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Tortuga Bay gives a wonderful idea of the scale of geological time. It is made from the ground up spines of the pencil spined sea urchins that we saw whilst snorkelling on Floreana as well as the excrement they produce after eating the white corals found offshore. The sand formed in this way is very fine and a beautiful shade of white. Just imagine how many thousands or even millions of years that it must have taken for these echinoderms to form the tonnes of sand that make up most of the Galapagos Islands’ beaches.
The beach is reached via a two kilometre path through the dunes from our hotel in Puerto Ayora. At the beginning of the path you sign in and out again to make sure that nobody is left on the beach when the gates are locked at 6pm. The long beach receives most of the ocean swell that comes from the south.
I went there on Wednesday afternoon to check out the waves to see what sort of board I should hire. On arrival I was disappointed in the waves – a strong onshore wind was blowing the shape out of what offshore swell there was. I walked the length of the beach in the shallows (a favourite occupation of my wife, dog and I).
When I got to the end I got a shock as I saw what I thought was a dead marine iguana washed up on the beach. Upon closer inspection I saw it was breathing. I looked around and there were many more. They were just basking as we had seen them doing on Floreana, they just looked particularly strange against the white sand. I think most were females as they lacked the vivid colours of the larger males that we had seen on Floreana.
Today, while the girls were getting their hands dirty volunteering at the recycling plant, Karen and I snuck off to take a look at the other half of Galapagos – that which lies beneath the sea.
Looking at our packed itinerary we’d realised that this morning’s activity was the only one we could bear to miss, so we booked ourselves on a dive trip to Mosquera and Seymour Island.
We’d both qualified fairly recently so hadn’t been sure that we’d be allowed to dive here- the currents can be strong and the water cold, so a lot of sites are only suitable for advanced divers. Luckily we found a reputable company that happened to be taking out a Canadian father and son who also were novices, and we were able to join them.
First we moored off Mosquera, a tiny reef of lava covered in sand, in between Baltra (where the airport is) and Seymour Island. After a quick weight check and briefing we entered the water ‘James Bond’ style and descended.
Our first encounter was a stingray resting on the bottom. Gradually we got down to 20 metres and swam along to peer off the edge of the reef into the deep. The water was about 15 degrees but we were warm in our thick wetsuits and swam along taking in pufferfish, angelfish, sea stars, bright blue nudibranchs (always a favourite of mine) and garden eels.
After about 40 mins, I was disappointed to find that I had reached the safe reserve of 50 bar of air, so Karen and Ryan, one of the other divers, had to come up with me. But the disappointment abated when we were joined in our (slightly too fast) ascent by two sea lions. They really are like the dogs of the sea; spinning around, copying us and generally larking about.
I knew we might see sea lions but its amazing to have one swim right up to your face at breakneck speed before veering off and upwards at the last possible moment. And it was something else when we ended playing fetch with one sea lion who stole Karen’s fin, dropped it and then grabbed it again just in time for Ryan to rescue it!
Not so amazing for Karen was the choppy water up top. Like Darwin, she struggled valiantly against seasickness, and recovered just enough to come down on the second dive at Seymour point. This one was tougher than the first with what felt to me like a fairly strong current. We pushed on, perhaps too hard as again I used my air pretty quickly, but not before we had all marvelled at a flock of about 25 beautiful manta rays passing overhead.
As we reached the point, the current slowed and we paused by a cave to watch a few white tip reef sharks napping in their sheltered spot. White tips are small (for sharks) – maybe 1.5 metres long – and they feed at night, so we were perfectly safe- just fascinated to get a close look at them through the mouth of the cave.
Karen and I ascended together and this time took care not to be distracted by sea lions and did a proper safety stop. Unfortunately the rolling waves near the surface did not do anything for Karen’s sea legs and she was feeling decidedly peaky as we hit air. To her dismay we surfaced a good way from the boat, and had to bob around for a bit before they picked us up and we struggled out of the water. But we made it, and the colour returned to Karen’s face just in time for her to attempt to eat some lunch as we sat up front in the sun watching sea lions, pelicans – and in Karen’s case – the horizon.
Diving out here is certainly not for the faint hearted (or delicate of stomach) but very rewarding and the only way to really see the other half of Galapagos. Just as on the surface, under water is teeming with life that is astonishingly happy to get up close and personal!
Post script – I have just managed to post this after a lengthy power cut which meant I had to type in the dark wearing a natty little head torch. I really hope this is not going to delay dinner – after all that exercise my stomach is growling.