In Darwin's Wake
In this book excerpt from Herb McCormick's One Island, One Ocean—the story of the 2009-2010 Around the Americas expedition—the crew of Ocean Watch calls at the fragile, challenged, and astounding Galápagos Islands.
A second El Niño in the late 1990s caused more destruction to the reefs. “Today, coral reefs are fragmented across the entire archipelago,” said Banks. “What we think has happened in the 10 years since the last strong El Niño event is that the natural capacity or resilience of the system to recover has been compromised. And only now is it starting to show some promising signs of recovery.”
We understood what Banks meant; the fragile state of coral reefs underscored the very point we’d been trying to make on the expedition. Everything, and everyone, was a piece of an important puzzle, dependent on one another—a cog in a wheel that doesn’t stop turning.
“A large part of what we do is make sure we can represent what’s happening below the waves,” he said.
On our final dive in the Galápagos, on a site called Gordon Rocks, where the current sweeps through a narrow pass at up to seven knots, Thoreson and I underwent an experience “below the waves” unlike anything we’d ever seen or done before.
Following dive-master Jimmy Pincay, we slipped off the dive boat and into a maelstrom. Descending along a sheer, vertical rock face blasted by what felt like 50-knot gusts, we picked our handholds carefully, knowing that if we slipped, the current would suck us into the void. It was like mountain climbing, but exactly the opposite. We weren’t scrambling toward a summit, but into the deep.
As we pulled ourselves down, hand over hand, our finned feet were forced out directly behind us, fully horizontal, like cartoon characters in a cartoon hurricane. In what seemed like an hour but was probably 10 minutes, we negotiated the first section of rock and wedged ourselves into a series of outcroppings. From there, we had a good view of what was happening in the pass. It was something to behold.
Schools of undulating reef fish, as if a single organism, churned and pulsed past, followed by a flapping sea turtle that seemed to teeter on the razor’s edge of control. A reef shark swam purposely past, followed by another. Then Pincay was again on the move.
It’s hard to describe the sights and the sounds, the big sucking of air, the wafting bubbles of water. Every so often, a different surge of current swept past, almost pulling the masks off our faces. It was terrifying.
And then, after a few minutes of it, after getting somewhat comfortable and realizing we were all on top of it: Man, it was cool.
In the final moments of the dive, before Pincay signaled for us to begin surfacing and we made one last safety stop, we found another spot to bivouac and watched the undersea world flow by. Neither Thoreson nor I ever knew how imposing a hammerhead shark could look until we saw one, up close and personal, and some 90 feet down.
The Around the Americas expedition was conceived as a journey to spotlight the health of our oceans. Sometimes, ironically, we’d been so caught up in the concept, the science, and the mission that we’d forgotten about the sheer power and glory of Mother Ocean. But wedged in those rocks, raked by those currents, surrounded by abundance—of color, of nature, of life—in a moment that was both serious and serene, we remembered the reason we’d come here in the first place.
Herb McCormick, CW’s senior editor, and photographer David Thoreson were two of the four full-time crew on the 2009-2010 Around the Americas expedition aboard the 64- foot cutter Ocean Watch.
This story is excerpted from One Island, One Ocean (Weldon Owen, $35). The full-color book, written by Herb McCormick and with photos by David Thoreson, recounts the historic 2009-2010 Around the Americas expedition. It’s now available online at outlets including Amazon.com and wherever fine books are sold.