This series of posts is about an 11-day liveaboard trip throughout the Galápagos Islands aboard the Deep Blue with the Master Liveaboard Fleet. Having shot several thousand images, I thought to share a few more here than on my other social channels, but be sure to check out my Instagram, TikTok, Youtube and Twitter for more. This part is about the first days, including diving at Wolf Island. Have a look at the other posts in this series.
After several months of preparation and planning, at the end of November, it was finally time to fly to Ecuador for an epic photography adventure: first, I would spend a week in the Yasuni National Park (one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet) in Ecuador’s Amazon forest and then head on to San Cristobal, one of the 13 main islands in the Galapagos Islands, where I had a few days for land activities before boarding an 11-day liveaboard trip on the Deep Blue from the Master Liveaboards Fleet.
I will write separate posts for the rainforest trip and the land-based time on San Cristobal and want to dedicate this series of posts to diving only.
In the morning, I sat readily packed in the lobby of the small hostel I stayed in San Cristóbal de las Casas and waited for someone to pick up my main luggage – two Pelican cases filled with camera gear. After a while, Geoffrey arrived and introduced himself as one of the two dive guides of the upcoming cruise. He picked up the luggage and told me to be at the hammerhead shark peer (love the name!) at noon. Having a few hours at hand, I decided to spend the rest of the morning photographing and filming the seals, seabirds, and iguanas present around the shore area until it was finally time to board the Deep Blue, our home for the next 11 days.
Once aboard the Deep Blue, we spent the rest of the day with all the necessary formalities, such as boat and safety briefing(s), equipment rentals and setting up of dive gear. We also did a quick check-out dive at only a few hundred meters away from the board to make sure everyone was comfortable in the water and weighed correctly before we headed to Wolf Island, where diving would be challenging. Besides seeing seals underwater for the first time, what struck me most was how damn cold the water was! We had around 17 or 18 degrees celsius here, which is far colder than what I am used to here in Fiji (and even here, I often get cold at the end of a dive) but it was still much warmer than what we would be encountering at some sites during the trip (apparently the temperatures would drop down to a freezing 14 degrees celsius). We only spent about 15 min in the water until everyone was weighted correctly and headed back to the boat.
Due to all the camera gear, I was travelling with (68 kg all combined), I had opted to leave my diving gear at home and rent instead. The first unpleasant surprise was when Juan, our second dive guide of the trip, handed me a 5 mm suit and two broken booties. I told him I’d need a 7 mm (as I had ordered), and after looking for one on shore, he returned without a 7 mm but had an additional shorty for me instead. There were simply none around in the whole city, he told me, and I just had to swallow the bitter pill. At least I had brought a sharkskin, rash guard, hoodie and gloves. It had to make do.
The upcoming schedule looked as follows: in the early morning, we’d steam towards our first stop, North Seymour Island, where we’d do a land stop and a short walk to observe the sea birds and land iguanas on the island, followed by a rather easy dive (which we were told was more for us to get a second chance to get accustomed to our gear and the diving, as the “real” diving would start the following day at Wolf Island). The rest of the afternoon was free time which I used to properly put together my underwater housing, set up the shared cabin, and get some order in the electronic charging station, where each of us 16 guests was assigned a storage box and some space.
The land visit was pretty amazing, and I was able to shoot some beautiful pictures of frigate birds, blue-footed boobies, and land iguanas and even observed some seals surfing on the waves. I will showcase some of them in different blog posts and link them back to this article in case you are keen to see those. The second quick dive was rather unexciting, but we did see a dense aggregation of seastars and a large ray, which was pretty cool. But again, this dive was rather short with around 40 minutes and was meant more for getting used to boarding and jumping off the pangas (the local name for the dive boats) and get teh whole process streamlined. Us 16 guests were divided into two groups: the sharks and the orcas, which would stay consistent over the coming days, with the two guides, Geoff and Juan, switching after each dive.
Once back aboard the Deep Blue, we lifted anchor and started steaming towards Wolf Island, which would take us 18-20 hours. Before dinner, we had an in-depth briefing of what was to be expected – currents, marine life and anything else that was important. While diving Wolf and Darwin are without a doubt very high up on the list of any diver, it can also be difficult (and potentially dangerous) with strong currents and involves lots of blue open water diving (meaning without any references in the water, i.e. just water wherever you look).
The Enchanted Islands – as the Galapagos Islands were and are often referred to – are located around 1000 km off mainland Ecuador sitting on both sides of the equator in the Pacific Ocean. The archipelago consists of thirteen main islands and many other smaller rock formations. All of these islands were created by erupting deep-sea volcanos, with many of them still active. Sitting on the Nazca tectonic plate, which moves eastwards towards South America, the islands are actually moving closer to Ecuador – approximately 6 cm every year! That also means that the islands furthest west – Isabela and Fernandina – are the youngest islands of the archipelago.
What makes these islands so special underwater are the currents: in total, five major ocean currents meet and mix here, creating a variety of conditions ranging from very cold water to pretty moderate temperatures attracting marine life ranging from tropical to cold-water-loving species.
As Geoff told us in the briefings, although currents may make diving more challenging, we should hope for strong currents as life in the Galapagos depends on them. The more current, the more marine life.
After a comfortably rocking night, I woke up at 5 am, and we were still steaming. Breakfast was set for 6:30 am, and gearing up an hour later at 7:30 am. I got myself a coffee and finished setting up my Nikon D850 in the Aquatica housing. Finally!!
Before this trip, I had researched lens choices and other photography tips for diving here but didn’t find too many and thus thought it would be cool to share the experiences I had and some of the choices I made regarding gear. In case you have any specific questions, do drop a comment, and I will try to help where I can. With all the big animals swimming around here, it was clear that it had to be either a wide angle or even a fisheye for most of the dives. Eventually, I went with the ‘classic’ Nikon 16-35mm f/4 and rigged the camera with two Inon Z240 strobes and my two latest additions, the immensely powerful Kraken Hydra 15000.
When we arrived at Wolf Island, there was already one other liveaboard anchored in the bay. The sky was cloudy, but we had at least no rain. Looking around me revealed an impressive sight: we were anchored a few dozen meters of a steep and almost vertical cliff absolutely swarmed by all kinds of sea birds—hundreds in the air and thousands scattered around the islands. I couldn’t wait to get in the water and see what was down there.. And the good news was, up here in the north of the Galapagos Archipelago, the waters were considerably warmer than our last two dive sites, with around 21,22 degrees Celsius.
Finally, it was time: together with the other seven divers making up the orca dive group and our guide Juan, we boarded the panga and made our way towards Shark Bay, the dive site for the day, with hopefully a lot of action. As trained, we all entered the water at the same time via a backroll, and although I usually never do that kind of water entry with my housing in my hand, for my time in the Galapagos Islands, I started doing so as it was so much easier than swimming back to the panga after water entry to pick up the housing. And spoiler alert: it went totally fine for all 28 dives.
After we descended to around 15 m, I looked around to check out the terrain. It was dominated by larger boulders creating some kind of reef flat system stretching a few dozen meters around Wolf Island and then falling steeply into the blue abyss. Juan indicated a location to wait and made the pre-discussed sound for the “we stay here” or “we move on” signal, a three-times rattle with his rattler (no idea what these things are called). So, we deflated the air from our BCDs and hid behind rocks.
It didn’t take long, and we encountered the first few hammerheads passing by and – although rather distanced and wary – I was so excited seeing these beautiful sharks, their extraterrestrial appearance and their characteristic swimming behaviour. The visibility wasn’t too great, and we could often only make out their shadows despite them passing us in only a few meters distance. After a while, we moved our location and continued doing so a few times during the dive drifting along with the current when not stationary. The visibility was, as mentioned, only okayish, around 5-10m and consistent with the range that would become normal on most of the dives ahead.
While sitting and waiting, it was always worth having a look behind as well: a few of our group saw two tiger sharks in the shallows, and there was generally always a lot of fish swimming between the large rocks or feeding from them. Already in the first few dives, I had spotted the largest parrot fish I had ever seen. In Fiji, it is often relatively difficult to approach parrot fish as most of them have learned to fear humans (due to spearfishers), but here they were unafraid and could easily be approached for a few images while grazing off the rocks.
We spent the first three dives at Shark Bay – two in the morning and the third after lunch – observing the passing hammerhead sharks and the almost ever-present Galapagos sharks. We also encountered several beautiful eagle rays on the second dive and spent a good twenty minutes observing them hovering effortlessly in the current. As we had started relatively late in the morning, the fourth and last dive was at the cusp of dusk and almost too dark for the same dive, so instead, we entered the water very close to the cliffs and spent most of the dive with the playful sea lions there in just a few meters depth of water before ending the dive diving along the shallows parts surrounding Wolf Island.
And that was the first diving day! After charging batteries, emptying SD cards and setting the housing up for the next day, I fell content and happy into bed. Tomorrow we’d be changing the location to dive for two days at Darwin Island, a little further north, before coming back to Wolf Island for another day of diving. Stay tuned for Part 2 – and finally, some close encounters with scalloped hammerhead sharks!
The next stop will again be Wolf Island, with lots of spotted eagle rays and more hammerhead shark sightings! For now, have a look at the other posts in the Galápagos series below!
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Tom Vierus is an award-winning photographer, filmmaker, and marine biologist based in Suva, Fiji Islands. This blog is dedicated to his assignments and to sharing some behind-the-scenes footage.