As we descended, the currents were swirling and there was life everywhere...After my first year at university I decided I needed a well earned three-month trip to South America. So aged 20 and full of the confidence of the youth, I packed my bags and what little money I had been able to save by working as a labourer at a petrochemical plant, and set off all on my lonesome for a trip to Ecuador and Colombia. I had no real idea what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go, but that's why it was so exciting…
Off to Ecuador...
The one thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to go diving, and the mystical Galapagos Islands were top of my hitlist. I had heard tales of the expense of getting to the islands but I was sure I could do it on the cheap - where there's a will there's a way and all that - so I bought flights from Quito, the capital of Ecuador, and off I went. I had only been diving for a year and a half but in my normal obsessive way I had already racked up some 100 dives and had qualified as a PADI Dive Master. I had a vague idea that someone might employ me as a Dive Master in the Galapagos and I had very noncommittal emails from a dive shop owner to that effect. When I arrived however, my services were not needed. Quite understandable as I was still a relative novice, wasn't there for long, and the diving around the islands can be very challenging.
Change of plans
Instead I decided to join a boat tour of the islands and to dive for fun. This would have been easy had I had a lot of cash but as I was travelling on a shoestring it meant a long wait in the main town of the islands, Puerto Ayora, heading to the travel office every morning to see if there were any last minute spaces on a boat. After about a week, during which time I spent a lot of time alone on the beach or eating alone in cafés, I found a suitably cheap trip to join and the adventure really began.
I was the only diver on the boat but one of the crew was a divemaster so we piled 8 tanks on board (this was not a dive boat and there was no recompressor) and off we went. All of the dives were spectacular and the snorkelling was just as good. In fact, I had two of the most incredible experiences of my life just snorkelling: the first was when I saw two penguins hunting fish shoot right past me and the other was when I found myself completely alone with a playful seal and her cub; I may have been imagining it but I swear we were playing a game of dare, she would do a somersault and then watch expectantly until I too did one too, before swimming off with her cub and then coming back for more time and time again. Pretty special.
Dive of my life
And then there was the dive of my life. On the final morning of the trip, the Dive Master and I decided we would go for a dawn dive. So at 6am he awoke me from my slumber, we packed our gear onto the tiny RIB and off we went with the boatman. We soon found ourselves hovering over an immense extinct underwater volcano and it was time to get in the water. So together, just the two of us, we kitted up and jumped in. As we descended there was nothing to see and after about 5 minutes the Dive Master signalled that we should go up. Upon reaching the surface he told me we were in the wrong place! Going against much of what PADI teaches you about safe diving, we motored on to another spot and jumped in the water again.
This time it was different…
As we descended, the currents were swirling and there was life everywhere. We went down to about 25 metres, grabbed on to a rock and just watched, mesmerised as nature unfolded before us. All manner of creatures were out for their morning feed. There were countless sharks - Galapagos sharks, white-tips - more than I have ever seen in one place. And there were an unbelievable number of turtles.
And the best thing about it?
It was just the two of us. In a volcanic crater. In the Galapagos. At dawn. After about 30 minutes it was time to return to the surface, leaving this magical world behind. As we motored back to the main boat the sun was rising in the sky and we were back before the others had even woken up. Not a bad story to tell over breakfast.