On his first visit to the Brazilian rainforest, Darwin wrote:

“The delight one experiences in such times bewilders the mind, — if the eye attempts to follow the flight of a gaudy butter-fly, it is arrested by some strange tree or fruit; if watching an insect one forgets it in the stranger flower it is crawling over, — if turning to admire the splendour of the scenery, the individual character of the foreground fixes the attention. The mind is a chaos of delight, out of which a world of future & more quiet pleasure will arise.”

I’ve had this experience several times already here in Galapagos – notably on our first landing on Floreana, when, just off the boat, marine iguanas vied against sea lions and crabs for our immediate attention. I didn’t know where to point my lens, and I’m pretty sure I was grinning like an idiot.

I thought of the passage again yesterday, but in a very different environment: 20 metres underwater on an edge of lava just off Mosquero, a small island just north of Baltra.

While the rest of our group were doing their part for the islands’ delicate environment by volunteering at the recycling center, Amy and I fulfilled a dream by going scuba diving. These islands are so famous for their diversity of plants and animals on land, but the marine environment here boasts even more abundant and unique life forms. It’s just that most people never see it.

We weren’t sure we’d get to see it either. Galapagos is known for its strong currents and cold water, and we’d heard that most dives here are only suitable for advanced divers. Though Amy and I are both PADI Open Water certified, neither of us had more than 15 dives under our belt; we’re both still novices. Fortunately we found a dive shop willing to take us (and three other newbies who’d signed up) to Mosquero and Seymour North, one of the few dive sites they said were suitable for novice/intermediate divers.

On the morning of the dive, we arrived at the shop at 7:20am, picked up our gear in town and drove off back north towards the ferry crossing to Baltra where we boarded the dive boat. I’d taken my seasickness tablet as indicated, 30-60 minutes before the boat ride, and was feeling confident, having had  good experience in choppy water in California earlier this summer.

We arrived at the first dive site – Mosquera – in about 45 minutes and after a briefing we got in the water and descended to 20 meters. We gently made our way along a lava edge, where we saw (among other things, of course) small sting rays, chocolate chip sea stars, garden eels and – most impressively – enormous shoals of all sizes and colors of fish congregating around the edge. I was impressed by the liquid mirages we passed through when moving from warm to cold water or vice versa; the reason Galapagos hosts such abundant and diverse sea life is the mixing of warm and cold currents, the latter bringing up nutrient-rich material from the deep.

Just as we were ascended, a group of Galapagos sea lions arrived and put our clumsy underwater swimming to shame with their expert twists and spins, coming close enough for a short staring match before darting away again. At the surface, just as we were getting ready to kick back to the boat, I felt my right fin slip off my foot. My immediate reaction wasn’t to wonder how I would get to the boat, it was, ‘Oh no! I’m polluting Galapagos with plastic!’ As I looked around for the fin, I saw that one of the sea lions had it in its mouth and was playing with it. I motioned to it, like you might motion to a dog to drop a Frisbee, and immediately realized how silly that was. In the meantime, a far more sensible member of our group nearer to the sea lion reached over and gently took back the fin.

As we swam back through choppy water and climbed aboard the boat, I started to notice something was wrong. I felt off-balance and my stomach was uneasy. I hoped it was just short-lived disorientation from the shift from water to boat, but as I started to shed my gear, it hit home: I was seasick and it was escalating fast.

I fixed my eyes on a small hill on Mosquera and concentrated hard. Looking away – even just thinking away – from the horizon for even a moment brought me perilously close to being sick. Amy asked me if I wanted water, and I just shook my head, not looking at her or even trying to form words for fear of losing my visual anchor. The effort of it started to make me shake all over, or maybe I was cold – I don’t know. I couldn’t even bring myself to form the words needed to explain to Amy where my seasickness tablets were in my bag. This went on for what seemed like an eternity but was probably closer to 30 minutes, and only abated when the engines came on and we started to regain a forward motion through the water. The driver mercifully took the boat to a calmer bit of water for our hour-long surface interval. This helped immensely and I was able to drink some water, take a second tablet (I probably should have taken two to start with) and nibble on an apple.

The hour was over too fast and it was decision time: would I try the second dive? My stomach wasn’t really settled – I was still watching the horizon as much as possible, and found that too much moving or talking started to set me off again. We were headed back into the choppy water – this time off Seymour North – and everyone was getting their gear on. In the end I listened to our guide who told me that the best way to get rid of my seasickness was to get back underwater.

So I donned my gear and after pushing aside a second thought as a wave of nausea moved over me, I dropped into the water. Our guide was right, as soon as I had descended a few meters, my seasickness went away completely and I was enjoying the sights and sounds of underwater life again.

On this dive Amy and I both struggled a bit to keep up with the group, who, it seemed to us, were swimming rather too fast against the current. The water was murkier this time and I couldn’t see our guide ahead so I just concentrated on staying with Amy. The downside of this is that the more you’re putting into swimming and not getting left behind, the less you’re paying attention to what’s around you. That’s why I’m pretty sure I was the last to notice the 20+ manta rays overhead. They were swimming – though from our vantage point it looked like flying – in a bird-like formation, dark blue silhouettes against a light blue-green background.

Before ascending, we paused at a small cave with some sleepy white-tipped sharks. On the way up, I started to worry about the choppy water I knew was waiting for me at the surface. As our heads came up and we looked around for the boat, I could feel the seasickness coming on again. We saw a boat a short distance away but it wasn’t ours. When we did spot our boat, we saw them signaling for us to swim over, but with the water so choppy and me feeling less than energetic, we waved for them to come pick us up. It was a good thing too because as I started kicking, my fin came off again – this time no sea lions in sight. I grabbed it and started kicking feebly with my one fin. I’m sure I was a pretty miserable looking figure. We got on the boat as quickly as possible as there were rocks nearby, and this time as they helped me out of my gear, though I was feeling uneasy as well as emotionally and physically tired, the second seasickness tablet kept me reasonably steady, though I admit I was glad when we picked up the others and started heading back along Baltra for the ferry landing on Santa Cruz.

On the way back, we made a stop in calm water for lunch, though all I could do was poke at it and eat a few small bites. Nevertheless I felt so much better, and as we were sitting up near the bow in the sun I started getting a sort of post-seasickness euphoria: I was just so happy to feel well again, and here we were in Galapagos! …on a boat! …in the sun! …and we’d seen sea lions and manta rays! It was almost worth the seasickness to feel so good… almost.

Note: Don’t miss Amy’s post recounting the day from her point of view.