March 30, 2010 – At Sea, 00º 27’S, 090º 02’W
By Herb McCormick
Clinging to the side of a sheer, vertical rock face, blasted with annoying regularity with what felt like 50-knot gusts, it occurred to me that I was in a particularly precarious and exposed position. I’ve got a bit of alpine experience but nothing like my fellow Ocean Watch crewmate, David Thoreson, who’s an accomplished mountain man, so it was reassuring to see him up ahead, choosing his handholds as carefully as me.
Little by little, thinking through each and every move, no matter how small, we began to make some progress on the wall. If we lost our grip, we both understood, the situation would be quite literally out of our hands. The only certainty was that we’d be sucked into the void, and our options would be extremely limited. Every so often – I couldn’t help it – I looked down into the endless abyss and just about gave myself a heart attack. It was, quite literally, one of the most intense moments of my life.
The thing is, David and I weren’t up in the clouds, gaining altitude; in fact, we were about sixty feet below sea level and, for some incomprehensible reason, heading in the opposite direction. And those powerful blasts weren’t gale-force winds, but ripping currents, churning at 6-7 knots through a pass called Gordon Rocks in the Galapagos Islands. Nope, we weren’t aiming toward a summit; we were scuba diving, though the nature of the activity had descended to something far more akin to rock climbing than swimming.
That last notion was driven home hard when off in the distance, the shadowy form emerging from the blue, bore the unmistakable, prehistoric profile of a hammerhead shark.
Early this afternoon, the crew aboard the 64-foot cutter Ocean Watch raised their anchor in the rolling waters of Academy Bay – the main harbor on Isla Santa Cruz in the heart of the Galapagos archipelago – and resumed their travels Around the Americas. The next official port of call is the Central American nation of Costa Rica, some 700 nautical miles away, though skipper Mark Schrader is considering a special stop somewhere along the way. Stay tuned.
Our stay in the Galapagos was eventful and memorable, and we’ll recount some of our adventures and the folks we encountered, as we make our way north to Costa Rica. Surely, the highlight of our visit – at least for David and me – was the time we spent in the water. Thanks to the pros at Scuba Iguana – and particularly to divemasters Jimmy Pincay, Claudia Molina and Juan Carlos Balda – we had a glimpse at the undersea wonders of the Galapagos that very few are privileged to see.
This was my second trip to the isles, though the last time I never did any scuba diving. Even so, I’ve always maintained that one of the best “dives” of my life was a snorkel in the Galapagos, where the visual attractions included turtles, sea lions, reef fish and even a few sharks. You want to see sharks? Come to the Galapagos.
The entire crew got into the undersea act during our visit. The skipper; mate Dave Logan; Bryce Seidl, the CEO and president of the Pacific Science Center; and engineer Dan Clark from the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Lab all grabbed their masks and fins and hit the water for some extended snorkeling. And David T and I aren’t the only divers aboard; before she joined the team for the Costa Rican leg, oceanographer Gretchen Hund, a PSC boardmember, spent a week with her husband aboard a live-aboard dive boat in full Sea Hunt-mode.
David and I enjoyed a couple of “warm-up” dives before our big day at Gordon, and in retrospect it was a very good thing. We both love diving but, truthfully, when it comes to our collective number of dives we aren’t the most experienced divers in the world, and the folks at Scuba Iguana made it very clear that the expedition to Gordon was for experts only, and that they’d need to see us in the water before giving us clearance for the trip to the rocks.
So last Friday, we boarded the dive boat on the north end of Santa Cruz for a pair of dives, the first to a location called Isla Beagle on the southern flank of Isla Santiago, and the second to a low, sandy island called Mosquera, just north of Isla Baltra.
If we hadn’t done another dive in the Galapagos, it still would’ve been a magical day.
The reason Galapagos has become one of the premier diving destinations on the planet is because, without fail, once you’re in the water you are guaranteed the opportunity to interact with big animals: surprisingly graceful sea turtles; playful sea lions, as giddy as puppies; and majestic rays, including mantas, as wide and arresting flying beneath the seas as the albatrosses that soar above them.
Then there are fish: grunts and wrasses and snappers and idols and grouper and barracuda and parrotfish and on and on, of every size and description, of every color in a box of Crayolas.
Finally, there are sharks: white- and black-tipped reef sharks. Galapagos sharks. Hammerheads.
In the rocks off Beagle, and in the sandy expanses, of Mosquera, we saw them all. Oddly enough, though, the lasting image of those two dives was of a veritable constellation of starfish scattered on the ocean floor, and a quartet of eagle rays passing overhead. It was like something out of Star Trek, but exactly the opposite. The natural juxtaposition, so unexpected yet so perfect, was a sight I’ll never forget.
So, yes, Beagle and Mosquera were full of magic snapshots. But the next dive, on Saturday afternoon, off Gordon, was epic. When it was over, the most experienced dude on the boat, an Englishmen named Graham with over 500 dives under his belt, said it was one of the wildest – and easily the one conducted in the most current – of them all.
Thankfully, I didn’t know anything about that until it was over.
But I realized we were in for some drama when the skipper of the dive boat backed us into the short gap between the two pillars of rocks, just a few feet shy of a ripping, churning current that was manufacturing standing, surf-able waves of about three feet. I thought to myself: “Interesting. But there’s no way we’re going to try and truck up-current into those. Surely we’ll be heading around behind the islands, into the clear, still water.”
This assumption proved wrong. For about ten short minutes later, divemaster Jimmy Pincay, a native Galapagos waterman who learned his craft fishing with his dad, dropped into the drink, and David, five other divers, and I fell in behind him. We descended quickly and in the blink of an eye we were in the current, in the maelstrom, into the pass.
Gordon Rocks, to which we now clung, had our full, undivided attention.
Though it seemed like slow motion, things happened fast. There was a German couple in our party and one of them was almost instantly in distress. Bouncing along the craggy rocks, the buckle of his weight belt was clipped and opened, and Jimmy had to circle back and cinch it back on. The chances of this happening were about 10,000 to one, or so I thought. But a second later, the same thing happened to David, who had one hand on his camera, and the other wedged in a crevice. Once again, Jimmy did the dressing.
And then we were pulling ourselves down, hand over hand, our finned feet splayed out directly behind us, fully horizontal, like cartoon characters in a cartoon hurricane. In what seemed like an hour but was probably ten minutes, we negotiated the first section of rock and wedged ourselves into a series of outcroppings, soldiers in their foxholes. From there, we had a good view of what was happening in the pass. It was something to behold.
Schools of undulating reef fish, as if a single organism, churned and pulsed past, followed by a flapping sea turtle than seemed to teeter on the razor’s edge of control. A reef shark swam purposely past, followed by another. Then Jimmy was again on the move.
It’s hard to describe the sights and the sounds, the big sucking of air, the wafting bubbles of water. Every so often a different surge of current would sweep past, almost pulling the mask off your face. Honestly, you had to think about chomping down on the regulator – okay, bite! – less it be ripped from your jaws.
It was terrifying.
And then, after a few minutes of it, after getting somewhat comfortable, after realizing we were all on top of it: Man, it was cool.
In the final moments of the dive, before Jimmy checked the air supplies, signaled for us to begin surfacing, and we made one last safety stop, we found another spot to bivouac and watched the undersea world go by. You’ll never understand how imposing a hammerhead can look until you see one ninety-feet down.
Our expedition Around the Americas was conceived as a journey to spotlight the health of our oceans, and sometimes, I reckon, we’re lost in the concept, the science, the mission. Ironically enough, we sometimes seem to forget the sheer power and glory of Mother Ocean. But stuck in those rocks, raked by those currents, surrounded by abundance – of life, of nature, of color – in a moment that was both serious as a heart attack and as soothing as a sonnet, I remembered the real reason we came out here in the first place.
-Herb McCormick with photographs by David Thoreson
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