>Through its wave-blasted doors, all manner of marine wonders stream forth. Rivers of fish, including super-sized jacks and mirror-bright bonito tuna, course through the blue. Dolphins and silky sharks are regular commuters, while dozens of huge moray eels slither about the reef. "Mr. Big," the whale shark, is a high-profile, albeit seasonal, visitor to Darwin's Arch. The "Enchanted Isles" of the Galapagos have delivered a world-class dive adventure yet again.
>Charles Darwin created the early buzz on this incomparable archipelago 600 miles west of Ecuador, South America. But it is today's adventurous scuba explorers, those perhaps wishing natural selection had favored them with gills, who have taken this marine reserve viral. Year after year, the Galapagos top the lists of the world's best dive destinations. For some, the draw is obviously the high-voltage big animals encountered underwater.
>More than a dozen dive sites ring Santa Cruz. At Mosquera, we drift at 75 feet along a wall of sculpted, carefully stacked boulders resembling a low-budget, Hollywood science-fiction set. It's adorned with bushes of yellow black coral, and schools of blue-striped snapper and large almaco jacks rush past. On top of the wall, we traverse a broad sandy plain to find both diamond and marble rays, then countless sea stars littered about. Our guide pulls us onward, eventually motioning the group to kneel down quietly so as not to disturb an expansive colony of giant garden eels. They seem caught in a rapturous dance, swaying in the surge as if engaged in some strange religious rite.
>The beauty of the central islands is the opportunity to exchange split fins for sport sandals to enjoy superb terrestrial excursions. At North Seymour Island, as we exit the inflatable boat to begin our walk along the marked path, we're unceremoniously met by sleepy sea lions. They open bleary eyes, snort, wiggle whiskers and yawn widely.
>Nestled in the scrub further along the trail, proud male frigate birds inflate their shockingly red throat pouches.
>Weirdness and wonder are all around us. This surf and turf menu, delivering memorable encounters with wildlife in and out of the sea, is one of Las Islas Encantadas' strongest assets, contributing to a truly well-balanced holiday.
>Inching our way up the chart, we snorkel with Galapagos penguins at Isla Bartolome. They are the world's most northerly penguin species and endemic to the archipelago. Don't pity their inability to fly, because underwater they are rocket ships, zipping about with frantic beats of powerful, stubby wings as they skillfully hunt baitfish. Chasing after these diminutive feathered dynamos leaves me completely spent.
>Bartolome offers another opportunity to stretch one's legs. A short, steep hike to the top of a craggy, dormant volcano affords a breathtaking vista of Pinnacle Rock and a bizarre tableau of lava fields and cinder cones. It's a postcard-perfect view for fans of violent vulcanism and testament to the nature of the islands' birth.
>black-striped salemas (Xenocys jessiae)
>Cabo Marshall, on the northeastern corner of Isabela Island, is a dive that many years ago taught me the wisdom of looking out into the blue. Mobs of fish swarming the shallow reef had captured my full attention, but I was missing the big picture, completely oblivious to the pelagic passersby over my shoulder. My wife practically had to slap me upside the head to get me to turn around.
>As amazing as all of the above adventure in the central islands may be, two islands far to the north are enough to lure many seasoned divers back to the Galapagos repeatedly. Wolf and Darwin islands are the exclusive domain of liveaboards, considered advanced sites most suitable for those who've logged substantial time diving challenging conditions and don't mind adrenaline overload in the midst of marine megafauna.
>THE NORTHERN ISLANDS
>A long overnight steam has brought us more than 100 miles to the Landslide at Wolf. The sea's a bit warmer (about 72°F) and bluer (60-foot visibility) than we had in the central region. There's a healthy current as expected, so we waste no time in dive-bombing down to the reef, where we promptly grab onto barnacle-covered rocks. Unlike the more placid Caribbean, gloves are a diver's best friend in the Galapagos. Moray eels, on the other hand, are not necessarily so. The reef is filthy with them, and I have to search for a handhold not already claimed by the overgrown, snaggletooth beasts.
>The peak for me, however, comes on the fourth dive of the day in late afternoon's gloaming hour, with light levels low and visibility declining. The current picked up, so we speedily drift over the shallow boulder field, enveloped in a frenetic mass of thousands of plankton-picking creolefish. Dozens of green jacks are dining, punching through the creolefish crowds. Marauders, they wreak havoc, tearing through the densely packed biomass. Upping the action another notch, Galapagos sharks join the fray. They are serious sharks, built for business, 8 feet long and thick of girth. They carve through the chaos, hidden from my view one second by the piscine blizzard, then appearing suddenly within arm's length when the scaled curtain parts. How many are here? Five? Ten? More? Not knowing adds to the suspense and quickens the pulse. I love dives like this.
>And then there's Darwin Island, 25 miles farther north, at the literal and figurative top of the Galapagos chain. There's really only one dive site off the island, Darwin's Arch, but it's a keeper. Almost any pelagic can show up here.
>Fully briefed and amped up, we take leave of the mothership and pile into Zodiacs. It's a bumpy ride on 2- to 3-foot waves, with wind and current fighting each other as we near the drop zone. We're keen to escape the slop, so we quickly count down and backroll into the briny depths. Before I'm clear of the bubbles, I can sense the show has already begun.
>We're directly immersed into a school of steel pompano, flashing like polished silver dollars. A wall of bonito tuna is below and just outside, with a few silky sharks patrolling the perimeter. Powering sideways across the current, we plummet like boobies after baitfish to reach the Theatre, a platform in 60 feet at the wall's edge. Our shelf offers a panoramic view of the blue; our neighbors are a pair of green sea turtles being cleaned by a crew of barberfish, and plenty of testy moray eels wander about asserting territorial domain. Curious hogfish sidle in close, hoping my death grip on the reef dislodges a barnacle or two. A few Galapagos sharks watch my back from the reef slope. I'm in the thick of it.
>Huffing and puffing, we make our way back to the rocks. I hunker down, daring to hope that I've chosen agreeable eels as reefmates, and stare out into the blue of imagination, waiting for the next act to unfold. This is, after all, Darwin's laboratory, a cauldron of creation. There's no telling what magic will be served up next.
>A few heartbeats later, without warning, the hammerheads are suddenly there again. So alien. So impossible.
>EDITOR'S NOTE: As this issue went to press, we were advised of a new ruling from the Galapagos National Park Service. It stipulates that a company holding a permit for the Galapagos may choose to conduct either land excursions or diving; there shall be no permits offering both. Dive boats operating in these waters may be altering their itineraries to target the most productive underwater sites now that topside tours are not a consideration for their guests. As a further function of the new ruling, dive boats shall be restricted to three dives per day to minimize impact on the marine environment. Please contact your dive boat or tour operator to confirm their most recent itinerary.
>The mad rush for Galapagos dive tourism seems to coincide with whale shark season, July through December. The whale sharks are indeed seen along Darwin's Arch at Darwin Island, sometimes a half dozen on a single dive. Yet the water tends to be cooler then, with a greater possibility for rough interisland crossings. Many savvy Galapagos veterans seem to prefer the prevailing sun and calm weather, not to mention the warmer waters, typical of January through May.
>ALL ABOUT BALANCE
>CONDITIONS AND SKILL LEVEL: Diving is intermediate to advanced due to cooler water, colder thermoclines, sometimes challenging visibility and strong currents and surge. This is not a beginner's dive trip. Dive within your limits.
>GEAR: Depending on the season, full 5mm to 7mm wetsuits are recommended, along with a hooded vest for added warmth. Gloves are also important; grabbing onto rocks to cope with current and surge is proper protocol here. Surface signaling devices are a must.
>TRAVEL REMINDERS: U.S. and Canadian citizens need a passport but no visa. There is a $100 cash-only Galapagos National Park entry fee and a $25-$40 departure tax when leaving Ecuador. Fly from North America to Ecuador and then out to the Galapagos Islands to board your boat. Check with your boat for details. Pack lightly to avoid excess baggage charges.
>FOR MORE INFORMATION: