera at the last minute (only after we observed they were missing).

As soon as we left the harbour, the engine started to make strange noises – not something you want to hear as you’re heading out to open seas.  The captain ignored the engines and kept going full throttle ahead for about a half hour until the engines started to sputter.  He took a look at the engines and decided to keep going at a much slower speed.  The 1.5 hour trip took us 3.5 hours!  Poor Dafne – it took all her concentration not to throw up as the boat rocked in the high waves.   I was fine as long as we kept moving forward.

Finally, we got to our dive site.  Luis gave us the dive briefing and seemed to ignore the fact that we were doing the Advanced Course today.  After orientation, we took him aside and reminded him.  He tried to brush us off saying we would all dive as a group.  We insisted that we had paid for the course and we expected to dive exclusively with our instructor and to do the exercises as outlined in PADI.  He grudgingly conceded and assigned the group to the other dive master and the instructor-in-training who were on board. We also pointed out that we were supposed to be doing our deep dive first not our buoyancy (this is directly from PADI), and again he minimized this and said it was only a guideline.

So off we went on our first dive.  To his credit, Luis did teach us some good buoyancy skills and took the time to make sure we were properly weighted.  I did the entire dive without needing to adjust the air in my BCD, just using my breath to go higher or lower.  It was great.  Luis knew the site well and found all kinds of interesting things for us to see, including lots of sharks, turtles, and mantas.  It was a good dive.

I was a little curious as to the logistics of our third dive since the other divers were only doing two. So once on board, I asked Luis how it was going to work.  He explained we would go back into the water immediately, and do our navigation exercises at 5 m depth.  It would take ten minutes to complete.  This was not what we expected – we were told we would have three dives with three tanks.  Well they didn’t have enough tanks for us to do a third dive.  So we did the navigation exercise – but only after we discovered one of the compasses did not work.  Chris and I did the exercise together with the one working compass.  We did a straight line out and back, followed by a square and then a triangle.  It was all very rushed.

The third dive was our deep dive.  The plan was to go to 30 m and then Luis would do a couple of tests with each of us to check our cognitive ability at that depth.  Didn’t quite turn out that way.  We descended to 34.4 m with Luis casually looking behind at us now and then giving us the OK gesture to which we responded OK.  We stayed at that depth briefly – not more than ten minutes – and then ascended to about 18m where we stayed until we ran out of air.  That was our deep dive – he explained later that he could see we were fine and didn’t think we needed to do the exercises.  This guy was just too much!

There was a lot of current on this dive, so at one point we hung on to some rocks to slow us down.  Here we stayed for about ten minutes fascinated by the sea life passing us by – all swimming against the current.  We saw our first Galapagos Shark while perched on these rocks.  And then another, and another, and another.  They were within a couple of feet of us.  I saw Chris madly snapping pictures.  There were turtles, and huge schools of fish, all around.  It felt like we were watching an underwater movie – except we were in it!  Absolutely amazing!  Chris even took some video of us hanging onto the rocks watching the sharks swim by.

While we were diving, the captain took apart the engines to clean and repair them – a rather unsettling sight to see knowing we had a long trip back to Santa Cruz.  By the time we finished our dives it was about 3:30 – we had been out since 7:00 in the morning and had been given nothing but water and an apple.  We expected to be given lunch at some point, but because we were so delayed, the captain decided to go back as soon as we had finished our dives.  We pulled into Santa Cruz at 5:00 pm at which time the crew prepared our lunch – just a little late!  We were famished.

The two dives we did this day were absolutely fantastic in terms of the conditions (excellent visibility) and the sea life we saw. From the course perspective, it was pretty half-assed.  We studied all the required course material in advance and we were ready and confident to do all three dives.  While we did accomplish the necessary skills for certification, we felt we were gypped out of a full dive and we were appalled to see the lackadaisical teaching approach by this instructor.  Add to that the poor condition of the boat and the lack of refreshments on board, and I can tell you, we were not happy customers.

Back on dry land, after hearing our miserable tale, Alice was sympathetic and empathetic and compensated us for the way things turned out.  In the end, we got our certification and had a few great dives.  All’s well that ends well.

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