Among Distant Isles - Exploring the Galapagos

By Al Hornsby

Flying into San Christobal, one of the two landing places of the Galapagos, I'm struck by the supreme remoteness of this legendary place, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. And, it is also a huge, sprawling area, not just a few small islands as had always been my unspoken impression. I guess I had not thought about it that much before, but now, seeing it for the first time and looking at the charts showing the route of our upcoming exploratory voyage, I'm amazed. The dozens of jumbled, volcanic islands straddling the equator are a mixture of large, mountainous peaks and others that are merely small rocks thrusting straight up from deep sea, scattered over an area nearly 140 miles north and south.

The jagged edges of Leon Dormido rise from the waters around Galapagos. Beneath them teems an otherworldly profusion of life.

And, with the exception of a few isolated settlements of some 6,000 total residents, there are virtually no signs of people or development. It is a world, at its essence, unchanged, crowded with birds and reptiles and sea creatures.

When Peter Hughes asked me to join him and Santigo Dunn, his partner, on a dive trip to help establish the itinerary for the new Peter Hughes live-aboard, Sky Dancer, I was thrilled. Like for many people, the Galapagos has always seemed to me one of those magical, dream-like places that I had to experience at least once in my lifetime. As I stepped off the chartered jet in San Christobal and felt that first rush of hot, dry air, I knew a never-to-be-forgotten adventure had begun.

We sailed on one of Santiago's Eco Ventura ships, Letty, and ran from San Christobal in the south all the way to Wolf and Darwin Islands in the extreme northwestern edge of the archipelago. Over the course of our week-long journey, we swam with hammerheads and sea lions, knelt quietly by sea birds, unafraid of us as they protected their eggs and chicks, and climbed high, volcanic peaks for panoramic views of sharp-cut bays filled with bright, turquoise waters. What impressed us most was the sheer opulence of the life. On one stretch of beach less than a hundred yards long, at Punta Espinoza on Fernandina Island, there were sea lions and Fur Seals, 20 or 30 of them lazying about or playing in the tide pools.

Hundreds of Marine Iguanas soaked up the late afternoon sun and a nesting pair of Flightless Cormorants courted in their shallow nest of sticks. In a small tree, a pair of Galapagos Hawks gazed at us serenely, and a pair of stilt-legged American Oystercatchers watched over their two, speckled eggs, laid on the gravel of the beach.

In the water, the life was even more grandiose. Off Darwin Island, on the reef from which its majestic arch arises, there were as many creatures as I have seen anywhere. The reefline had a ridge that came to within 20 to 30 feet of the surface. It was made up of corals, especially hardy Pavona and Porites species (the water is cool enough to be marginal for coral survival) and volcanic rock. The entire reef was covered with a gigantic mixed school of fusiliers, Creole Fish and damsels, purple the prevailing color, so thick that if you lay near the bottom in their midst, you could not see out; until, suddenly, the mass would part and you were confronted by a nine-foot-long Scalloped Hammerhead sweeping past, its head swinging from side to side.

The sunset is punctuated by a bird's silhouette.
And all around, the bottom crawled with Panamic Green Morays, 20, 30, 40 of them in view at once, free-swimming, moving constantly. Off in blue water, schools of Bonito and Horse-eye Jacks milled about, and Green Turtles swam slowly past, unafraid of us. During our dives, Mantas came by several times and a solitary Whale Shark passed us slowly.

The water was different each place we stopped. Sometimes, like at Darwin and Wolf, it was blue, nearly tropical, in the upper 70s (degrees F), and clear. At others, like at Redondo Rock, it was cold, in the mid-60s ( degrees F), with currents that swirled. At one point in our dive the current created a whirlpool-like maelstrom. My first hint of something unusual was seeing another diver's bubble stream circling around and around him like an uncoiling wreath. When a school of Horse-eye Jacks surrounded me, and I noticed one large, somehow surprised-looking jack come tumbling by, end-over-end, I knew we were in for an exciting moment. Before we could react, we were taken from 50 feet to well over 100, then swept up to just below the surface in less than an eye-blink. At that point it spit us out, instantly scattering us like so many bits of ocean flotsam.

In some places, the nutrient-rich water took on a rich green, and marine life materialized suddenly from all directions. At Gordon's Rock, a movement in the distance might be a school of hammerheads or Golden Cownose Rays; at Cousin's Rock, Fur Seals floated above us, then streaked down through the dim water to pirouette and poise, inches from our faces. Throughout our journey, we seldom saw other human beings, but the animals of the islands reminded us of their presence at every turn. Whether it was schools of dolphins that rode our bow wake, or the small flocks of boobies and frigates that seemed to always be hovering above Letty's radio antenna, we were seldom left alone, as if we were being provided an escort for our explorations. Their curiosity seemed to match our own, and they seemed to hold no inherent fear of our presence. It was, I couldn't help but think, the way the world must have been once upon a time, when mankind was still a natural part of it. Before we came to the delusion that we were somehow its master. Before our place became so separate and so removed. Before we needed such pure, distant isles to remind us of just where we truly belonged.

The newest addition to the Peter Hughes Fleet, Sky Dancer, in the shipyard at Guayaquil. Above right: (clockwise from bottom left) Santiago Dunn, Al Hornsby, Peter Hughes, Sue Hamilton and Tom Conlin discuss the special features of the new live-aboard.

When Santiago Dunn, owner and operator of Eco Ventura, the Galapagos' most active eco-tourism fleet, decided to seriously enter the dive tourism market, he decided to partner with someone who could bring the same expertise in diving that his company could bring to operating tour boats. With his four vessels, Eric, Flamingo, Letty and Corinthian, carrying more than 6,100 passengers each year to the Galapagos, his crews and captains know the islands inside and out. And with the ability to build his boats from the bottom up, he knew he could build diving's most innovative new vessel.

His first call, says Santiago, was to Peter Hughes. "If there was anybody that I would want to partner with in the dive business, it would be Peter. That was an easy decision." After meeting in Miami in January 1999, Peter went on a Galapagos trip with Santiago and inspected the shipyard in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Shortly thereafter, the partnership was formed, and the design and construction of Sky Dancer began.

Sky Dancer, a 100-foot-long, 23-foot-wide custom dive vessel, begins operation in March 2001. With a crew of 10 to serve 16 passengers, the $3,000,000 state-of-the-art vessel has two dive tenders, nitrox and air fills, E-6 processing, camera and video rentals and a full dive deck, and can cruise at 12 knots. The cabins, each with private bath and the upper deck staterooms complete with king-size beds, are sumptuously decorated with teak throughout and feature individually controlled air-conditioning.

The normal seven-day itinerary begins with a flight from Miami and an overnight in Guayaquil, followed by a Sunday morning charter jet flight to San Christobal, Galapagos to board Sky Dancer. The cruise is as follows:

Sunday AM Arrival, check in, lunch PM Check-out dive and land walk, Isla Lobos

Monday AM Two dives at Cousins Rock PM One dive at East Side, land walk at Bartolome Island, followed by snorkeling with penguins

Tuesday AM Two dives at Wolf Island PM Two dives at Wolf Island

Wednesday AM Two dives at Darwin Island PM Two dives at Darwin Island

Thursday AM Two dives at Darwin Island PM Two dives at Wolf Island

Friday AM Land walk at Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island, followed by possible snorkeling with marine iguanas PM Afternoon and night dives at Punta Vicente Roca, Isabella Island

Saturday AM One dive at North Seymour, plus one dive at the North Channel, North Seymour Island PM Visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station

Sunday Disembark Sky Dancer, visit Interpretation Center at San Christobal, fly to Guayaquil

Monday AM Depart for Miami

G E T T I N G   T H E R E

BEST TIME TO VISIT Year-around; February through June is the driest, calmest period, however there tends to be more big animal action during the September-January period, when water temperatures are lower and currents stronger.

TOPSIDE CLIMATE The weather is generally dry and hot, especially in the February-June period. Cooler temperatures, more wind and the majority of the annual rainfall begin in August with the increase in the strength of the Peru current, which brings in colder water. Daytime temperatures range from near 100 degrees F in the hottest months to the mid-70s (degrees F) in the coolest times.

WATER TEMPERATURE The islands of the Galapagos are affected by three main currents, the cold Peru oceanic current, from the southeast; the warm Panama current, from the northeast; and the equatorial undercurrent, which brings cold, upwelling water to the west side of the archipelago. This not only brings about the huge mix of marine life species, but it also means that water temperatures vary widely according to season and locale. The water is warmest in the north and from December to May; coolest in the south from June to November. The average overall range is between 66 degrees F and 78 degrees F.

EXCHANGE RATE U.S. currency is accepted throughout Ecuador.

TIME DIFFERENCE Central Standard Time

FLIGHTS AND ENTRY Sky Dancer expeditions are reached via Guayaquil, Ecuador, which is reached via Miami. A passport is required.

CONTACTS For information about Sky Dancer, contact: Peter Hughes Diving 5723 NW 158th Street Miami Lakes, FL 33014 (800) 9-Dancer (305) 669-9391 (305) 669-9475 (fax) e-mail: