The silent world seemed even more silent with the immediate departure of the schooling hammerheads. The whale shark that had wafted over our heads like an airship, just a few minutes beforehand, was nowhere to be seen. And there was no sight either of Escar the bottlenose dolphin, who had been showing off at the beginning of our dive, catching his breakfast right under our noses. Our divers sixth sense told us something was just about to happen...

IF THIS OCEAN IS BEGINNING TO TASTE as if it comes with a pinch too much salt, let me set the scene. Darwins Arch, Darwin Island, the Galapagos - Planet Earth in all its glory. Something special happens here. Its a nursery for baby islands, spawned from the belly of the world in an explosion of volcanic lava.
As if to cool her cakes from the oven, Mother Earth sends vast currents of icy water up from both the Antarctic and the abyssal depths. This broth, rich in nutrients, attracts tiny things to feed on. The food chain extends, and before you know it, youre surrounded by large predators. Lots of them.
It was a privilege to be here, especially as we so nearly werent. The Galapagos is an eco-system under threat. Where isnt you ask. Way back in the late 1950s, the whole area was designated a national park by Ecuador, so there has been enough time to wrap everything in cotton wool.
The problem now is that many of us dream of visiting the Galapagos, and we have more disposable income to make our dreams come true. So in our droves we arrive, along with all our rubbish, diseases and alien species. Were loving the islands to death.
Something had to give, and last year the authorities decided that divers were the starting point for an embargo.
More specifically, it was looking at those who had booked onto liveaboard vessels not in possession of the requisite diving licence (that is, most of those operating there).
Whatever step forward this was for conservation, it spelt doom for the operators concerned, and dismay for those who had bookings with them.
That included 16 divers booked on mv Daphne, yours truly being one.
Now, Im not one to argue with sensible conservation policy, and who is to say that a scuba diver is any less an ecological threat than, say, a bird-watcher But an immediate ban, when fares had already been paid
I dont know if it was the effect of us sending emails to government ministers that made any difference, but whatever influenced President Rafael Correa to overrule the decision, I will be eternally grateful. The news came through days before we were due to fly so, while overjoyed with that, I was conscious of earlier divers who had not been so lucky.

WITH SOME RELIEF, THE 16 OF US boarded Daphne as September began, bound for 10 days of diving interspersed with land visits.
There was a degree of trepidation on my part. Most of the guests had been invited by our organiser, Anne-Marie, who was keen that in the demanding conditions of cold water and strong currents, skill-challenged divers would not be a liability.
Not sure how I slipped through the net, but I was in the company of dive-shop proprietors, BSAC national coaches, top videographer/underwater photographers and technical/freediving safety divers. Gulp!
As we sailed away from the airport island of Baltra, the engines were barely warm before we moored at Punta Carrion for the checkout dive.
We had been accompanied en-route by prehistoric-looking frigate birds, and with the blue sky draped above them, it seemed a good omen for a cracking dive.
Down on the seabed, it was time for a reality check. Yes, the water was below 18°C and, no, you couldnt see your hand in front of your mask.
Suddenly, the English Channel no longer felt 6000 miles away.

THE SUBTLE HUMOUR of our host, Antonio Moreano, had yet to sink in. The next day all became clear - particularly the water. We had moved around North Seymour Island to the east side. Creatures were in the water here, and some were quite sizeable.
Macro photographers would have been cursing for not attaching a wide-angle lens to capture the mobula, whitetip sharks, sea-lions, manta rays and turtles here.
Equally, a wide-angle photographer may have been disappointed to miss out on the colourful carnivorous and blue-striped nudibranchs. It was a splendid dive, and well worth the repeat later that morning.
In the afternoon, we were taken ashore to Santa Cruz, for a taste of the wildlife and geography above the waves. Our first interaction was with giant tortoises, reptilian relics whose shape reminded early Spanish settlers of riding saddles, or galapago - hence the naming of the islands they inhabited.
A subterranean walk through a lava tube revealed the islands volcanic vein, and the final visit of the day to the town of Puerto Ayora gave us the opportunity to see pelicans and the colourful Sally Lightfoot. This sounds like an exotic dancer, and to some extent these crabs are just that, with their bright red and orange carapaces.
Returning to Daphne, we prepared for our night crossing to Wolf and Darwin. These remote islands to the north-west are the jewels in the crown of underwater Galapagos.
The name Wolf conjures up images of high-octane diving, and that was exactly what this island delivered. Current and surge were not for the faint-hearted.
Anyone used to clipping-in with a reef hook would soon have found themselves tired of yo-yoing to and fro with the strong surge. Better to tuck into a sheltered crevice and hold onto a firm piece of bare rock. Consider your gloves to be consumables of the trip, as sharp volcanic rock has no respect for them.
Settled into position, the show begins. First a fly-past by a cluster of eagle rays. Missed them the first time while you were fiddling with your camera No problem - they return in formation to the cleaning station over to your left.
A number of beefy Galapagos sharks come over for a sniff, but then give way to the friskiest bunch of hammerhead sharks imaginable. Theres a reason for this - theyre all boys, and after a filly to their liking. Some of them head right at you, and peel off at the last second.
The odd drifting turtle punctuates the activity, and all too soon the firework show is over - or so you think.
Just before starting the safety stop, out in the blue you can hear the clicks and whistles. A huge pod of dolphin are also playing the mating game, and seize the opportunity to buzz you.
Even back on the panga, they are leaping out of the water two by two.
And yet it does get better than this. In late afternoon there was an opportunity to slow things down, with some muck-diving under the boat providing a perfect end to the diving day.
It all seemed a bit deserted in comparison to the earlier dives, but we soon found strange creatures dotted around on the sandy bottom, with leg-like appendages and bright red lips.
We had chanced on a colony of red-lipped batfish. This is an unhappy-looking fish, due no doubt to its odd shape and the necessity to re-apply lipstick frequently. Dont even mention the shape of its nose.

PUT TO THE VOTE, I think it would have been a unanimous decision to stay at Wolf and do more dives with the big boys. Darwin Island, just two hours cruise north, no doubt had its charms, but how could it possibly compare
At 7am the next day we took the taste test, as we descended onto the ledges at Darwins Arch. There was a difference. As with Wolf, there were scalloped hammerheads, close up to us, but behind them were reinforcements.
Above, to the left and to the right, it was an assault on the senses. I believe they call this wallpaper sharks.
A number of our party had been to the Cocos Islands in the past, famous for this sort of spectacle, but they reckoned that what we were seeing at Darwin was even more dense.
After watching the shark show for about 50 bars worth, we wandered into the blue, on the look-out for whale sharks. Antonio had seen and photographed one a week before,
a completely albino specimen.
Moby Dick didnt show, but his wife turned up to apologise. A big girl, there was no doubt she was in the family way.
Some of us were a little too far away for decent photographs, but we did all notice the lights dimming as she passed by. The current took us back into the shallows, and onto the bank of the sandy channel where the hammerheads again paraded. Thank goodness wed left Wolf!
Every dive we did at Darwin started from the arch. With each one, the hammerheads refused to deviate from their procession - apart from one. The unforgettable dive...
We did take time out for some other aquatic pursuits. Just five minutes away from our mooring were colonies of sea-lions and fur seals. On land it is possible to get quite close, but our curiosity was not reciprocated.
The fun happens in the water, with mask, snorkel and wetsuits on. The pups dart around, but with caution, while their elder brothers and sisters take delight in twisting around each swimmer. Some try a fin nibble, while others play hide-and-seek behind the submerged boulders.
Its exhausting trying to keep up with them, but we are also wary of Big Daddy, the Beachmaster, keeping a watchful eye in the background. Not one to suffer foolish humans gladly, he has his females and offspring to protect.

WHEN WE FINALLY SAID GOODBYE to the northern isles of Wolf and Darwin, it would have been with heavy hearts if not for the spectacular farewell.
For 20 minutes of sailing we were accompanied by the dolphins again, riding on our bow and doing jumps high out of the water. I think there was a message there for us, but they were preaching to the converted, at least on our vessel.
The final part of our journey lay in the central isles of Roca Redonda, Isabela and Santiago. Water temperature and visibility both diminished compared to our northerly diving. Temperatures here of 16°C were not uncommon, and with none of us in drysuits, we were feeling the nip.
Things generally started to slow down - no ripping current, and less-frequent pelagic encounters, though there was a story to tell after every dive.
On most dives either an inquisitive sea-lion or passing manta ray would visit. Very rarely would we miss seeing whitetips, and some lucky individuals even stumbled on a Port Jackson shark.
Some of us were narrowing our view onto macro life now, and with seahorses, shrimps, nudibranchs and blennies, there was a plentiful supply of subjects.
The contrasting balance of life both above and below the waves continued, with more trips ashore interleaved with the diving. For bird-lovers there were blue-footed boobies, flamingos and penguins. Our only disappointment was not seeing a penguin under water, but lets not be greedy (see Hannah Cleavers report following).
Divers with more reptilian inclinations were fascinated by the marine iguanas. Im not heavily into lizards, but these creatures are hard not to like. Theyre hardy little monsters, and have no problem discharging a nostril or two of salty snot all over your Timberlands.
The geology and fauna wasnt overlooked either, with a volcano climb on Bartolomé and a walk through the mangroves of Santa Cruz.
Antonio had a wealth of knowledge on every aspect of the islands natural history, and his ease of presentation gave us a valuable insight to everything we were seeing.
Ten days on a liveaboard is a long voyage by any standards, but it all ended far too soon. It was the adventure of a lifetime, especially as future legislation might make it difficult for us to return. Perhaps we are only meant to go once.

The silence was broken by the sound of divers banging on their tanks and screaming excitedly through their regulators. Two shadows emerged from the depths. They were a little over 20m away, but ignored us as they continued to the surface for air. Now we understood why the hammerheads were no longer around. They keep their distance from orcas out hunting.