I woke up early Saturday morning, excited by the prospect of finally getting to dive one of the best dive sites in the world. The sun was just coming up, and I stepped outside to a glorious sunrise. We had just passed Wolf Island, and Darwin and its famous Arch lay dead ahead, just a few hours away. The excitement began to build.
After another wonderful breakfast, we gathered on the fantail for our dive briefing. Nicholas drew the topography of the site, including a large Whale Shark, and gave us detailed instructions on how to dive this site. The currents and surge are very strong, but the payoff is major league critters everywhere you look. We suited up and piled into the pangas, and headed for the Arch. As soon as we were positioned right next to the Arch, we would count 1,2,3 and all back roll into the deep blue pacific waters.
We descended to about 80’, and looked around at the amazing masses of fish everywhere, then looked closer, and many of the “masses of fish”, where in fact, masses of sharks! Can you say SHARK! Holy Hammerhead batman, there were Hammerheads and Silky Sharks everywhere! Then a majestic squadron of Golden Cow Rays came cruising by, mandating that I swim out to get a few photographs. Swimming back to get some photos of the sharks, I quickly learned that in order to get “up close and personal” with a Hammerhead, you had to get away from the other divers a bit, get small (hug a rock), and hold your breath (I know, bad, bad, diver). The reward would be a Hammerhead cruising by just a few feet away. As soon as I would exhale, or my strobes fired, the shark would turn and bolt (they are really flexible and can turn extremely fast). It’s astonishing to see a predatory animal that large petrified of us wee little (noisy, bubble-blowing) divers.
The silkies, on the other hand, didn’t seem frightened of us at all, and many times took a little too much interest in me while doing safety stops out in deep blue water. Fortunately, the “camera grande” as the crew called my beast of a camera was enough to deter even the peskiest silky when put right in their face and both strobes fired.
Our first dive was awesome, with our first taste of the extreme currents currents that threaten to rip you right off the rocks you are holding on to! I actually had my weight belt released by a rock, but it caught inside my harness (as designed) and I was able to put it back on. Our second dive was even better, with thousands of schooling Jacks literally blotting out the sun, parting to let divers through and closing behind them. Our third dive though, I will never forget. About 10 minutes into the dive, we headed out into the blue, swimming through massive schools of jacks, when I heard, “click, click, click”, Nicholas was shaking his noisemaker and pointing at the massive Whale Shark that was cruising by. Oh my gosh!, time to test just how fast those fancy fins can really make you go! You swim like a madman (or madwomen) and can just barely keep up with the lumbering giant as it slowly swims by. Oops, must remember to set, aim and click the camera (which is shaking because I’m breathing so hard and is way too big to be pushing through the water with any kind of speed). Eventually, I tire out and notice Nicholas and I are the only divers still in sight. Wow, whale sharks are simply awe inspiring.
The Whale shark encounters were to be repeated 4 times over the next 2 days, and by the second day, I was spotting them myself as they cruised through the channel, and making my dive computer VERY ANGRY with a mad rush and rapid ascent to get in front of the shark for my favorite series of pictures as the massive creature swam by the camera at a distance of about 18”. After the encounter, I sank back down to the wall, caught my breath and smiled all through the mandatory deco my computer made me do for being such a bad diver. Did you know your mouthpiece leaks if you smile too much when you’re diving? ;-)
All of the Whale Sharks at Darwin’s Arch are female (as are most of the hammerheads), and are amazing to swim with. They are gentle, and will for the most part ignore divers that get close, but will dive deep if touched or harassed. Do watch out for the tail though, they swim with their whole body, so the tail goes side-to-side over a large arc, is quite large, and will hurt if it hits you (trust me on that one).
My camera housing was having a harder time than I was coping with the rough conditions at Darwin’s Arch. By the end of our second day at Darwin, both handles were loose, the ROC (remote optical controller) board was dead, and the zoom gear on my 12-24 dx lens was broken. Crap. The loss of the ROC was really bad, as I could no longer change the f-stop and shutter speed on the camera once it was in the housing. This meant setting up for one type of shot prior to a dive, and only shooting that particular setting. What a bummer.
Bottlenose dolphins were feeding and cruising around the arch on almost every dive. These playful creatures were very fun to watch, both above and below the surface. They met the boat as it arrived, and followed us as we left, often playing with the pangas as we’d head out or back from our dives. The were frequent visitors during our safety stops, and reminded me of the movie, "The Big Blue", which you MUST SEE if you are any kind of diver.