Galapagos,  San Cristobal

A smidgen of panic…

The excitement and adventure of the Galapagos Islands still hasn’t stopped! I organised my scuba course the day after we arrived in San Cristobal and I’m now half way through. I spent the first day watching the approved PADI videos and yesterday was spent in a shallow stretch of sea learning various skills needed for the certification. Luckily for me the instructor I am using has no other students at the moment so my lessons are one-to-one. I’m quite surprised that there aren’t more people wanting to learn to dive here as the Galapagos Islands must be one of the most idyllic places on the planet to learn, especially for wildlife enthusiasts! I guess many already-qualified divers would come here and go on tours instead, which is what many people appeared to be doing.

Yesterday was my second day of the course and my first ever dive! Most people spend their first dive in a swimming pool to learn skills such as clearing your mask of water, finding and clearing your regulator underwater, what to do if your equipment goes wrong, buoyancy control, etc. My instructor asked if I wanted to go to the sea instead of the pool as it’s much more interesting and a beautiful place to learn, so of course I said yes. I found the sensation of breathing under water very strange at first and extremely unnatural. My instructor could tell I was uncomfortable so spent a bit of time showing me round the sea bottom to get me used to my new environment before proceeding to the skills section. That was a very special experience; in less than 5 minutes we had already seen sea lion pups playing just above our heads, I saw a large sting ray, sand eels, urchins, a plethora of fish and lots of other marine life. After which I practiced the skill of emptying of my mask of water, which I found pretty scary as it involves taking off your mask and closing your eyes in the process. I (like most people probably) am very used to air being freely available whenever and wherever I need it. Things are very different under water and air is only available from a number of small hoses, so the idea of being blind in this unfamiliar environment absolutely terrified me. It took a while but eventually I built up the confidence to do the task in hand, and whilst it wasn’t exactly pleasant, I managed it without any hitches and it did wonders for building my confidence. We completed the majority of the other skills later in the afternoon and I really enjoyed the whole experience.

It was just after sunset when we surfaced (probably about 6.30pm) and as we were gathering up all the equipment in the remaining daylight, my instructor got a phone call and it was pretty obvious he had been given some shocking news. It turns out that during the last hour an earthquake had hit mainland Ecuador where many of his family lived. When he told me I was totally stunned and expressed my concerns for his family. He seemed very calm about the whole thing so I pressed for a bit more information. Even though the phone signal in Ecuador was down, he had managed to get in touch with someone who knew that all his family were safe. He also explained that although this was quite a big earthquake, they are very common in that part of the world and earth tremors probably occur about 20 times per year. It was another half an hour before we got back to the dive shop and I was ready to leave. Another staff member at the dive centre expressed concerns that the earthquake could cause a tsunami which could potentially hit the Galapagos Islands. However, he also stated that given the location of the earthquake that it was very unlikely to cause problems here and that everyone would be notified if there was any danger ahead. It occurred to me that Alex had been working on the boat engine all day and with little communication with the outside world, would probably have no idea what was happening. However, he had also asked me to buy some bread and water on my way back to Bob and as no one seemed particularly worried about a tsunami, I decided to go shopping.

I merrily bought some bread and whilst doing so, I had a chat with one of the locals about the tsunami warning. Again his response didn’t seem urgent. He said it may be a problem but that we didn’t know yet and if it turned into something more serious the police and coast guards would let us know. He explained that we would likely hear loudspeaker announcements and that police cars would be patrolling with their lights and sirens on to make people aware. Everything still seemed calm so I strolled on to another shop to buy some water. Little did I know that at the same time Alex was just hearing the news for himself, from a yacht who hastily pulled up anchor and screamed at people as he was leaving about the tsunami warning and to turn to channel 16 on the radio for more information.

After my shopping I walked down the pier to the water taxi and started to feel slightly more uneasy about things. I could hear a loud speaker in the distance (although I couldn’t understand what it was saying) and I could see the lights of a police car in the distance. In very bad Spanish I asked the water taxi driver for an update. He was clearly uneasy and appeared concerned, I think he said that the tsunami was now a problem and would hit the Galapagos shortly. He took me back to Bob where Alex was shouting “WE NEED TO GO! WE NEED TO GO! A TSUNAMI IS ABOUT TO HIT US IN 15 MINUTES!”. He was in the process of doing the fastest engine rebuild in the history of the world! Having spent all day taking the damn thing apart to fix a leak, he put it together again in just 10 short minutes. We pegged it out of the harbour and headed for deeper waters as fast as we dare push the engine.

We had very few updates from the port captain about what to expect and in the end we experienced nothing more than a few large swells. Perhaps my original blasé attitude towards this tsunami warning would have saved us from unnecessary panic and a rapid journey to sea – still, better safe than sorry. We’ve not been to shore yet but as far as I can tell from the boat, everything appears normal and no damage seems to have been done. We’ll head to shore soon and see what information we can find out, hopefully everything will be as it should.





  • Vicky Hamshere

    Hi! Both your tsunami accounts are amazing. How incredible to deal with the unknown, unexpected, but urgent, all at the same time! Are you allowed to go ashore on any of the small islands? We did, but only with a guide who actually lived on board with the 14 of us for the entire visit, as per requirements. That’s when we were allowed to step around the blue footed boobies in their nest that was built smack in the middle of the pathway. Otherwise you DID NOT LEAVE THE PATHWAY!! Seems that things may have got even stricter?! Swimming with the iguanas was an experience!
    I am sure you will enjoy everything as much as we did 🙂

  • Paulina

    What an amazing breathtaking story. At least you had bread. I have been told the best thing to do if a tidal wave is coming is go to deep water, of course. Was the engine still leaking oil? I have been following the news and no mention of a tsunami in Galapagos at this time.

  • Liz Burgess

    Hi Sarah – been following your blog and find it fascinating so many highs and lows – you are both very brave. Good that your mum had a good time – what an experience for her. Hope you experience some ‘plain sailing’ in the future – keep safe.

    • Sarah

      Hi Liz,

      Lovely to hear from you, I’m glad youre enjoying the blog. Yeah my mum had a great time and I wish she could have stayed for longer. I don’t know if brave is the right word for it, I certainly didn’t feel brave. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for plain sailing in the future too 🙂

  • Christine Brooks

    Congratulations Sarah on completing your PADI course! I’m so proud of you for completing the course and for coping with the unexpected!
    I love Paulina’s message ‘at least you had bread’ it makes me chuckle every time I read it. I have this vision of chaos and mayhem everywhere, while you’re taking everything in your stride making sure you have all you need for the evening meal. Ha ha. Love you both xxx

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