Diving in the Galapagos

My dive instructor advised me at the end of my PADI Open Water course that you won’t like every dive. I brushed him off when he told me that. How could a dive be anything but magical? I was completely in love with the sport, and the idea of breathing underwater for long periods of time. It was a completely romantic idea.
Snorkeling with sea lions

Chasing after sea lions won't get you very far

Snorkeling and I go way back. It’s an awesome, fairly low-cost activity that makes the world seem so much larger. A mask and snorkel, and you’re good to go. Sure, fins make the job a lot easier, but you *can* snorkel without them. You just won’t go very far.

With such mind-blowing snorkeling experiences such as the Silfra divide in Iceland, I was already off to a good start. I was psyched to plunge into the Pacific and try to spot one of only 500 pairs of Humbolt penguins. I wasn’t disappointed. This little guy decide to swim by me one afternoon.

A humble humbolt penguin zips by

An 8-day yacht trip in the Galapagos archipelago is just what the doctor ordered as a treatment for a broken heart – or would have ordered, had I gone to see a doctor. My days were spent meandering through sun baked lava, dodging land iguanas and blue footed boobies at every turn. The days were interspersed with life under the sea; chasing sea turtles and foolishly waking white tipped reef sharks from their slumber.

To wake a sleeping shark, yank on its tail. It's safe, I promise!

I asked my dive instructor to explain how I could possibly not be smitten with every dive. I’m in love with the idea of the sport, I dream about it constantly, I spend my days thinking of where to go diving next.

“There are lots of reasons why you may not have a good dive,” Greg explained. “I’m a dive instructor and I don’t love all of my dives.”

I pressed on for more information, the wind howling through a 24th story window in a Montreal high rise on a cold March night in 2010.

“You might not like your dive partner, you might have awkward gear, the gear might not fit right, you might not like the dive operator, you might have concerns for your safety…” he went on and on, like someone trying to dump a brief fling.

It has been over a year since that lesson, and I put it out of my mind without a further thought.

But sitting on the back of a dive boat near North Seymour island in the Galapagos archipelago, about to do my first backwards entry roll into the choppy waves a metre below, Greg’s voice was clear in my mind. I had a rushed breakfast that morning, skipped my brain-sustaining cup of coffee. When the dinghies returned to our yacht, the dive boat was waiting for us, and I was stressed out. The wetsuit was an awkward fit – too loose on the thighs, too tight on the calves, and generally awkward. (Neoprene suits are always awkward. This one was atrocious.)

It boiled down to trust. This was my first dive after my Open Water exam, and 8 months had passed in the interim. I reread my dive manual on the plane, but it wasn’t fresh in my mind. The one thing that kept shouting in my mind was the need to do a safety check with the weight belt.

Every time you dive, the conditions are different. I learned how to dive in cold freshwater. This was warm sea water. I learned how to dive in calm but murky lake water. This was choppy dark sea water, with a strong current, and 2 metre waves. I also lost 25 pounds since when I learned how to dive. These are all conditions that will affect how much lead weight you strap to your body, an essential piece of dive gear that helps keep you neutrally buoyant underwater, and is instrumental in helping you get to the desired depth.

And here we were, beginning our descent, without checking if 12 kg of lead weight was sufficient for a beginner diver. I know that when I dived in freshwater, I wore 18 kg – but I was wearing a 14 mm wet suit (that’s pretty thick, for you non-divers). This time I was wearing a 7 mm wet suit, but salt water increases your buoyancy, and you typically need more weight.

I breathed out, and released all the air in my BCD (buoyancy control device), and didn’t go anywhere. The rest of the group was already a metre down. I signaled to the dive master that I was going nowhere fast. He wasn’t helpful. A wave splashed over me and thoroughly freaked me out. I climbed back in the boat, ripped off my mask and immediately quit diving forever. I was cold, wet, miserable, and scared. My first attempt at diving, in a nutshell, sucked.

Except this break-up wasn’t forever. A week later, with a different dive operator, I was back at North Seymour. Us beginner divers rolled into the choppy sea together, and tested our weight, one by one. I felt safe. This dive master was patient.

We descended together. One metre. Five metres. Ten metres. Fifteen metres. Eighteen metres, the maximum depth my license allows. The dive master from Scuba Iguana let me hold his hand, and I didn’t let go until we resurfaced.

A hoboshutterbug on her first dive!

Know how in Disney’s Aladdin, he takes Jasmin on a magic carpet ride? Know? Well I felt like Jasmin as we kicked our fins with the current, and a sea turtle swam by overhead. Five metres up, it was as if it was flying above us. Still don’t know what I’m talking about? Here, let this video jog your memory.

Enchanted Galapagos sea turtle

Together, Manolo the dive master and I drifted through the current, staring at the critters hidden inside the coral. Motionless, we let schools of fish surround us, wrapping us in a thick blanket of brightly coloured scales. He motioned for me to come closer to the rocks, and I carefully drew closer, still holding on like a school girl.

Sea urchin - Cousins Rock, Galapagos

I might have had a bad first dive, but I gave it another try. I know I won’t like every dive. There will be days I won’t feel well, where my rental gear is crap, or I cannot stand my dive partner. But there’s a whole amazing world under water, and life is too short to let one bad dive get in my way.

And with that, I was forever hooked on diving.


59 thoughts on “Diving in the Galapagos

  1. On my first open-water ocean dive (I had never even snorkeled in the ocean, and my certification dives were also in a lake) I jumped in, caught a glance of the sea floor below, bobbed back up and yelled “OMG! IT’S JUST LIKE FINDING NEMO!” And thus began my obsession with diving!

    I’m so glad you eventually found your diving magic, too. It’s true, there are lots of blah dives in the life of a diving enthusiast – once I even got stung on the face by a jellyfish! But now that’s just a memory and a funny story to tell. And it’s worth it for those magical, shining moments where you feel like Jasmine! Or Ariel – LOL!

    • I can’t imagine ever getting sick of diving. And Darwin’s finches were everywhere, but I really couldn’t see the differences between them. I guess I’m not as biologically skilled as I thought!

  2. Great photos. Loved the post: all so true that some dives are better than others with choppy sea conditions and gear concerns topping my list of dives that are less than ideal. But I always head back out another day and am glad that I did.

    I can totally relate to the weight belt issue. When we first started diving, my husband would have to descend a bit and then pull on my fins to get me to break below the surface. After that initial descent, I was okay. It gets better with more diving and I can now descend on my own!

    • Apparently the Galapagos dive sites are considered intermediate to advanced dives for the most part, with Gordon’s Rock being a very difficult dive. One day I’ll probably get a weight-integrated BCD to avoid the whole weight belt issue, but that is a long way off. I have a lot of confidence to gain first.

  3. Great photos. I admire you for sticking with it. Diving is something I a still a little too fearful to try.

    Congrats on being Freshly Wet, I mean Freshly Pressed…oops sorry. 🙂



    • Thanks, I was totally trying to figure out where all the new readers came from, your reply sent me in the right direction to figure out why.

      I’m still terrified of the sport. But you only live once, so sometimes you have to face your fear, because the adrenaline payoff is worth it.

  4. Great photos! I tried to snorkle in the Bahamas, but it didn’t work out too well. My mask had water in it and I got scared. I’m glad you had a great time, perhaps one day I will try it again.

    • Water in the mask is a scary thing. You can fix it by exhaling through your nose, and the air displaces the water in the mask. I am not a fan of leaky masks; aside from clouding your vision, they trigger you brain’s “Oh shit, I’m breathing but my eyes are wet – this means I’m drowning!” response. Give it a try with a different mask, I bet you’ll have a better time. Try in shallow water first.

  5. I’m from Ecuador and never visited Galapagos however it’s about an hour and a half by airplane from my city. Good for you!
    Going to the islands is on my next 5 years agenda. =)

  6. I snorkeled in the Galapagos Islands last summer! what an INCREDIBLE experience just snorkeling, not even diving!

  7. Pingback: Diving in the Galapagos (via Hoboshutterbug’s Blog) | I Draw A Rainbow When The Sun Is Shining

  8. i pretty scared of diving into the sea, well you know shark, and other dangerous animal out there and I don’t think so about going to dive. Plus I have not skill at all in diving, so for me it hard thing to do in past time. I see that you are having a great time diving with your friend and wonderful sea animal there which is cute.

    Founder of Cuisinart TOB-195
    Acer 11.6 Netbook

  9. LOve your photos. Like a few replies, I’m very happy for someone else to ake the great underwater shots while I keep my feet dry. Stunning. Thanks for sharing them with us.

  10. Cool photos of your dive! That must have been an amazing experience. I went diving off of Key West once, and it was unforgettable. Thanks for sharing your story and pics!

  11. Wow, fabulous pictures! I especially like your sea urchin and sea lion shots! I really enjoy snorkeling so have contemplated learning to dive. Always wanted to visit the Galapagos, too, so it’s fun to see some pictures of someone’s trip there.

  12. Great pictures. I like how you shared you had a rough experience and were able to get back up and try again. I am glad your second experience was much better. It is nice to have someone who is willing to hold our hand when we need a little more support!

    My husband desperately wants to get scuba certified together and go diving. We went to a school in town and did the discovery dive where you just try it out in their 15 ft deep pool to see if you think you can do it before paying for classes. I have such bad allergies and am always congested. I couldn’t seem to figure out how to “clear my ears” and kinda panicked.

    I would love more than anything to do this with my hubby because I know it would delight him but because of my first experience I am nervous to even try again.

    I am curious how you felt when you were first trying, wondering what I felt was normal or maybe a sign that it isn’t right for me?


    • I felt really nervous in the pool checkout dives too, but I’m a very nervous and high strung person by nature. The first time I had to remove my mask underwater and put it back on, I freaked out and went shooting back up to the surface. I have no aspirations to be the best diver in the world, I just want to be a safe diver and check out the fishies.

      Clearing your ears gets easier, but it is an essential skill. It’s important not to dive if you are feeling congested, and equally important not to take anti-histamines before diving. I have pretty bad allergies myself, so I know there will be days where I have my heart set on diving, but it just won’t happen.

      Anyone can theoretically dive, the skills can be amended for example to allow paraplegic individuals a chance to dive with modified fins for the hands. If it is a sport that really interests you, try getting to the bottom of your allergies first and then perhaps it will work. My own allergies seem to be more manageable when I’m travelling, simply because I haven’t been exposed to those allergens before, and I usually have enough grace period in a location to experience it before my body remembers it is super allergic to all the lovely pollen.

      • Thanks for the tips. Sometimes I just need to go easier on myself. I am working with an allergist now. Hopefully someday soon we can try again. Thanks for sharing your experience. 🙂

  13. Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Anyway I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon.

  14. What an experience! Glad to hear you didn’t give up after the first try! As a Divemaster I remember precisely both the feeling from when I was a beginner of believing that there can’t exist such a thing as a bad dive and the first experience of such a dive, and many more to come. But as you say, it’s truly a fascinating world down there and it’s without doubt worth the inevitable occasional bad dive! Keep enjoying! =)

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