Sunday, 2 October 2011

Wolf Island

MANY SPEAK OF the perfect sunset. Most travellers can recall that special one, and hold it in a place close to their hearts. But there is melancholy in a sunset; something has ended, gone forever. Personally, a sunrise makes my heart soar; the optimism of another day, replete with endless possibilty. Sitting on Temple IV at Tikal, Guatemala, will live with me forever; few moments in my life have made me appreciate what it is to be human and alive as much as that one. But as humbling and inspiring as that dawn was, give me a sunrise at sea any day of the week.

Excitement had cut short my sleep. I sat alone with my thoughts on the top deck of the Humboldt Explorer, staring out to where the sea meets the sky, it turning deep purple prior to the sun's appearance. Pale gold streaked the scant clouds as the orb broke the horizon. A gentle wind whipped my face as I hugged my knees, pulled down the brim of my cap and retreated deeper into my hoodie. Scanning a full 360° around me I could see nothing but ocean: we were 12 hours from the nearest land and almost 24 hours north of the nearest inhabited island of the Galáapagos archipelago. This was going to be real diving, alright.

Wolf came into view, her sheer cliffs streaked white with the dung of thousands of seabirds which wheeled and screeched their welcome. The boat slowed as we approached a sheltered spot between the island and a small islet at its head, the waves less fierce here. Anchor was dropped with a clanking which vibrated through the hull.

I could hear movement below and checked my watch: almost 7am. Soon enough the breakfast bell rang and I made my way gingerly down the stairs, the huge blisters from the football game causing me grief, being open and bloody. I was having to walk on the outsides of the soles of my feet, giving me a bandy-legged gait. Everyone was up and ready, bar Maxy; the Scotsman could sleep for his country. I sat with Stefano, the pair of us spooning heaps of fruit, granola and yoghurt into our mouths; eggs and toast, fruit juice and coffee: dive fuel. With the currents around this infamous rock, we were going to need to be at full strength...fighting the ocean on an empty stomach is not advisable.

The dive deck was a hive of actvity. Gas pressures were checked; wetsuits donned; systems tested; everyone all smiles of anticipation. We were allocated RIBs (rigid inflatable boats) and in we clambered. We were quickly around the corner and out of sight of the Explorer. A few hundred yards further and we were in Shark Bay. The swell was quite large, the waves surging against the unforgiving rocks. My heart pounded. This was what we had been waiting for. As wildlife diving goes, this is the top of the pyramid...and the anticipation was palpable amongst the group. We balanced on the edges of the RIB, ready to roll backwards into the ocean on a count of three, together so as to not capsize the craft.

In we went, a confusion of bubbles. As the water cleared we quickly descended together. Dropping to the wall of lifeless rocks, we regrouped and headed to a vantage point 28 metres below the surface. The current was moderate, and I found a sheltered spot between two big rocks and hunkered down. We spotted a couple of seals and a group of yellowfin tuna in the blue, and didn't have to wait long for the real action to begin. Hammerhead sharks began to drift by, less than 5 metres away. One...two...four...nine... coming thick and fast. The school was small by their standards, maybe 40-strong...but there were likely more we couldn't see due to the visibility, which I estimated at 15m. I held my breath as one shark cruised towards me, not wanting to scare it away with my bubbles, and I admired its muscled body as it turned above me, light reflecting from its incredible, powerful hunter.

The second dive was an improvement still. At the same site we watched the ubiquitous hammerheads cruise by. A curious dolphin appeared amongst us, right above Stefano's shoulder. It hung motionless in the current, checking us out. Maxy made too swift a movement towards it, a kid in a sweetshop, and with a flick of its tail it was gone into the blue. I shook my fist at him. When creatures get that close, the best option is to remain as still as possible, so as not to frighten them...if you try and get too close too quickly, the animal flees and no-one else gets to appreciate it.

As time trickled away, we made our way upwards to a small plateau to begin our safety stop. The surge was very strong here, and bright blue sea was churned with white froth. The rocks of the island were red with algae, a beautiful contrast to the myriad blues of the water. Amongst the rocks, seals danced effortlessly in the fury, while we clung onto rocky outcrops for dear life; being sucked into the surge and smashed against the boulders would potentially end the dive trip, and quite possibly your life. So we didn't get too close, content to let the seals approach us if they chose. It was quite something to watch the pups mimick their parents, learning their place in the world.

We hadn't been back on the boat more than five minutes when a pod of dolphins was spotted. Donning masks and fins, we immediately went back in. Away from the island and in the blue the water appeared clearer, and these graceful mammals were right below us. They were swift, and we had barely two minutes to appreciate their speed and agility, their grey-blue backs lightening as they broke the surface to breathe. As we waited for the RIB, our guide urged us to stay together and to not get separated from the group. Silky sharks are more inquisitive than most, and a lone diver has been bumped on more than one occasion by these sleek, stone-brown skinned fish. And bitten on others. So don't let the pretty name fool you, these are as dangerous as any other shark if you are not careful. Nobody wanted to be last out of the water and onto the RIB, that's for sure.

Day Two and we were early to rise again. We visited Landslide and Shark Bay again, and were lucky enough to see infant hammerheads on these dives. At the same point we'd observed the seals in action the previous day, the plateau was now patrolled by five or six large Galápagos sharks, treating us to some close-up views of them. At this shallow depth we could have hung around for another half hour, but our guide signalled the end of the dive, as we had another two to get in before sunset.

At the tip of Wolf lies a pinnacle, a tower of rock set apart from the rest of the island. The currents here, depending on the time of day, can be ripping. I'd not experienced anything quite like this since diving Pulau Weh last year. Lose your grip on a rock here and you could end up surfacing a few miles away, alone in open ocean. We picked our way through small ravines, racing to the cover of boulders one by one and pausing to catch our breath. Turning to look at a fellow diver means clamping the regulator mouthpiece between your teeth; the water movement is so rapid here that it can otherwise be torn from your mouth. A hand on the mask is also essential to prevent it being filled with water and ripped from your face. I looked around and could see Stefano, but the group was breaking up. Where was Maxy? I was a little worried as he's inexperienced, but I was relieved to see him up on a wall above, clinging on for dear life but clearly enjoying himself: the young have less fear. He soon made his way slowly down to rejoin us.

As we rounded the pinnacle, I was caught in an up-current and was pushed too rapidly to the surface. I stuffed my fingers into a crack in the rock and gripped it for my life. Looking down, I could see that a few of the Brasilians had gone deeper after exiting the small swim-through, and the group was stretched out. I spotted the guide, and waited until he had got the rest of the group's attention..I acknowledged his signal to drift away from the column in the direction of his jabbed thumb. The up-current eased as we escaped the raging water surrounding the pinnacle. Out in the blue, with no points of reference, we were in another world. We gathered together, each of us counting off the minutes until we could surface. We bore an inspection from a couple of hammerheads and a Galápagos shark momentarily intrigued by our silhouettes from below: tense moments.

There was silence from the Brasilians on the ride back to the Explorer. The old fella we had nicknamed Sven, after his resemblance to the ex-England football manager, looked shattered; breathing deeply and staring into space; mildly traumatised. Maxy was bouncing around like a child after a roller-coaster ride, and wanted to return there on the last dive of the day: his reaction was the opposite to theirs. In truth, I don't think the guide anticipated the varied ages or fitness levels of the group; that dive was not for the faint-hearted, the conditions very demanding. Fun for an ebullient young Scotsman, draining for an sextagenarian Brasileño.

Our final dive was more memorable for Stef than for myself. We'd explored a small series of caverns close to the main boat, full of dormant marble rays. We'd been well ahead of the rest of the group, and decided to see what was happening outside the cave's entrance. At the mouth, the small plateau widens, with steep walls on either side. Within 15m, the shelf ends and the abyss begins. Seeing nothing out in the blue, Stef went to investigate one of the walls for life. I looked amongst the rocks on the shelf, and spotted a huge moray eel. I'm not usually excited by these, but was a little bored whilst waiting for the rest of the group to exit the cave. And there was nothing else around to look at. To hold my position in the water, I inhaled slightly and then kept breath. And so I hovered motionless for a full minute. I'd soon had enough and exhaled, watching the mouth of the cave as divers began to re-emerge. Next I checked on my friend, who was a good 10m away and in some state of agitation. He signalled to me by jabbing two fingers at his eyes and shrugging Did you see it? I shrugged back, fingers pointed at my own mask See what? Hand flat and vertical, he tapped his forehead rapidly: Shark. I shook my head and shrugged again, gesturing around me Where? He pointed directly, frantically at me, eyes wide in the confines of his mask. I gathered it had come close, and moved my hands apart to ask him How close? He held his arms barely outstretched. Jesus...

We ended the dive and broke the surface. Stef couldn't spit his regulator out quickly enough to tell me "Fucking hell, man...I thought you were a goner" he gasped. He described what had happened. As I'd hovered above the rocks, a bulky Galápagos shark had swum towards the cave from the blue, clearly wondering exactly what I was. As I was not emitting bubbles, the animal was not wary of me. So whilst I was concentraing on the eel, Stef estimated that the shark had come within two metres of me, diverting in its path only when I exhaled, having seen enough of the eel. Due to its proximity he also had a good idea of it's size: 7 feet long and twice my size.

As much as I love being around sharks, I don't know quite how I would have reacted had I looked up to see it bearing down on me. With a cardiac arrest, in all likelihood. And if I'd held my breath a fraction of a second longer, the potential outcome is quite unthinkable. So thank you, moray eels...thank you for being so bloody boring.

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