July 25, 2019

An Ode to the Nightingales (Galapagos, June 2019)

John Keats wrote of nightingales and their wrenching, ephemeral, haunting music. My nightingales dwell in the deep sea, and they do not sing. They circle, languish in oceanic currents, and, for reasons unknown, congregate in vast numbers off an unassuming nub of volcanic rock in the Pacific, a thousand kilometers from the nearest landmass. Welcome to Darwin Island, flanked to the southeast by Darwin’s Arch, that sits atop The Theatre.

And what a show it is.

As a rule, divers are insane. Perhaps the salt pickles the brain. Whatever be the reason, they travel, at great personal cost and inconvenience, to the forgotten reaches of the planet for encounters with wild carnivores that may or may not appear. That was, at least, one school of thought as the Deep Blue sailed north-west across open seas towards Darwin and Wolf Islands, known to be one of the few places in the world where divers can encounter hammerhead sharks by the hundreds.

We had just finished diving off North Seymour, and were blessed to see the Galapagos’ native birds twitterpated: Blue-footed boobies flaunting their eponymous blue feet as proof of genetic vigor, and frigate birds inflating their red gular pouches for the ladies.

The diving was a whisper of what was yet to come: an abundance of fish, a hint of shark, and sea lions dancing among the bubbles. Then came the long sail under a diamond sky, and rising to a grey dawn, three hours earlier than planned, to Darwin’s Arch and a rippling sea, the colour of lead.

Darwin’s Arch and a rippling sea

Lazy mornings descended, quite literally, into chaos. Darwin’s tremendous current (the delinquent offspring of the new moon and the newly surging Humboldt Current) threatened to sweep us into open seas. Rocks were grabbed, fins lost (one was found), weight belts went rogue and heads were bumped.

But oh, the life! Confused hogfish, equally flummoxed by the current, wondered at our trespass into their territory. Spotted moray eels, different from their warm water counterparts, hid beneath the rocks. The biggest green sea turtles we had ever seen flew by. At the end of the rocky slope, over a sand patch, the nightingales sang. Twelve-foot hammerheads patrolled the area, weaving in and out of the dust storm kicked up by the currents. We looked up, and dozens more were silhouetted against the emerging sunshine. A fifteen-foot tiger shark paid a casual visit. Then the dolphins came – hundreds of them, shadowing us for a moment. And they did not leave.

We sailed to Wolf Island two days later, buoyed in the wake of a thousand cetaceans. Flipping, jumping, torturing and feasting on fish smaller than they. A curious Bryde’s whale and her baby accompanied us for a bit. At night, the boat’s artificial light attracted small fish, plankton, and a party of silky sharks, their outlines barely discernible in the gloaming.

Although the currents at Wolf were more forgiving, the sightings were not. The nightingales were not singing. Perhaps they were elsewhere. Twenty five meters below, there was a whisper from the giants – a single hammerhead barreled by on the rising tide. Down we went. 30 meters. 32. 35. 37. 39. And then the song was loud and clear. Several individuals high, several deep, hundreds, probably – Galapagos and hammerhead sharks circling in the half-light, like a showreel on loop.

Decompression limits and nitrogen’s delicious, drunken, lull pulled us away from the dreamscape and back towards the sun. Wolf’s roaring surf jolted us back to reality as we fought our way to the open sea and our dinghies, bobbing lazily in the brilliant morning.

Our last few days were spent at Isla Fernandina and Isabela, congregation points for the absurdities that make the Galapagos magic. Sunbeams and soft coral illuminated a channel off Isabela Island where four giant Mola mola emerged from the deep to float in the sunshine. 30 meters below, a flightless cormorant, endemic to the islands, darted through the reef catching fish – streamlined as any aquatic creature. A tight ball of bonito surrounded us, darkening the sea, and then promptly dispersed, with sea lions in hot pursuit.

Perhaps most memorable, though, were the marine iguanas on Fernandina – avant-garde, punk rock lizards that scrabble at the algae growing under water – the only lizards in the world that dive in the ocean to feed. And, like all self-respecting creatures of the Galapagos, ignore the bubbles and flashlights of nosy divers. Although Charles Darwin was rather corrosive in his description (with which, let it be known, we disagree vehemently) – “it is a hideous looking creature, of a dirty black color, stupid and sluggish in its movements1” – he did notice a peculiar thing: when scared, they stay away from the sea.

“He didn’t get that on hearsay. He cornered an animal, grabbed it, and threw it into a large tide pool left by the ebbing sea…Having been rudely tossed, the iguana swam straight back to where Darwin stood…Darwin threw it again. Again it returned”1.  The point, other than to illustrate that Darwin was mean to small animals, is that the iguanas, by hereditary instinct, understood that the shores were safe, while the sea was full of sharks that often preyed on them. Sadly, the writer of this post missed the dive on account of some serious bruising that occurred on the dive deck. Which of course leaves something for next time.

The final dive day was, in a way, a paean to the islands’ beauty. Sunlight streamed through calm, clear water and bathed an incandescent, terraced reef. Sea lions searched for breakfast, a group of eagle rays passed by, and a large school of bright yellow snapper hung suspended in a sunbeam. The cold thermoclines cut to the bone, and although the nightingales were not singing on these dives–we had left them on the far side of the archipelago– we relished the opportunity to observe the detail in the life that thrives in these waters, so different from the warm tropical seas we know and love. The peace and cold were perfect counterpoints to the wild of Wolf and Darwin. The rest of the day was spent stumbling around Isla Santa Cruz on sea legs, the Charles Darwin Research Station, and a breezy café overlooking a cove strewn with sea lions.

The combination of adrenaline, regimented schedules, salt and sea make dive trips difficult to process,this one in particular. It involved the most challenging conditions any of us had ever experienced, and long commutes. Once the sea legs faded, and the haunting music of the schooling hammerheads were committed to memory and ticked off bucket lists, I started to question my recall (did that happen? Was I there? Did I see the tiger shark? (No, Avanti, you didn’t. Get over it). I felt as Keats might have once– lamenting a fleeting brush with the sublime. Perhaps it was but a dream. But then again, perhaps not.

Avanti Maluste, CEO, Lacadives

Photography by Sumer Verma and Rajat Parakh

1 Quammen, David. The Song Of The Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions. Vintage Digital, 2012.