Galapagos – An Unexpected Meeting

25 August, 2022

After an eventful first week in the Galapagos (link to the first article), we are now heading west. We will investigate the waters around Fernandina Island in the western part of the archipelago. Here the water is significantly colder and the fauna are different. The cold, nutrient-rich ocean current comes all the way from the South Pole. It creates a completely unique underwater environment with corals and sharks but, unusually, also penguins and kelp.

Kelp is one of the main focuses of this expedition. Salome Buglass is a marine scientist at the Charles Darwin Foundation here in the Galapagos and a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia. In 2019, on a previous Mission Blue Hope Spot expedition using the same DeepSee Submersible as on this voyage, she and Dr. Sylvia Earle found kelp growing at between 40-70 meters deep. It was an important discovery that received a lot of attention. But she has not managed to find it again. Now she wants to see if it was a limited occurrence or if there are substantial kelp forests here along the western part of the Galapagos.

We found kelp on the first try! Photo: Johan Candert

On this expedition, deep diving on scuba is discouraged. We have been instructed not to go deeper than 30 meters, but Salome suspects that we need to get a bit deeper to find the colder water where the kelp thrives. We decide that Salome and I will make an attempt along the exposed western shore of Fernandina. The fact that no one has dived here before adds some excitement.

We get ready to go in at the deep end. There are big waves here and the water is relatively cold for being on the equator. All around us are marine iguanas, unique to the Galapagos. The water is clear and, on the way down into the depths, it reminds me of Norwegian coastal waters.

salome diving holding kelp
Salome Buglass examines the unique kelp. Photo: Johan Candert

salome with kelp
Photo: Johan Candert

We follow a 30-meter curve to the south, and Salome swims fast. I can tell she’s excited. We swim a little deeper and all of a sudden she takes off. I follow and have the camera rolling. She stops at a small “bush,” takes her regulator out of her mouth and kisses it. It must be kelp, I think. The kelp I’m used to seeing is considerably larger and often found at shallower depths. Here we see a few small “bushes” of kelp. But we have found it, the fabled Galapagos kelp!

There is a big commotion when we get back to the research vessel. Everyone wants to look at Salome’s kelp. Sylvia Earle is an expert on algae and enthusiastically helps Salome to examine, press and preserve the samples.

sylvia earle with the deep sea team
Sylvia Earle with Deep Sea-teamet. Photo: Simon Stanford

salome buglass with kelp
Salome Buglass. Photo: Simon Stanford

Kelp is by no means the only subject of research onboard the M/V Argo. There is intensive activity with several research assignments. My colleague Simon Stanford joins  Dr. Susana Cardenas (Universidad San Francisco de Quito), who is tagging the endemic penguin found here in the western Galapagos. At the same time he follows marine scientist Jen Jones (Galapagos Conservation Trust), who collects water samples and looks for plastic particles in the water. The expedition leader Dr. Alex Hearn searches for the endemic and overexploited slipper lobster (Scyllarides astori).

The endemic overexploited slipper lobster. Photo: Göran Ehlmé

Göran Ehlmé and I dive, and film, as much as we can, with three dives a day and often a night dive as well. The underwater world here on the western “wild” side of the Galapagos is absolutely outstanding. I’ve never seen anything like it.

We film the unique Galapagos flightless cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi), penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus) and the amazing diving lizards, marine iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus).

The flightless cormorant in search of fish.

Photo: Johan Candert

Penguins at the equator. Photo: Johan Candert

The diving iguana. Photo: Johan Candert

The highlight will come on the last day, during the last dive. But I know nothing about that when I swim into a mangrove swamp. None of us know what lies ahead. What species are found in the waters here? Is it only seawater or will we encounter freshwater as well? Tui De Roy, a photographer who is onboard the research vessel, grew up in the Galapagos. She came here as a two-year-old with her Belgian parents in 1955. She is probably the person who has explored the wild islands here in the Galapagos the most. But even she has never swum up into the shaded waters of this mangrove swamp.

Low tide and strong currents forced the boat to drop us a little outside the reef. I have been swimming with my big camera, protecting it from sharp rocks and corals in the big waves. But now I’m in calmer waters. Visibility is limited and the water is still salty. It has been very difficult to get here. We swim further in, up small channels. It seems devoid of life. The only thing I see are turtles and white/yellow fish hiding in the shade under the mangrove roots.

It’s beautiful but a little spooky in here.

Photo: Johan Candert

Whoosh! Where did that come from?

Suddenly there are sea lions everywhere. Curious, fast, torpedo-like, they appear then just as quickly disappear again.

Photo: Johan Candert

On my way out I encounter Sylvia Earle, 87 years young. She is absolutely incredible. Not only for her physical ability but mainly for her unquenchable curiosity. She still wants to be involved, see and discover. Very inspiring!

Sylvia Earle
Sylvia Earle dives with sea lions. Photo: Johan Candert

Last dive, last day

Punta Vincente Roca: On the northwestern tip of Isabela Island is this spectacular place, 4,000 meters deep along a volcanic rock wall exposed to the might of the entire Pacific Ocean without protective islands. Here we dive down the vertical wall. “Rain of fish,” I think while filming. The entire wall is covered in fish. Sardines by the tens of thousands, mixed with red cardinal fish. I stop, crawl into a narrow crevice and wedge myself there. Filming out into the blue. The camera lens is covered by fish that “rain” down the mountain.

“Rain of fish”. Photo: Johan Candert


Tens of thousands of fish move at the same time. And there comes a “torpedo.” A sea lion dives straight down through the shoal. Wow!

Photo: Göran Ehlmé

I continue swimming along the wall. Göran is in front of me. We’re heading to the corner. Here, the current is extremely strong but it’s also extremely full of life. On the previous dive I got caught in the strong current, which pushed me outward. I couldn’t get back. Now I stay closer to the wall. When I arrive, Göran is already there and I don’t want to disturb him.

I swim back — back to the fantastic wall with the “rain of fish.” This is the third (and last) dive. I know I have Göran behind me and Sylvia Earle in front of me. Stopping to film again, I have learned to press “rec” when I see a movement in the school of fish. Now the shoal moves outward and I press record. It’s just a turtle, but I keep filming anyway. The huge shoal moves outward, downward. And then suddenly all the fish are pushed inward, against the wall.

Photo: Johan Candert


A giant orca comes up from the depths, just two meters from me. Shit, I hardly have time to think. But the camera is rolling. And I keep filming. The camera lens is again covered with fish – to be pushed away again! This time a sea lion emerges from the surface. Down through the shoal of fish and after the killer whale.

I stay in my crevice, exhale. Oh my God. I take a few deep breaths to calm myself. Did I get it? Did I have the camera on? Extraordinary! Orcas here in the Galapagos?

I swim on along the wall towards the boat. Göran should have seen it? Sylvia?

We come up to the surface.

“Did you see it?” The question comes from the boat driver. They had seen the orca from the surface.

“Yes, I saw it. Got it on film!”

What a last day, what a last dive. For me, that sums up this expedition. We’ve been able to follow fascinating marine research. I have learned a lot and at the same time managed to film the unique underwater environment here in the Galapagos.

It feels like a glimpse into the past. Is this how the ocean looked, not only here but in many more places around the world’s oceans? Fish school in large numbers, colors and shapes. Marine mammals hunt and thrive.

seal turtel fish
Despite a fantastic ecosystem, there are problems even in the Galapagos. The brown sea cucumber (Isostichopus fuscus) (on the left) is endangered due to overfishing. Photo: Johan Candert

When we humans stay away, nature (the ocean) has shown an incredible ability to regenerate. Recreate what we humans are so good at destroying. Here in the Galapagos, you get the chance to see it with your own eyes. This is what life under the surface should look like. An indescribably positive image for a diver who for 30 years has become progressively more and more depressed…

Text: Johan Candert
Photo: Johan Candert, Göran Ehlmé, Simon Stanford

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