Expedition to Galapagos

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Week Three

20 Feb. 1999, Saturday, Darwin Is., 8:15 a.m.

We were supposed to be in the water by now, but then clouds moved in, so again we sit and wait. Al had a great dive at the arch yesterday morning – decent visibility – and he found lots of hammerheads on the back side of the arch. I was to go with him on the afternoon dive (we had to wait about 4 hours for the DPV batteries to recharge) and, by then, the water was murky and much rougher and the animals were gone. So, I never even went in the water. We hope to get this shot with me and the hammerheads today and perhaps a couple more of my POVs of sharks, and then leave later today and head to Marchena.

We are again surrounded by dolphins as I sit here and write. There are so many of them (hundreds) around Darwin, and they constantly entertain us with high jumps – sometimes in pairs and seemingly backwards! – tail thumping, etc.

A large, German, steel-hulled sailing vessel arrived here last night from Puerto Ayora with supplies for us. Our DAPHNE crew really hustled to get everything unloaded, and Stu saw that our film was safely put on that boat.


Diving with Hammerhead Sharks
21 Feb. 1999, Sunday, Darwin Is., 7:45 a.m.

Yesterday marked two weeks of this expedition, and one-third of the total. It’s going quickly. Made my first dive with the large hammerhead schools at the arch yesterday. Remarkable! Al and I worked together for about 50 minutes. At times, I’d swim alone and others I’d hang on to the top of his tank and catch a ride (Batman and Robin we’re now called) – what fun! The currents were strong, and I had to use all my energy to make progress swimming against them. Al would typically have me swim out in front of the camera into the current and then off to the left or right when we saw hammerheads. Although I was able to get quite close (ca. 6 ft.) occasionally, we were never able to get the sharks between me and the camera. This is difficult logistically since I have such limited movement in the strong currents. Nevertheless, we now have footage that establishes me with the sharks, and I now feel that I could comment on them to others. First, they are impressive! Al guessed that they ranged from 100-600 lbs. and are 8-12 ft. in length. I don’t think he’s exaggerating much with the high end. These animals are robust. I was very surprised at how docile they seemed, however. They seemed quite wary of us – perhaps it’s the huge camera system that scares them – it is a monstrosity!

I sat in the zodiac for two of Al’s three dives yesterday – this is a bit frustrating, as it’s hot as heck sitting on a black rubber boat all dressed in neoprene! At one point when we were sitting on the zodiac monitoring Al’s dive position, there were dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, sharks, and lots of birds entertaining us. So much wildlife in one place! We all think the dolphins must be in their breeding season right now. There is so much activity other than their normal swimming – pairs will jump into the air, swim together, and thump their tails. I know very little about mating behavior of dolphins. Need to look into this when I return home. One dolphin leaped so far out of the water yesterday that it looked as though it had been fired from a canon! They must be getting plenty of food to have the energy to perform all these antics. Either that, or there’s a powerful sexual selection pressure for them to do this. Perhaps the greatest male leaper or loudest tail thumper wins the female...

Last night, as I was sitting in the galley sorting through my plankton sample, a bird came crashing into the bar, rustling the glasses in the wine rack and settling on the floor behind the bar. This bird was one of the endemic Galapagos swallowtail gulls that feeds at night. I got some great pictures of its red feet and red eye ring. We were able to hold the bird for a while, and then I released it over the side of the ship.

I wrote at the beginning of this expedition about how calm the ocean looks from the perspective of an airplane, but that the distance actually obscures all the action taking place on the surface. And I noted that this could be a good analogy for many things in the science world. Yesterday, I read a similar thought in Jonathon Steiner’s Pulitzer Prize winning book "The Beak of the Finch." His point is that when biological life is viewed over a long period of time, i.e., when looking at the fossil record, things appear relatively stable. But the closer you look, i.e., on a day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year basis, the more you realize that biological life isn’t static at all. His examples of rapid changes in morphology of finches and guppies due to variable selection during periods of drought or flood (finches) or in the presence or absence of predators (guppies) really shows that nature is constantly changing. Changes in populations of animals and plants occur even in your backyard – it just takes a lot of patience and time to measure changes to see them!

We sit here at Darwin this morning waiting for some sun. We have the calm water and the animals, now we need sun. It’s always something! If we can get a couple dives in here today (Al thinks he can do better with me today although I’m not sure what he’s thinking), we will then move south to Marchena.

22 Feb. 1999, Marchena, 6:40 a.m.

We finished at Darwin with a bang yesterday. When Al jumped in for his first dive, he was surrounded by hundreds of sharks. We re-loaded film quickly, and he was back in for another shot. Amazingly, between the time of the first dive and the second, the animals dispersed, and visibility dropped (either that or he didn’t hit the same spot and/or Randy and Mitch spooked the sharks with all their hollering at the surface as they snorkeled around warily watching them!). A note here, in case I haven’t already explained. Reloading the camera isn’t a quick and simple matter. The typical load for the camera was 3 minutes worth of film, and then it takes about an hour to reload. Plus the time to retrieve and deploy the camera. Also, apparently each 3 minutes of film that goes through the camera costs about $4,000! Anyway, the current was so fierce that Al didn’t call me in. He decided to recharge the DPV batteries for only a short time and go back in with me at 3:00, hoping that the current would slack off a bit. He was right. We went in together, I grabbed on to his tank, and we started cruising around. Al dropped me off on a rock pinnacle at about 50 ft., and I immediately began to see big sharks. As I was alone and not very close to the "batmobile," these animals didn’t seem all that fearful of me and would come quite close before turning away. I was so caught up in watching the animals that I forgot to watch where Al went. Soon I heard him through the buddy phone earpiece saying "swim towards me Carole." Hmmmm, which way would that be Al? He eventually caught on to my predicament and said to swim into the current. Anyway, we ended up with some pretty good shots – much better than yesterday. We all watched the footage at about 4:30 p.m., Al was pleased, and we pulled anchor and started the trek south to Marchena. We will anchor here shortly. We have about 9 days of underwater shooting left, and much to do still. But the pressure to get the hammerheads is off. No whale shark, but nobody has seen one in recent months.

So, what is it like swimming with lots of big hammerheads? Electrifying. Exhilarating. Intimidating. Although I found the anticipation scarier than the reality – you sit on the boat before the dive wondering just what would happen if these seemingly docile sharks became not-so-docile. You’re trusting the odds here – shark attacks on humans are rare – but, what if?... When I actually found myself surrounded by these huge animals, I was so intrigued and impressed with them that I really wasn’t afraid. I’m sure my heart was pounding, but I felt no sense of panic or the need to flee. Part of the fun of doing any such adventurous feat is the adrenaline rush. And all the "big fish" stories you can (hopefully live to) tell afterwards...

As we cruised away from Darwin yesterday, we had a couple dozen dolphins bow riding with us. Shortly before they peeled off to return to Darwin, a couple began leaping high into the air just in front of the ship. As they had entertained us this way during our entire stay in Darwin, this was an appropriate ending. So long, Darwin dolphins.

9:30 a.m. Well, no luck here at Marchena. Very calm water but it’s green and visibility is poor. We will now steam five hours to James Bay on the west side of Santiago. There we hope to film sea lions in the grottos and do some night sub POVs. I see from the map in the front of "The Beak of the Finch" that Darwin made a similar passage from S.E. Marchena (we’re NE) to NW Santiago. From there he went to Pinta and then north to Wolf. What a remarkable feeling to know we are truly following in his footsteps!

23 Feb. 1999, Devil’s Rock/Champion Bay, 6:20 a.m.

From one end of Galapagos to the other! James Bay provided beautiful top-side scenery (we may go back to do some drive-bys with the camera mounted on the upper deck of the DAPHNE when the top-side crew gets here), but water visibility was poor, and few sea lions were in the surgy grottos. Al had the guys rig the camera with lights for night sub POVs but then decided to hold off on that and make the trek down here during the night. We actually arrived about 1:00 a.m. Smooth passage, and we all enjoyed a spectacular sunset over Isabella as we began the steam south. The volcanoes along the south end of James (Santiago) Island were stunning, and some had huge, eroded craters that you could almost see into from our vantage point on the water. And the northernmost cove (Buccaneer Bay) had some very beautiful rock formations, some of which were deep red in color. There’s apparently a lot of iron in the magma of these volcanoes, and once exposed to air, it begins oxidizing, and the rock will change from an initial black color to brown and then to red.

This morning, we will first check out Champion Bay where my notes from the summer trip indicate we encountered large schools of fish in a ripping current. We’ll then head over to Hood (Espanola) to the east and check out Gardiner Bay for garden eels, sting rays, etc. We had good clear water (and cold!) last time, so we are all hopeful that it will prove to be a site that we can get the science sequences filmed, the sub POVs, perhaps some garden eel retakes, and with any luck a few extra things. If all goes well, we may still have time to run back to Fernandina to check the possibility of filming marine iguanas underwater at Cabo Douglas.


More Galapagos Marine Life
24 Feb. 199, Champion Bay, 6:30 a.m.

Well... it did and it didn’t (go well that is). Al and I made a nice dive yesterday morning after breakfast on the northwest corner of Champion and had decent visibility. We dived along a beautiful wall filled with black coral, which really doesn’t look like coral at all but like some type of marine plant, or sort of like a sea fan. Anyway, we didn’t find many animals, so we concentrated on science/collecting sequences. The second dive of the morning was at our anchor spot on the southeast side of Floreana – this was a ca. 50 ft. dive on a sand bottom, and we worked here on more collecting scenes. After lunch, Al tried a dive at Devil’s Crown (I again waited in the zodiac for a call from him to come in), but the good visibility and wildlife reported by tourist divers in the a.m. had disappeared by the time Al got in at ca. 3:30... things do change quickly around here... So, Al went back to the point at Champion that he and I dived in the morning and found poor visibility had moved in there as well. Al decided we’d sit it out and try again in the morning when visibility might be better again. I decided to do some underwater collecting, and Jon Dodson went along with me on a shallow collecting dive. I picked up a couple Coryphopterus (gobies) and two Lythrypnus (gobies). Saw a beautiful sea robin and a lizard fish, both of which were too quick for my anesthetic and hand net – darn! I didn’t recognize the sea robin and would love to have collected it.

After dinner, Al decided to try the night sub POVs with the big HMI lights attached to a long board that lays across the top of the camera rig. Now that he can "fly" the camera through the water, he can simulate scenes of my looking out from the "bubble" of the sub as it cruises along. But, it wasn’t to be last night. As soon as the HMIs came on in the water, clouds of plankton appeared around them. I dipped some of this up and found that it mainly comprised what appear to me to be mysid shrimp and a few anchovy-like fish. When Al got the camera system to the bottom, he was barely visible to us because the density of these planktonic critters was so enormous. What’s more, the water was filled with a bluish luminescence such that every move Al made was accompanied by a bluish swish. This was also the case for sea lions and needle fish swimming, and we soon turned off the ship lights and enjoyed the light show. The sea lions looked like ghosts encased in an aura of luminescence. Beautiful! And catching needlefish was easy for them because the fish also left a bright trail of light behind them! Anyway, the shrimp apparently were the source of the luminescence, as a net full of them that I dipped up from the stern of the ship glowed bright blue. I preserved a vial full of these critters for positive identification at Smithsonian.

After the decision was made last night to postpone the night shoot due to the mysid frenzy, Randy, Mitch, Tony, Jon, Dave, Ray and I went to the upper deck to watch the stars and the light show in the water. You didn’t know whether to look up or down – there was so much activity at both ends of the spectrum! Ray regaled us with astronomy lessons and stories, and Dave’s Leitz binoculars allowed us to see wonderful details of the moon, Orion (the nebula of the sword is a boiling mass apparently), Pleotes (a hazy cluster beneath the moon), the Southern Cross, etc. Just before dinner, I called Ray up to the bow to see two bright stars on the horizon that turned out to be Venus and Jupiter right next to one another. It would have made a beautiful picture – these two planets were literally side by side from my distant perspective. Ray says we’ll see them again tonight but that they won’t get any closer. Anyway, it was a delightful evening.

Al is now gearing up for a morning solo dive. He hopes to do three today before we pull anchor and steam an hour to a place on Floreana that we can get fresh water. Apparently it’s a German family who operates this amenity – we’re lucky they’re here! I actually had a warm/hot shower last night for a change, which was nice since the water on the dive with Jon was chilly – ca. 70 degrees. The second morning dive was even colder, ca. 64-65 F on the bottom.

25 Feb. 1999, Espanola (Gardiner Bay), 7:30 a.m.

Mitch’s birthday. We are trying to arrange for a little celebration later, but there’s not a whole lot you can do out here! We have a couple t-shirts someone donated (yes, they’re new!) and a homemade card. Alex (the ship’s steward) was going to make a cake, but we’re about out of eggs.

Well, yesterday was another bust. Al’s dive in the morning turned up nothing interesting, so he made the decision to move around to the southwest side of Floreana to take on water. A German family settled here sometime between the first and second world wars in the hopes of establishing some kind of idealistic lifestyle. Ray says their story is pretty bizarre, so I’d like to read it sometime. Anyway, I didn’t realize that Floreana was inhabited, but there are a few houses, a little shop, a church, a small inn, etc. It took most of the day to fill the water tanks, so I made a couple swims. On one, Russ and I swam to the beach and got out and sat there a bit. I was really rocking while sitting there. That was the first time my feet had touched land since leaving Puerto Ayora, so although my body was on solid ground, my mind was still battling a rocking ship. This is a very strange feeling, and one that I’ve noticed from previous expeditions gets worse once you’re on land and then get into the shower. I’ve found myself having to hold on in the shower following a cruise just to keep from falling!

We are now at Hood Island (Espanola), and Al is in the water checking out the situation. We have about five days left of underwater work, so we’re trying to decide how to get the most from them.

26 Feb. 1999, Seymour Island, 7:30 a.m.

Nothing at Gardiner Bay. Al took the camera and tooled around while Randy and I did a search for garden eels. We found no large congregations of eels, and the visibility stunk! We did see hundreds of "gringos" (the creole bass, Paranthias furcifer) "sleeping" on the sand. It was quite a sight to see all those fish lying on their sides on the sand bottom.

After those dives, we cruised to Plaza and set up shop for the night sub POV shots. This went off pretty well, and I got to go in after the filming with my hand net to make some collections around the HMI lights. Not much there (thankfully very few mysids!), but I got a few larval/juvenile fishes. There were hundreds of little (3-4" in width) crabs attracted to the lights that appear to be the same as we saw in such great numbers at the surface last summer in Gardiner Bay. Mathias says the population has been booming since El Nino – some species prosper, others suffer...

Went to Baltra about 10 p.m. last night after the night shoot to refuel. Then pulled anchor early this morning and came around to Seymour. Will go with Al, Randy, and Mitch in a bit for a dive where we’ll get some production stills and video. Then Al will look for something to film. We’re still deciding whether to make the trek to Cabo Douglas. I vote yes – we need to at least attempt to get marine iguanas underwater – but Al thinks the chances are not great that we’ll succeed.

My stomach continues to bother me every now and then on this trip – not sure if I’m eating something "bad" each time I get the stomach cramps or if whatever hit me so hard at the beginning is lingering on. Fortunately, Enrique makes wonderful Ecuadorian soups each day for lunch, so there’s always something to put in your stomach even when it’s not up to par. Also, we had some pretty incredible banana pancakes this morning at breakfast!

10:50 a.m. While we were preparing to dive at Seymour, the guys found a problem with the camera, so we sat around in wetsuits for an hour while they fixed it. Meanwhile, Mathias surveyed the dive possibilities and pronounced it not worth the effort due to poor visibility – again... groan. These last few days have been all but a bust. We are now steaming north to Bartolome/Cousins Rock for a shot at doing something there. I think we can also hit Roca Redonda again up there if we want and then still go around west to Cabo Douglas for the marine iguanas. This IMAX wildlife filming is tough!

I just came downstairs from the top deck. While sitting up there, a frigate bird came and hovered over the ship, catching a free ride on the air the ship is pushing forward. This bird would come within a few feet of me, which was creepy. The birds feed on fish, so I know there’s no reason for alarm, but when that long, sharp, tipped-downward-at-the-end beak is feet from you, it’s disconcerting!

 

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