Expedition to Galapagos

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Journal - Part Two Menu

Week Two

Filming and Diving: Post-El Nino
13 Feb. 1999 En Route to Roca Redonda, 7:00 a.m.

Could not find a quiet sand bottom at Cabo Douglas for camera tests, so we went around the inside to Punta Espinosa. What a place! Lots of colonies of blue-footed boobies, cormorants, quite a few penguins, sea turtles, marine iguanas, and of course the ubiquitous sea lions. Unfortunately, there were huge waves crashing near shore, preventing any filming, so Al et al. spent the day rigging the dive propulsion vehicles (DPVs – a.k.a. underwater scooters) on the camera frame and testing the system. Al will now be able to "fly" the camera through the water under the power of four battery-powered DPVs. I went down with them on one trial run on a ca. 47' sand bottom. Al was absolutely thrilled with his new toy, and he’s excited about the potential 3-D effect he can produce with this. He zooms around like a sea lion with the camera, and you have to clear out of his way when you see him coming! I worry a bit about his shooting up in the water column too quickly – i.e., potential embolism conditions.

The bottom on the dive was quite pretty, with huge areas of red and green algae. None of this was around during the summer shoot, so all of the growth – very lush in places – has occurred in the last 6 months. I saw some Serranus fasciatus, a small sting ray (can’t figure out what it was), some small king angelfish, and some big sea stars and the largest sand dollars I’ve ever seen. A sea lion came down to check us out. The water is cold – ca. 59-61 degrees F. I wore my new (now hoodless) vest, a skin, my thick wet suit, booty liners, and 24 lbs. of weight. I was fairly warm most of the dive but hate wearing all that weight. It should be warmer up north, so maybe I’ll get rid of the heavy suit to lighten the bulk a bit.

We are now approaching Roca Redonda. It’s a roughly rectangular slab of rock jutting out of the water. As I’ve been writing here, a band of clouds has risen from the water and completely obscured the island from view. This is a very large rock slab, we’re only a couple miles from it, and it has disappeared completely from view. Early sailors to Galapagos, apparently baffled by the sudden appearance and disappearance of the islands, gave them the name Las Islas Encantadas, or The Enchanted Isles, enchanted here presumably meaning "bewitched." The enchanted isles live on...

14 Feb. 1999 Wolf Island, 8:00 a.m.

The first day of filming yesterday at Roca Redonda was excellent! Al got into an enormous column of fish (pompano, barracuda, others?) And propelled through it with the new and improved "batmobile." The visual imagery is stunning, as we saw later on video. On the second dive, I went in to be filmed exploring hydrothermal streams of bubbles at about 60 ft. There were hundreds of little bubble streams coming up from the bottom, a sure sign that there's ongoing hydrothermal activity here. Afterwards, we swam (well, I did, Al motored!) Against the current until we got into the most enormous school of barracuda I've ever seen. A ca. 30 ft. column of barracuda encircled me, and I was spinning slowly around, dazzled by being surrounded by these big silvery fish. It was mesmerizing - and intimidating - but then they left me seemingly as quickly as they encircled me.

We all watched the footage around 5:30 p.m. Had an early dinner and then went straight to bed. Didn't sleep well as we cruised north to Wolf, as it got pretty choppy, and then I was wide awake while they tried to locate an anchorage spot. An advantage of having a room on the upper level of the ship is that you get lots of fresh air, and the room stays fairly cool. The disadvantage is that the upper part of the ship rocks and rolls much more than the lower part. My bed is oriented port-starboard, supposedly the best because you typically rock head-to-toe rather than side-to-side, but I don't know. When everything in your body rushes at one moment towards your head and the next toward your toes, it is uncomfortable! Fortunately, I'm not prone to sea sickness, so the rough water is just an annoyance to put up with.

It is stunning here at Wolf! The island is a large volcanic slab with nearly vertical sides and lots of birds. Dave said that Steadman believes Roca Redonda has more birds, but it's difficult to see much difference. At Roca Redonda, I spent a long time studying the birds and learned to spot the Galapagos storm petrel (white belly, brown back with a crescent-shaped white patch near tail, small bird), and the Audubon shearwater (larger bird, brown head and back with no white spots on back, white belly).

Al will go in with Mathias this morning to survey the area for filming later. If there are no big animals, we might work later on some of the shots establishing me with underwater collecting gear.

10:30 a.m. Am sitting here studying the birds on the NW side of Wolf. There are hundreds of frigates, many males with expanded red throat pouches. They sit on ledges and puff up to an enormous size! They fly with it deflated, but some still have it the size of a grapefruit. The females have a white throat. I am also seeing sea gulls but can't tell if any of them are lava gulls (black head, black feet). Some are definitely the endemic swallowtail gull (black head, red feet) that we saw so many of at night up here on the last trip. There are also red-footed and masked boobies on the ledge. The latter are white with gold beak and grayish feet. The red-footed boobies have red feet and a bluish beak.

15 Feb. 1999, Darwin Island, 7:30 a.m.

Arrived here about a half hour ago. Wolf was kind of a bust. Al and Mathias did find a gold mine of animals - hammerheads, manta rays, Galapagos sharks, etc. But it was overcast all day and actually rained late afternoon. We did do a dive in early afternoon with me writing on my slate and collecting fishes with quinaldine and a dip net. But light conditions and visibility were poor, and the footage isn't exciting. The anchorage at Wolf was rough, and we bounced around a lot throughout the day and night. Pulled anchor about 4:00 a.m. to head here. Darwin looks promising! There are some swells near the arch, but it's much calmer than in the summer. Randy says it's the calmest he's ever seen. The sky is partly cloudy, but patches of blue are promising. This kind of natural history filming is so tough - have to have the animals, light, visibility, and calm seas. A lot to ask from nature on any given day...

I had a lot of fun watching the birds at Wolf yesterday. Along the upper ledge on one side of the island we cruised around, there were lots of different birds sitting side-by-side: a puffed up male frigate next to a masked booby next to a swallowtail gull next to a red-footed booby, etc. This mixing of so many things in a single community is something we didn't get a good sense of this summer, but little was as it should have been during the summer...

Yesterday afternoon, I read some old papers on Galapagos that were discarded from a deceased colleague's library. In a paper about the oceanography of Galapagos, the author wrote "no place on Earth is exactly like any other place, but the Galapagos Islands are less like all other places." I love this description. I'm now seeing a very different Galapagos than we saw last summer - many more animals and marine algae, lots of fog and cloudy days, intense heat in Puerto Ayora but cool water and air temperatures at sea... So, in addition to geographic isolation and a recent volcanic origin, climatic fluctuations must play a big role in shaping the islands and their inhabitants.

I haven't gotten to do any fish sampling (or fishing) yet, but I hope that will soon change. I just noticed that when I started the journal for this trip, I was religiously putting down the day of the week for each entry, but this practice stopped the second day out at sea. Although I didn't do this intentionally, it just goes to show that while the day of the week has an enormous impact on what we do in our normal day-to-day routines at home, it has no relevance out here. How liberating!

16 Feb. 1999, Darwin Is., 7:30 a.m.

Al is a happy man. Have 3-D IMAX camera on four DPVs, will travel! The scout dive yesterday morning at Darwin arch turned up lots of hammerheads and some manta rays, but the currents are pretty swift. The top part of the water column was 78 degrees or so and going in one direction; at 70 ft. the temperature was 55 degrees and the water was moving in the opposite direction! Where these two different water masses met (an area called a front), there was almost zero visibility -- it's like looking through glycerin or Karo syrup. Al decided to try the first filming here with just the "boys" (Randy, Mathias, Mitch). The protocol for diving here in the relatively strong and rapidly changing currents is that the DAPHNE, the zodiac, and the small panga from the DAPHNE will all cruise around the arch as spotters. And Ray will be one of the passengers in the zodiac and will wear his headset through which he can communicate with Al.

So, we were gearing up to go over to the arch (we're anchored closer to Darwin Island than to the Arch because it's calmer) when Captain Marlin asked Mathias to dive down and check the anchor. Mathias surfaced jubilant - he'd seen a couple hundred hammerhead sharks right beneath the boat! Plans changed, and Al and the boys decided to go in right here. The water was clear (ca. 100 ft. visibility), the sun shining, and currents not nearly as swift here.

So, Al got his first hammerhead footage. We watched it after lunch yesterday and saw that he got one great shot with 8-12 sharks and a few other shots of solo sharks amidst big fish schools. Very nice. And he was able to get quite close to these animals, even with the enormous camera system. He tried another dive on the same spot in the afternoon, but skies were cloudy, and he wasn't thrilled about the footage. But he is thrilled about a system that allows him to hold his own against the current and move the camera with ease.

The day was turning out to be a pretty inactive one for me, so about 3 p.m., I took my "Lord of the Dance" CD up here on the top deck and did an hour of aerobics. What fun. It's not often one gets to exercise on the top deck of a ship in Galapagos surrounded by dolphins and sea turtles and birds...!

A little later, I got to go with DAPHNE crew members Benigno and Jorge to do a little fishing. Caught two rainbow runners (Elagatis), one palometa (Seriola), and one black jack (Caranx) with my largest silver spoon. Lost quite a few things, including something "mas grande." Jorge was fishing with a hand line and didn't have much luck, except for one very large trumpetfish - I'd never heard of anyone catching a trumpetfish trolling before! We went around the west side of Darwin and were able to troll right up against the island. It was fantastic being so close to all the birds I'd been observing, and the eroded nature of the island on that side is spectacular. We were out for about an hour and a half and then came back around to the northwest side. Suddenly we were in the midst of hundreds of dolphins - bow riding along our little panga, jumping, tail thumping - the works! It's one thing to see this from the deck of a large ship; it's another to be in a small boat, essentially sitting at water level, and be in the middle of this activity. Another memorable experience...

After dinner, I was able to set my plankton net off the stern of the DAPHNE. It's a little tough sorting the sample on a rocking ship, but I was able to pick out quite a few fish larvae and some larval squid. I'm happy to have the chance to collect fish larvae on this trip from the DAPHNE because she can anchor much closer to shore than the SEWARD JOHNSON could, and I expect to collect taxa that I didn't collect during the summer. Without a microscope on board, I'll have to wait until I return to identify things, but I'm finding that for the most part, I can determine to what order, suborder or family a fish larva belongs with my naked eye.

Having been in Galapagos now for about 10 days, I can definitely say that I'm glad I'm here. We're roughing it a bit in terms of hard beds, a rocking ship, etc., but no complaints. Spirits are high, and I pray that all continues to go well.

Two dive boats from the AGGRESSOR fleet are to come to Darwin Island today, and we'll obtain fresh water from them. So far, supplies are holding out well. The food that chef Enrique (with his newly shaved head!) and assistant chef Joni are cooking is excellent, and although many on the ship have had the stomach bug that I came on board with, we have had no major problems with illness. I'll never forget that feeling of coming on board this ship feeling so sick....

Time to change the larvae I collected last night from formalin to ethanol - and then drink more water. Randy, Mitch, Stu, Russ, Jon and I sat up last night having a drink and talking. Mitch explained to everyone how dangerous bounce dives and rapid descents and ascents can be. Everyone was listening so intently - Mitch holding court is getting to be relatively common. Randy then told us about a book he'd just read about drinking water - and the miraculous health benefits you get from water. The book suggests that most people go through their whole lives dehydrated! So, we all got bottles of water and chugged them. I've been drinking probably 8 of those 'agua sin gas' bottles a day, so I think I'm staying fairly well hydrated.

We've pulled anchor and are heading to the arch for Al et al. to try the first camera dive there. Not sure if I'll be in the water today, but I'm guessing there's a chance. The sun is out now following a very dreary early morning. The water is incredibly more beautiful with sunlight than without, and since we're not filming with lights underwater, we need the sun.

17 Feb. 1999, Darwin Is., 8:00 a.m.

Yesterday, I dove with hammerheads - big ones! Just a short dive beneath the boat with Jon Dodson. We saw a lot of big fish, several sharks, and a big sea turtle. I had hoped to do some collecting, but the current was ripping, and as soon as we left the drop line we started getting carried pretty far downstream. We spent most of the dive laboriously swimming back upstream towards the boat! But a lot of wildlife passed us as we were doing this.

Al did two "solo" film dives at the arch yesterday and got some footage of sharks. I say "solo" because although he's the only one in the water, Ray can talk to him and him to Ray, and all boats encircle the area and keep track of his whereabouts via his bubbles. This worked well, and Al was happy and relaxed enough to allow a "recreational" dive in the afternoon for some of his guys who don't get to dive very often. Hence, my dive with Jon.

Today, Al was planning one solo dive this morning at the arch, and then the two of us were to go together later on. However, the wind blew up last night and completely changed directions, and it is very rough this morning. The nights on the DAPHNE up here at Darwin have been full of rockin' and rollin', and last night was no exception. So, it was another night of little sleep. I was able to fish my net again last night, but the sample was small. I plan on leaving it out longer tonight in hopes of a denser sample.

Al and Mathias have just run over to the arch to check out the conditions. Al is worried about trying to deploy the camera in this rough water. It is a tricky operation - even in calm waters - and by far the most dangerous part of the filming. The wench lifts the camera off the deck, and about 8 guys gather around it to push it out away from the boat and over the water. Mitch and Randy are in the water, holding lines attached to the camera and helping to guide it out. The dangerous part is that once the camera is off the deck, any rocking of the ship can set the camera swinging. And with the 4 DPVs added, the system is now about 2000 lbs.! As it takes at least a couple minutes to swing the arm from which the camera is suspended out over the water, there is almost always some boat movement during the launch. As soon as the camera is over water, the wench unwinds the cable to drop the camera into the water. If the camera starts swinging back towards the boat when it is being lowered, it can easily smash into the side of the ship - and anyone standing there guiding it. So, deploying the camera in rough water is tough, and today we sit on the ship not filming simply because we can't get the camera in the water.

The bottle-nose dolphins have sure been entertaining us up here. They seem to be darker and more robust than east-coast U.S. bottle-nose dolphins, and they can jump like crazy! I watched several bow riding yesterday and was thinking what a great 3-D shot it would make to mount the camera facing downward just off the bow and capture this phenomenon - something most people will never see but one that never ceases to amuse me.

The AGGRESSOR dive boat arrived here during the night, but they too are sitting tight this morning hoping for calmer seas. They apparently had no luck diving at Wolf because of rough conditions. We're all hoping that we don't have to leave here because there's little chance that we'll return. And we all feel there's more footage to be shot here. Come on wind, settle down!

18 Feb. 1999, Darwin Is., 7:45 a.m.

We ended up doing no filming yesterday because of rough seas. Days like that are tedious - it's like sitting in an airport waiting to depart on a flight that keeps being postponed. If you knew you'd be waiting 8 hours, you could go off and do something, but you end up just pacing around and reading a little, continuously watching and waiting to see what happens. But the seas were uncooperative yesterday. The size of the waves around the arch and southern tip of Darwin were impressive! It's calmed down considerably today, although the wind is still creating some choppiness. Al has just left on the zodiac to check out conditions at the arch. The AGGRESSOR divers (German tourists) did make a couple dives yesterday (they don't have a 2000 lb. camera to wrestle with!), and they said the visibility was good and there were lots of hammerheads. In addition to the AGGRESSOR, there were three local fishing boats up here yesterday. Suddenly, our wilderness was crowded! The fishing boats seem awfully small (ca. 40 ft.?) To be way up here, but the pay-off must be worth the risk. They set "longlines" out along the bottom, and we saw them bring in a lot of big-eye jacks.

I did better with my plankton net last night. Among other things, I got an eel larva (leptocephalus) and something I didn't recognize that has a black stomach and black spot on the caudal peduncle (paralepidid?). [For anyone reading this journal I should point out that I keep a separate log for scientific collections - station data, specimens collected, rough sketches, and many notes, so don't think that the mostly non-scientific prose you read here is all there is!]

Well, I'm hoping to get in the water at the arch today. I'm anxious to see what it's like to swim with the hammerheads, and I'll be disappointed if I don't get the chance. I do think Al will want to hang out here until he gets all the footage he wants, so there's a good chance I'll get my screen time with the sharks!

19 Feb. 1999, Darwin Is., 7:45 a.m.

Another low-key day yesterday. Still, I was exhausted last night. In part I think this is from too many consecutive nights of little sleep. Also, I think we're actually getting a lot more exercise than we think just trying to stand, sit, and walk on this rocking ship! Al did two film dives solo at the arch yesterday but was disappointed to find that the big hammerhead school wasn't there. Also, visibility was down, so we continue to wait for better water to return. In another day or two, we will leave here regardless. Mathias has convinced us to stop at Marchena on the way back south. He says it's his favorite spot of the Archipelago. So far, he has not led us astray, so Al is listening to him. Right now, poor Matt (as he's now called - for some reason, most of our gang could not say mah-TEE-us - and kept calling him mah-TAY-oh and other names) is down below with an ear infection. He seems to be in quite a bit of pain.

I swam with dolphins yesterday - well sort of. I was in the water after lunch taking a swim and about a dozen bottle-nose dolphins came within 15 ft. or so of me. I could hear their calling underwater, haunting in a beautiful way. The animals are so powerful and graceful, but they don't come nearly as close as the young sea lions.

 

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