Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Galapagos Dive II

…over to take a better look. Its black thick shell is at least 3 ft across. Its head is comical. It reminds me of a sock puppet. We both take the opportunity to touch one of its fin like legs. The turtle doesn’t move. He doesn’t even turn his head. I look up and another marine turtle is swimming 10 ft away. On land marine turtles look ancient, scaly. Their slow, awkward movements make them seem like clumsy stupid creatures. Under water they are calm and graceful. They swim and maneuver with little effort. Here everything, including me, is more graceful.
Geoff had been lagging behind, and he is now motioning us to come over. A sea lion is swimming near by. After days of snorkeling I’ve played with dozens of sea lion, but I never tire of it. With their front fins tucked closely at their side they move swiftly and sharply. Their oily chestnut fur shimmers underwater. Their eyes are the most memorable: large, perfectly round, and jet black. On land their eyes are always covered with a thick, glassy coat of water that makes them look like they are always on the verge of tears, and I just want to give them a hug. It takes me a second to realize that she’s fishing. She’s in pursuit of a yellowtail surgeonfish. She darts down and nips at its tail, but then sets it free. The fish tries to evade by swimming up and to the right, but without the slightest effort she matches its moves and nips at its tail again. Her speed and agility far outrank her prey’s, but she continues nipping at it until she’s bored with her game, then swallows it in one gulp and swims off.

We continue along the reef wall further. I am still struggling with my weight, but I am keeping up with Washington. Excited by what I’ve seen I use the break to remind myself to relax and slow my breath.
A little further on, Washington stops and abruptly sticks his hand through some thick plants and into a crevasse of the reef (Crazy! I wouldn’t do that). He pulls out a fully inflated black and white balloon fish. He’s holding the panicked fish at the narrow juncture between its tail and body. It fights to escape with frenzied wiggles in my direction. It’s about 1 1/2ft long and 6′ across. It’s only about 12′ away from my face when it slowly opens its round mouth and closes it again in that way that only a fish does, and I laugh into my regulator. Washington puts the poor fish back into its crevasse once we’ve all had a look, and to my surprise it chooses to stay there instead of darting off.
We go only a little farther, and he fishes something else out of the reef. “What the hell is that?” It’s some kind of comma-shaped crustacean. I can’t see a head. Washington signs that it’s a lobster. Now I can see it. The lobster’s head and claws are wrapped in on themselves and the comma shape is formed by the tail. Washington lets is go and it starts swims; strangest damned thing. Without unfolding its head or claws it convulses its tail back and forth to create thrust. It’s not going anywhere fast, unlike everything else I’ve seen, this lobster lacks ease or grace in all respects.
We continue to travel again, a good time to check my air. Doing all right, while I’m at it I look at my depth gauge. 90ft! That seems like a lot. I’ll have to ask Geoff about it.
A school of hundreds—but it feels like thousands—of yellowtail surgeonfish swim all around us. I’ve seen lots of these beautiful fish snorkeling. They are about 4′ long with coal grey bodies and lemon yellow tails. Being surrounded by them is like being in a swarm of butterflies. I reach out to touch one as they swim in the opposite direction as me. Not long after the school passes I see Washington gesture for us to look behind. He grabs my arm. I turn around just in time to see a 10 foot Galapagos shark! It cuts the same silhouette as a great white shark, but half the size. My eyes are immediately drawn to the gills, which are the only marks on the otherwise perfectly smooth body. I thought I’d be scared out of my mind the first time I saw a shark, but as it swims on I feel calm.
When Washington grabbed my arm, he grabbed it hard, and I could tell that he was not about to let go. He still seemed very unsure of me, so I decide that if the dive master feels better with a firm grip on the newbie then so be it.
The reef is changing now. There are not as many fish and almost no plant life. As we move along we leave the reef behind for a sandy bottom. Overhead a hug school of fish casts a shadow over us. When Washington signals that they are barracuda I can’t believe it. I’ve seen individual barracuda scuba diving and swimming as a child in the Saint Laurence River, but never a school of hundreds of them! Usually I am very uncomfortable getting too close to the tooth filled fish, but as the long, sleek, silver fish pass us by I’m not unnerved at all. Like the shark, they seem completely disinterested in us, and that is reassuring.
It’s hard for me to swim. Washington’s grip on my arm has me off balance, and I have to work a lot harder to navigate along with him. I consider gently pulling away, but I decide against it. Just then he jerks me over to the right and points at a 20ft Hammerhead shark!!! What an absurd looking creature. From its neck to its tail it has the elegance of a shark, but then the head looks like one of George Lucas’ Star Wars creation. It swims passed us quickly without effort and tilts slightly as it goes into the darkness, leaving us with a perfect silhouette of its nonsensical head.
We swim for a little longer without seeing anything, so I check my air gauge: 20 bars. Crap! I don’t want to leave yet. I consider keeping this to myself and pushing it to 15 bars. I decide I’ve bent enough rules for one day.