Monday, 10 October 2011

If Carlsberg Made Dive Sites...

...THEN DARWIN ARCH would surely be it. This remote point, an overnight sail further still from Wolf Island, represents the pinnacle of many a diver's experiences. This impressive slab of rock juts from the sea atop a series of plateaux, giant steps leading to the abyss. Relentess waves pound this site, and the currents can be fierce. To be out here, miles from civilisation, medical help, and among hundreds of sharks, is both intimidating and inspiring.

Under a cloudless sky we left the sanctuary of the Explorer and approached the Arch. Bright blue above us, deep blue below. We hung on for grim life as the building swells slapped the boat; there's nothing quite like a rough sea in a fragile craft to make you appreciate mortality and sharpen the concentration. The guide knew the right entry spot, and we fell backward into the water, descending quickly to avoid being swept away from the area by the strong current. Finding shelter on the flanks of the small island, we could already see many hammerheads swimming effortlessly against the flow. On one dive at this spot, I ceased counting when I reached one hundred sharks: incredible numbers. And they kept coming. But we weren't at Darwin for the hammerheads.

It was just a dark shadow the guide pointed at, shape emerging, heading towards the reef. But then bright white spots became visible in the dim light, interspersed with vertical stripes. It got bigger. And bigger. We could now see the strong horizontal ridges adorning its length. In a phalanx, we headed out to meet the whaleshark as it cruised by us. Its size defied belief; mouth open and feeding on the plankton which clouded the water, it powered along with deceptively slow sweeps of its tail. We'd been warned about getting too close: not only could we frighten the creatures, but their huge tails had been known to give unwary divers painful bruises which lasted weeks. Broken ribs are not unknown...and I've had quite enough of those, thanks.

Comparatively little is known about the whaleshark and its migration patterns. Their appearance is seasonal and relatively brief and, as they disappear into the depths, far from sight, nobody really knows to where they vanish. During our visit we encountered a research boat, the crew informing us excitedly that the first-ever male whaleshark had been spotted and electronically-tagged just a few days before our arrival. I'd imagine it will take quite a few years' more research before their behaviour is accurately mapped. But diving with these creatures every day doesn't sound like a bad way to spend a few years?

We were fortunate enough to spot a whaleshark on every dive at this location. Stefano had by far the best experience on one particular dive: he'd been above the animal, behind its huge vertical dorsal fin, and pulled along in its wake. We'd been left behind to head back to the shelter of the rocks, El Macarron signalling to Stef to stay with the whaleshark; he enjoyed a good five minutes alone with it in the blue before it unknowingly led him back to us and the upward slope of rocks at Darwin's base.

Another occasion was a little hairier for myself and Maxy. We chased after another whaleshark, breathing hard as we finned swiftly to try and keep up. A shoal of large remorra fish hung below her vast belly, one of them in the beginning of its death throes, pieces of it falling away. It wasn't more than a split second before the culprit showed itself: a Galápagos shark and two companions emerged from the gloom. We were losing the whaleshark, and marooned in the open with feeding sharks. Not ideal. One of them came close by, its pectoral fins spread out, nose up and showing us its chest: an aggressive posture. I was a little worried that this shark and friends thought myself and the Scotsman keen competition for their meal. It doubled back past us in a figure-of-eight. I jabbed my thumb towards the rocky plain: Let's get the fuck out of here. Maxy quickly nodded assent and we swum for all we were worth, nervously eyeing the touchy trio over our shoulders and breaking into nervous giggles when we we realised that they weren't going to attack us. Crouched among the rocks we winked and slapped each other on the shoulder as we regained our breath; the excitement was over for now.

Many a time we could see the silhouettes of schooling hammerheads against the white sand below us. It's always nice to have something interesting to watch while the three minute Safety Stop ticks away. On one particular dive I'd stayed a little lower than the group to make a Deep Stop, a further safety measure after a deep dive. I was maybe 6-8m below the other divers; we drifted along this time, instead of fighting the current to hold position. Out of nowhere a silky shark appeared, at my depth. I looked up El Macarron and pointed to the animal. He tapped two forked fingers against his mask in answer Watch that one. I nodded and quickly turned my attention back to the shark. It glided by, flicking me an uninterested glance, banked slightly before turning the other way and disappearing.

Waiting on the surface for the RIB was always nervy. Due to the large waves at Darwin, a signalling device is essential to mark your position to the boat captain. I use a standard DSMB (Delayed Surface Marker Buoy): a metre-long, sausage-shaped device, which rises to the surface when slightly inflated from 5m below, the expanding air filling it as water pressure decreases. Attached to a cord reel, this is locked and held taut from below; the fully-inflated orange tube stands vertical from the water.

Myself, Stef and Maxy had been allowed to stay down a while longer on one dive, as we'd had far more air remaining than the rest of the group. On surfacing, we couldn't see the boat, and they couldn't see us. I held the marker buoy tight to enable them to spot us more easily. Huge walls of water were undulating towards us, tipping us over their crests before dropping us into the 2m deep troughs between them and the next wave; everything else, including the horizon, disappeared from sight. It would have been fun, but for the thought of the silkies below us. We spied the boat, and it was a long minute before they spotted us. Anxiety turned to relief as they signalled and guided the craft in our direction; we were actually able to enjoy the next couple of gargantuan waves before we were gratefully hauled out of the ocean.

Our two days at this exhilarating spot were over all too quickly. As the Explorer pointed her bow South we left the hundreds of hammerheads, the seals, the dolphins, whalesharks and countless other sharks behind. It was a wrench. This place is stunning, the diving some of the best I've ever been lucky enough to do. They say that diving Galápagos is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. No way. I'll be back...as soon as possible.

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