Wow.. where to begin.. we just got back from a four-day liveaboard tour on the SeaWolf around the volcanic island/islets of Isla Gorgona (several hours off the West Pacific coast of Columbia).
Before going we were excited to say the least, but reluctant to give in entirely to our expectations as we were told that the season for whale spotting had not begun and I was all too aware of how diving conditions can vary at the drop of a hat so that a place normally abundant with life can suddenly appear entirely devoid of anything but tin cans and sea grass. At the back of my head I was holding out for a manta ray, and have wanted to see a whaleshark for a long time, if only to tick it off my slowly shrinking list of sharks to see, but as I say, was trying to stay calm and collected (though I regularly failed miserably and instead gave in to the temptation to poledance in my pants in our cabin between dives).
What can I say.. the trip was like a dream.. warm waters (they never dropped below 27 degrees the entire time we were there), and an abundance of beautiful dive spots to choose from, from pinnacles and drop-offs (ish) to platforms and wrecks, all the while assisted by an amazing set of staff that made everything run so smoothly.
Some 12 dives later (including two night dives for me), we got to see everything we´d hoped for, AND SO MUCH MORE. More than I would have dared to ask for in fact. A manta ray made an appearance by our second dive, a beautiful spot called El Horno which boasts a volcanic outcrop/pinnacle where large pelagics congregate, presumably because of the strength of the current and nutrient upwellings. Despite the brevity of the encounter, this one dive alone would have paid for the trip in my books, but to our amazement, at least one manta appeared on a further 3 separate occasions/dives. All appearances were at the same site, which as you can imagine fast became our favourite. I would have died a happy man at this point, but luck was with us and sure enough, the very same spot also played host to a fleeting glimpse of the elusive whale shark, the largest fish on the face of the planet and perhaps the most awesome and graceful creature I´ve ever seen (manta and wife aside.. yeah, whatever). Trips to the pinnacle henceforth seemed to take on an almost mystical quality, as we repeatedly made the slow laborious pilgrimage from the boat to the pinnacle only to cling atop its peak (somewhat ungracefully) for extended periods of time, hopeful and expectant, desiring nothing more than a further sneaky peek. On one entirely unforgettable occasion two mantas appeared at once and proceeded to circle us repeatedly, seemingly as absorbed in their attempts to fathom us as we were with our own failing attempts to grasp the extent of their enormity and their apparent ease of movement (read Peter Benchley´s real life account of his experience with manta rays if you have any doubts as to their inquisitiveness - the dude wot wrote Jaws innit).
Honestly, it was one of the most amazing dives and beautiful experiences of my life. So much so that I´ve got something to tell you all.. I´ve decided to convert to Wicca; in addition, henceforth I would like to be referred to as "Swims with Mantas" and have decided to take nightclasses in homeopathy when I get back to the UK .
No really, I think that it is only now beginning to dawn on Sam how damn lucky she is to have seen these things after such a short time diving. (Stoney Cove may come as a bit of a shock when we get back). All she´d been hoping for was an odd turtle or two, and once again, luck was on our side (apart from the fact that the turtle we saw was only mildly odd): she got to see her fast (though not her last) on the very same dive that presented us with our first manta.
Aside from all this, the diving in general was spectacular. There was an amazing abundance of life at all the sites we covered, from true pelagic species (one group even saw a bloody marlin.. gits!!), to coral reef fishes and invertebrates that gather round the island´s shallower coral waters. There were huge schools of jacks (blue-spotted and almacos) and snapper everywhere, the latter bigger than any I´ve ever seen before, not to mention an abundance of grunts, angel fish, puffers, trumpet fish, Surgeon fish of immense proportions, Moorish idols and a range of other little and larger beasties you might ever hope to see. I´ve also never seen so many moray eels in my life; the place was literally streaming with them, especially on the night dives when one practically head butted me in the scrotum in its rush to dart between my legs. On top of this, between dives whales were sporadically but frequently visible popping up on the horizon and sometimes close to the boat, firing their blowholes or else leaping from the water who knows whether out of a show of joy or an attempt to grab the attention of a mate or even to clear itself of barnacles and other parasites (Ideas? Knowledge?). Their presence was often felt underwater also, as their strange clicks and whines would provide a regular soundtrack to our underwater sojourns.
At night everything came alive: dolphins would circle the boat, their snorts clearly audible in the quiet of the night; snapper would literally send prey leaping out of the water in an attempt to escape their Darwinian fate; and the occasional unidentified splash would fill us all with hopeful expectation and send us running to the boat´s edge. Well.. most of us anyway.. by this stage of the night Sam was usually curled up asleep in bed, or else reading in her cabin (when not munching on her hidden stash of rabbit food – "just incase"). She was absolutely amazing though, it has to be said. In some 15 or so dives she has in my opinion already become a proficient diver (fnarr fnarr). True baptism by fire if ever there was one: she´s already dived in fast current, dropped metres in a sudden vertical surge, made safety stops in open water with close to zero visibility, dealt with equalization problems and been plunged into darkness when night fell fast on one particular dive, all the while managing to maintain her cool.
Isla Gorgona was not easy diving by any means (though also nothing unbearable if approached calmly), but it was undoubtedly worth the time, effort and money required to get there. Sam is now officially bad%ss in the water.. just a shame she´s still a pain in the %ss on land though.
Guess we´ll just have to work on that.