Sunday, 30 October 2011

La Frontera

A RIVULET OF sweat trickles down my back. I tilt my cap forward, hiding from the glare of the noonday sun. A dry, hot breeze blows dust across the unpaved road, litter dancing to the parched scrub beside it. The bus engine idles, its driver sheltering in the shade in front. The passengers are amongst the trees, the tarpaulin shelters above makeshift taco stalls casting welcome shade for the fat women stirring pots of stewed meat. Beggars move among them; the ubiquitous one-legged man hops from the treeline, hat in hand; stray dogs slink between the stalls searching for discarded bones; children run wild, casting doleful faces at the tourists, hands held out.

A wizened old man shuffles by, immaculate in white. I walk between the border outpost buildings, reading the Wanted posters on heat-blistered walls...their subjects regarding me balefully from black-and-white photographs. Narco-traffickers. People-smugglers. Murderers. A woman among them, her brutal, pock-marked face a pitiless mask. The incessant chimes of an ice-cream vendor's bell is interrupted by the rapid approach of a horse: the Nicaraguan caballero gallops through the junction and pulls up in front of the food stalls, dropping off supplies of tortillas and rice. Within a minute he is astride his charge again, and heads back in the opposite direction, only a cloud of drifting dust to show he was ever here.

Borders are uncomfortable places, and no-one keeps eye-contact for long. An ugly centipede navigates the scorched track to the shade, and a passing man notices me observing it. "Feo" he tells me. I nod "Si"...very ugly indeed. He walks on as I cross the road towards the bus. A shifty man with a scar tracks my progress with his eyes as he squats in the dirt. I nod, but he turns away without acknowledging me. I reach the cool shadows below the trees, running the gauntlet of money-changers: slick characters in cheap jeans, spotless white fake sneakers and mirrored shades, wedges of currency being flicked through their fingers like a pack of cards. Not to be trusted. Two Scandinavian girls are warily exchanging money, and I tell them the rate and conversion...translating for them when the moneychanger plays dumb: trying it on.

A trio of streetkids crowd around a couple of bowls of rice and meat, their scavenging and hustling having been enough to fill their bellies for now. They laugh and joke as they eat; the moneychangers of tomorrow. I cut between the trees to the hard-packed dirt area where the trucks are lined up, waiting for clearance to cross the frontera. Drivers and their mates are slung below the trailers in hammocks, sleeping in the shadows...the best place to be in this heat. A policeman paces with slow purpose behind the trailers, watching keenly for smugglers, Armalite rifle unslung and pointed at the ground; I don't envy him the webbing, pack and body armour in this climate.

Heading back to the bus, the moneychangers are still clamouring for custom. I change some US Dollars into Honduran Lempiras with the same man who had dealt with the girls. On walking away, I recall the rate I'd checked before getting on the bus in Managua. He's given me a poor return. I feel foolish for walking away, and check the going rate with a couple of the dealers, including a fat woman struggling to squeeze into the confines of a plastic garden chair. Hers is far better. I approach the man, and he looks resigned...maybe he'd hoped I'd just let it go? But I know I'll be kicking myself for not being sharp enough as we leave. I ask him why the fat lady is giving a far better rate. He looks away, preparing the brush-off excuse. At that moment the rumbling of another bus approaches: my Ace of Spades. As it slows to park next to ours, the man glances back at me. I look at the arriving bus as his colleagues make a dash for it, return to look at him, shrug and smile. He knows exactly how his immediate business is going to be affected if he doesn't give me what he owes me. Handing me the cash, he heads off to compete.

A man from our bus company exits the Nicaraguan building, a transparent bag full of passports clutched in his hand. The sweating driver revs the engine and pumps the horn three times, jabs his thumb over his shoulder "¡Vamanos!". We clamber aboard, the perspiration freezing on us in the icy air-conditioned atmosphere, grabbing headrests for support as we pick our way to our seats, the driver unconcerned. Bumping along the potholed road and belching smoke, we exit Nicaragua and enter Honduras.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Goosebumps

THE WIND HOWLED outside the walls of the Nicaraguan café, rain lashing the roof. The electricity on the island of Ometepe had failed, leaving us huddled amongst the giant shadows cast against the walls by a flickering candle. Maxy leaned forward, his face skull-like in the upward light from the flame. "Who knows a ghost story?" he asked. I smiled knowingly and began.

As a atheist since childhood, some may call my believing in the other-wordly slightly hypocritical. I can't explain exactly what I believe; what I can do is to relate my personal experiences, and those of my family.

My late Grandad Bill was the first to tell me of an experience he had whilst working as a long-distance truck-driver in the 60s and 70s. Using a remote lay-by one night to answer the Call Of Nature, he'd returned to the cab of his truck and opened the door. A young woman was sat in the passenger seat. It was late at night, and my Grandad was a little shocked that someone was out in the middle of nowhere on a deserted road, never mind a young woman on her own. He asked the woman where she'd come from, and explained that he wasn't strictly supposed to take passengers. But where was she going, exactly? Slightly annoyed by a lack of response from the woman, who stared fixedly and silently at the dark road ahead, he ran around to her side, and flung open the door. The cab was empty...the road deserted. Quite shaken, he returned to his depot a few hours later; a couple of drivers had also seen this woman in roughly the same spot over a period of years. Nobody had a valid explanation.

Now as far as I know, no-one else in the family has had any supernatural experience. Except for events surrounding my sister, Emma. I remember one occasion where we'd been on a family outing; returning home early evening, we'd entered the house to find that every single photograph and painting on the walls of the entire house had been moved, so that they were all at crazy angles. Inexplainable. Myself and my Mum had a similar bizarre experience in that house: her hairbrush had gone missing one afternoon, and a brief search of the house left her bemused. Returning to the place she'd originally been brushing her hair, she found the brush exactly where she knew she'd left it. She was positive that it hadn't been there when she was searching for it. I'd answered the phone one night while getting ready for a night out, and had the lid from a tub of wax in my hand, having been in the bathroom when the phone rang. Going back to the bathroom, the tub was nowhere to be seen. Puzzled, I imagined I'd carried it through to my Mum's room when the phone rang. But it wasn't there. Nor in my room. On entering the bathroom, the tub was on a tiled shelf in front of the mirror. And I will swear on my life that it hadn't been there a moment ago.

At the age of fourteen, my younger brother had by far the most sinister and frightening experience in the house. I was twenty by this point, and had taken the smaller room due to being out most of the time. My old room had double sliding mirror doors on a built-in wardrobe. Scott and his best mate Paul had been sitting on the windowledge, overlooking a school field, and having a smoke like we used to when our parents were out. On climbing back into the room, the mirror doors began to shake violently. Paul reacted quickest, running for the door and down the stairs. He told me later that he ran all the way home, a quarter of a mile away. Scott sprinted out the bedroom and slammed the door shut, holding the handle and putting his foot against the frame to stop it being opened. When he heard the rattling sound cease, he left the house as fast as he could. My parents returned a few hours later to find him sat in the garden, being too scared to go back into the house alone.

These strange occurrences stopped when my sister moved out to live with her husband-to-be, Lee. But they continued at her new house. One night my nephew, four years old at the time, came downstairs late. My sister told him to get back up the stairs and get to bed, as he shouldn't be up at this time. His But Mums were cut short. Twenty minutes later he was down again, but similarly dismissed.

Emma lost her temper when he appeared a third time, and shouted "Lewis...I won't tell you again. Get back up those stairs and get in your bed."
Lewis was tearful. "I can't get in my bed, Mum..."
"What do you mean, you can't get in your bed?"
He rubbed his eyes. "There's a little girl in my bed, and she won't get out."
Emma's blood ran cold.

A close friend of hers recommended a spiritualist church in Preston, the Northern town where we grew up. She laughed it off at first, but decided to take a look when Lewis had a similar experience again one evening. She got to the meeting late. The church hall was half-filled, and Emma made her way to a seat near the back of the gathering. The woman at the front stopped speaking a few minutes later, mid-sentence, and peered into the dim recesses of the back of the hall. "There's a little girl here," she said "and she's lost. She's looking for somebody." The speaker scanned the room "She's looking," she suddenly pointed at my sister "for you." The hairs on the back of Emma's neck stood on end as the woman smiled beningnly and informed her that all was well, and the little girl had seen her.

They found a bigger house a few years afterwards, Emma having had her third baby. The property they'd bought had belonged to an elderly man who had died suddenly. There was therefore no chain, and they moved in quickly. Weird things started happening from the first week: Max, her second child, was a toddler...he came into the kitchen one day with blood on his hands. Emma panicked and, having ascertained that he hadn't cut himself, asked where the blood had come from. Max took her to the living room and showed her a small patch of fresh blood on the wall; on some evenings they could smell pipe tobacco, and could hear the sound of a walking stick on the wooden floors downstairs; one night while in bed, the mobile of dangling fish shapes above the baby's cot had begun to move. Emma said that they should shut the window, as a draught was no good for the tot. Lee went to close the window and, moving the curtains out of the way, realised that the windows were firmly shut. Puzzled, Lee says that he was getting into bed when the mobile stopped turning, the fish on wires still swinging with the momentum; gradually it started turning in the opposite direction. Again, no logical explanation.

Being a misguided believer in the old bloke in the sky with the long beard, Emma asked the local vicar in to bless the house (incidentally, he's quite cool for a Creationist...my Mum introduced me to him one Xmas with the words "This is my eldest son, Warren...he doesn't believe in God" How we laughed). And so Nick The Vic blessed the house, and nothing further happened, though they moved to Australia a short while afterwards. Nothing strange seems to have occurred out there so far, but I put this down to English ghosts having more sense than to move to Adelaide. I mean...would you?

My sister isn't one to make things up or sensationalise a story. Unlike me, who makes everything on this blog up. I've never been to Central America, or anywhere else. I'm currently locked up in a mental institution near Liverpool, typing with my nose until they take the strait-jacket off. Which they'll do. But only when I tell them where I buried the bodies. Since I've forgotten, I've had to become very good at this nose-typing.

Of course I'm joking. They don't make me wear a strait-jacket.

But let me finish with a story that could easily have put me in said loony-bin. In the early 1990s I dated a Blackburn girl named Cushla for a while, and she had a very odd friend named Catherine who dabbled in the dark arts. We were invited round to her house one night to try the Ouija board. This is something I'd never tried before, and will never repeat. It had all started slowly, Catherine trying to summon something to no avail. Just as we were about to give up the upturned glass, on which we had our little-fingertips resting, began to glide around the table, stopping at the letters arranged in a circle. Catherine asked questions, but was not receiving answers which made any sense. I was smiling to myself, positive that some of the seven people around the table were pushing the glass. I was not smiling a moment later when the glass moved directly towards me: the person opposite was certainly not pushing it, as her finger was bent, and I was pushing against it in horrified disbelief. Cushla held my hand tighter. One girl freaked out and started crying, saying she wanted to get off the board. Catherine sternly told everyone to keep their fingers on the glass until she said it was safe to break contact. On asking the presence if we could leave the conversation, the glass repeatedly slid to the card marked No in the centre of the board. During a further half-hour of garbled messages she asked again and again, and eventually the glass crept to Yes. With a sigh of relief we released the glass, and I winced as Cushla let go of my hand: her nails had stuck into the base of my palm, and I hadn't even noticed the discomfort until whatever it was had allowed us to end the session. I drove her home in silence afterwards, and checked the rearview mirror constantly on my nervy onward journey alone. We never spoke of the incident again. And it's not an experience I'd ever want to repeat.

You don't have to believe me; indeed, laugh heartily if you don't. I'm just relating personal experiences as they happened to myself and those around me. These experiences centred around Emma, almost as if she were a sensitive conduit. We still don't know quite what to make of them. And likely never will.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Food For Thought

WELL I MIGHT have been lauging then, as my friend Kneehead reeled from the Guatemalan café, quite literally sick to the stomach at the smell of maize tortillas laid unexpectedly on our table. I chuckled at the sight of him at the roadside, leaning against a lamp-post, pale-faced and sucking in air. But I'm certainly not laughing now. Nine months in and the sight of chicken, rice and beans on a menu makes me want to burst into tears. Or rice, beans and chicken; beans, chicken and rice. Whatever. It's an understatement on the scale of "Pol Pot was a bit mean" to say that the food in the Americas is limited. If the scale of the continent, from Tijuana to Ushuaia, fires your imagination... it's a safe bet that the food won't. And I can't think of a reasonable excuse for this crime against the tastebud?

I was sat alone in a Managua bus station at 4am when my lowest moment occurred. Having arrived late the previous afternoon, I'd wandered around an earthquake-decimated neighbourhood in search of something vaguely edible. The rotating spits of burnt flesh resembling something between human and horse weren't really grabbing me, and I ended up in a Chinese which was about as Chinese as me. Needs must. Having braved the Thriller extras who wander the Nicaraguan capital's streets at this unearthly hour, I made the terminal, dumped my bag and attempted conversation with the haggard sourpuss manning the deserted eaterie. And so I found myself cradling a styrofoam cup, the liquid within rainbow-shiny with grease, watching plastic noodles gradually softening and pitying the lonely, dessicated shrimp enjoying its final swim. From an idyllic ocean life to a ignominious end amongst an Englishman's noodle soup in the confines of a Nicaraguan bus terminal: the indignity of it.

Making my way to my seat, I jealously eyed the coffee an old gentleman was carrying onboard: the crema atop rich and brown. But, having wide experience of the amonia-scented toilets on latino buses, I wasn't taking any chances. Coffee could wait. I don't even drink water on these ardous journeys for fear of contracting dysentry from the filth-strewn interior of a Ticabus shitter. And as I mused on the importance of a contented stomach on the road, the bastard in front of me reclined his seat to within 6" of my face, almost spilling the watery broth Oliver Twist would have turned down into my lap. The obligatory seat-kicker/ headrest-grabber behind me also started up. Ah well, only another 14 hours of this to endure.

Food is very important to general happiness and wellbeing . An army marches on its stomach. You simply don't appreciate just how much good grub means to you until you're on the road. But it's the bland sameness of the food in the Americas which baffles me. The staples are rice, beans, tortillas and chicken; avocadoes if you're lucky. I can't believe the Spaniards spent so much time in this region, left behind their architecture, language and religion yet forgot the tapas? Shame on the conquistadors. I've eaten very well in Barcelona, and it's a crying shame that I can't get the same food or even wine here (have you tried Mexican wine? No...and there's a good reason you didn't know they even produce it).

It comes to something when I can name the places I've had a decent meal in almost 18 months of travelling this region: a trout lunch in San Gil, Colombia; chicken tacos in a Cozumel backstreet; falafel(!) in Bogota, Colombia; cevíche in Panamá City; avocado and scrambled eggs for breakfast in El Tunco, El Salvador; crepes (yes...crepes) in Antigua de Guatemala; pizza (yes...pizza) in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil; pizza in México City; pizza in Quito, Ecuador. You get the picture. Like Kneehead, everyone has a breaking point; I've reached mine now. No more tortillas, please...they stink.

So why the lack of options? México is slightly better than the rest, with a more varied menu. But on the whole you would struggle to discern the cuisine of one country from another out here, and I find this a touch depressing. Europe is a far smaller continent, but look at the differences in cuisine: coq au vin in France; paella in Spain; lasagne in Italy; bacalhau in Portugal; moussaka in Greece and...erm...fish and chips in England. They're all different. Give me $3 and I'll find you delicious pho noodle soup in Hanoi, pad Thai in Bangkok, gado gado on the streets of Jakarta. Mouthwatering food, created with imagination. Asian cuisine is unbeatable.

I've had some grim food, the worst being in Nicaragua. I've stared, incredulous, at the piles of fatty, dismembered cattle behind glass beneath a dim light bulb, wondering how people put up with this? Chicken meals have been spat out to the dogs on the street: bones and skin constituting no decent meal I've ever heard of. And why is everything fried in month-old engine oil here? Is heart disease fashionable, or something?

The jury is out on México...everyone telling me that the food is much better here. But most of those people were in Guatemala, after México, and heading South, from whence I'd come. The poor bastards...

Monday, 10 October 2011

If Carlsberg Made Dive Sites...

...THEN DARWIN ARCH would surely be it. This remote point, an overnight sail further still from Wolf Island, represents the pinnacle of many a diver's experiences. This impressive slab of rock juts from the sea atop a series of plateaux, giant steps leading to the abyss. Relentess waves pound this site, and the currents can be fierce. To be out here, miles from civilisation, medical help, and among hundreds of sharks, is both intimidating and inspiring.

Under a cloudless sky we left the sanctuary of the Explorer and approached the Arch. Bright blue above us, deep blue below. We hung on for grim life as the building swells slapped the boat; there's nothing quite like a rough sea in a fragile craft to make you appreciate mortality and sharpen the concentration. The guide knew the right entry spot, and we fell backward into the water, descending quickly to avoid being swept away from the area by the strong current. Finding shelter on the flanks of the small island, we could already see many hammerheads swimming effortlessly against the flow. On one dive at this spot, I ceased counting when I reached one hundred sharks: incredible numbers. And they kept coming. But we weren't at Darwin for the hammerheads.

It was just a dark shadow the guide pointed at, shape emerging, heading towards the reef. But then bright white spots became visible in the dim light, interspersed with vertical stripes. It got bigger. And bigger. We could now see the strong horizontal ridges adorning its length. In a phalanx, we headed out to meet the whaleshark as it cruised by us. Its size defied belief; mouth open and feeding on the plankton which clouded the water, it powered along with deceptively slow sweeps of its tail. We'd been warned about getting too close: not only could we frighten the creatures, but their huge tails had been known to give unwary divers painful bruises which lasted weeks. Broken ribs are not unknown...and I've had quite enough of those, thanks.

Comparatively little is known about the whaleshark and its migration patterns. Their appearance is seasonal and relatively brief and, as they disappear into the depths, far from sight, nobody really knows to where they vanish. During our visit we encountered a research boat, the crew informing us excitedly that the first-ever male whaleshark had been spotted and electronically-tagged just a few days before our arrival. I'd imagine it will take quite a few years' more research before their behaviour is accurately mapped. But diving with these creatures every day doesn't sound like a bad way to spend a few years?

We were fortunate enough to spot a whaleshark on every dive at this location. Stefano had by far the best experience on one particular dive: he'd been above the animal, behind its huge vertical dorsal fin, and pulled along in its wake. We'd been left behind to head back to the shelter of the rocks, El Macarron signalling to Stef to stay with the whaleshark; he enjoyed a good five minutes alone with it in the blue before it unknowingly led him back to us and the upward slope of rocks at Darwin's base.

Another occasion was a little hairier for myself and Maxy. We chased after another whaleshark, breathing hard as we finned swiftly to try and keep up. A shoal of large remorra fish hung below her vast belly, one of them in the beginning of its death throes, pieces of it falling away. It wasn't more than a split second before the culprit showed itself: a Galápagos shark and two companions emerged from the gloom. We were losing the whaleshark, and marooned in the open with feeding sharks. Not ideal. One of them came close by, its pectoral fins spread out, nose up and showing us its chest: an aggressive posture. I was a little worried that this shark and friends thought myself and the Scotsman keen competition for their meal. It doubled back past us in a figure-of-eight. I jabbed my thumb towards the rocky plain: Let's get the fuck out of here. Maxy quickly nodded assent and we swum for all we were worth, nervously eyeing the touchy trio over our shoulders and breaking into nervous giggles when we we realised that they weren't going to attack us. Crouched among the rocks we winked and slapped each other on the shoulder as we regained our breath; the excitement was over for now.

Many a time we could see the silhouettes of schooling hammerheads against the white sand below us. It's always nice to have something interesting to watch while the three minute Safety Stop ticks away. On one particular dive I'd stayed a little lower than the group to make a Deep Stop, a further safety measure after a deep dive. I was maybe 6-8m below the other divers; we drifted along this time, instead of fighting the current to hold position. Out of nowhere a silky shark appeared, at my depth. I looked up El Macarron and pointed to the animal. He tapped two forked fingers against his mask in answer Watch that one. I nodded and quickly turned my attention back to the shark. It glided by, flicking me an uninterested glance, banked slightly before turning the other way and disappearing.

Waiting on the surface for the RIB was always nervy. Due to the large waves at Darwin, a signalling device is essential to mark your position to the boat captain. I use a standard DSMB (Delayed Surface Marker Buoy): a metre-long, sausage-shaped device, which rises to the surface when slightly inflated from 5m below, the expanding air filling it as water pressure decreases. Attached to a cord reel, this is locked and held taut from below; the fully-inflated orange tube stands vertical from the water.

Myself, Stef and Maxy had been allowed to stay down a while longer on one dive, as we'd had far more air remaining than the rest of the group. On surfacing, we couldn't see the boat, and they couldn't see us. I held the marker buoy tight to enable them to spot us more easily. Huge walls of water were undulating towards us, tipping us over their crests before dropping us into the 2m deep troughs between them and the next wave; everything else, including the horizon, disappeared from sight. It would have been fun, but for the thought of the silkies below us. We spied the boat, and it was a long minute before they spotted us. Anxiety turned to relief as they signalled and guided the craft in our direction; we were actually able to enjoy the next couple of gargantuan waves before we were gratefully hauled out of the ocean.

Our two days at this exhilarating spot were over all too quickly. As the Explorer pointed her bow South we left the hundreds of hammerheads, the seals, the dolphins, whalesharks and countless other sharks behind. It was a wrench. This place is stunning, the diving some of the best I've ever been lucky enough to do. They say that diving Galápagos is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. No way. I'll be back...as soon as possible.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Wolf Island

MANY SPEAK OF the perfect sunset. Most travellers can recall that special one, and hold it in a place close to their hearts. But there is melancholy in a sunset; something has ended, gone forever. Personally, a sunrise makes my heart soar; the optimism of another day, replete with endless possibilty. Sitting on Temple IV at Tikal, Guatemala, will live with me forever; few moments in my life have made me appreciate what it is to be human and alive as much as that one. But as humbling and inspiring as that dawn was, give me a sunrise at sea any day of the week.

Excitement had cut short my sleep. I sat alone with my thoughts on the top deck of the Humboldt Explorer, staring out to where the sea meets the sky, it turning deep purple prior to the sun's appearance. Pale gold streaked the scant clouds as the orb broke the horizon. A gentle wind whipped my face as I hugged my knees, pulled down the brim of my cap and retreated deeper into my hoodie. Scanning a full 360° around me I could see nothing but ocean: we were 12 hours from the nearest land and almost 24 hours north of the nearest inhabited island of the Galáapagos archipelago. This was going to be real diving, alright.

Wolf came into view, her sheer cliffs streaked white with the dung of thousands of seabirds which wheeled and screeched their welcome. The boat slowed as we approached a sheltered spot between the island and a small islet at its head, the waves less fierce here. Anchor was dropped with a clanking which vibrated through the hull.

I could hear movement below and checked my watch: almost 7am. Soon enough the breakfast bell rang and I made my way gingerly down the stairs, the huge blisters from the football game causing me grief, being open and bloody. I was having to walk on the outsides of the soles of my feet, giving me a bandy-legged gait. Everyone was up and ready, bar Maxy; the Scotsman could sleep for his country. I sat with Stefano, the pair of us spooning heaps of fruit, granola and yoghurt into our mouths; eggs and toast, fruit juice and coffee: dive fuel. With the currents around this infamous rock, we were going to need to be at full strength...fighting the ocean on an empty stomach is not advisable.

The dive deck was a hive of actvity. Gas pressures were checked; wetsuits donned; systems tested; everyone all smiles of anticipation. We were allocated RIBs (rigid inflatable boats) and in we clambered. We were quickly around the corner and out of sight of the Explorer. A few hundred yards further and we were in Shark Bay. The swell was quite large, the waves surging against the unforgiving rocks. My heart pounded. This was what we had been waiting for. As wildlife diving goes, this is the top of the pyramid...and the anticipation was palpable amongst the group. We balanced on the edges of the RIB, ready to roll backwards into the ocean on a count of three, together so as to not capsize the craft.

In we went, a confusion of bubbles. As the water cleared we quickly descended together. Dropping to the wall of lifeless rocks, we regrouped and headed to a vantage point 28 metres below the surface. The current was moderate, and I found a sheltered spot between two big rocks and hunkered down. We spotted a couple of seals and a group of yellowfin tuna in the blue, and didn't have to wait long for the real action to begin. Hammerhead sharks began to drift by, less than 5 metres away. One...two...four...nine... coming thick and fast. The school was small by their standards, maybe 40-strong...but there were likely more we couldn't see due to the visibility, which I estimated at 15m. I held my breath as one shark cruised towards me, not wanting to scare it away with my bubbles, and I admired its muscled body as it turned above me, light reflecting from its scales...an incredible, powerful hunter.

The second dive was an improvement still. At the same site we watched the ubiquitous hammerheads cruise by. A curious dolphin appeared amongst us, right above Stefano's shoulder. It hung motionless in the current, checking us out. Maxy made too swift a movement towards it, a kid in a sweetshop, and with a flick of its tail it was gone into the blue. I shook my fist at him. When creatures get that close, the best option is to remain as still as possible, so as not to frighten them...if you try and get too close too quickly, the animal flees and no-one else gets to appreciate it.

As time trickled away, we made our way upwards to a small plateau to begin our safety stop. The surge was very strong here, and bright blue sea was churned with white froth. The rocks of the island were red with algae, a beautiful contrast to the myriad blues of the water. Amongst the rocks, seals danced effortlessly in the fury, while we clung onto rocky outcrops for dear life; being sucked into the surge and smashed against the boulders would potentially end the dive trip, and quite possibly your life. So we didn't get too close, content to let the seals approach us if they chose. It was quite something to watch the pups mimick their parents, learning their place in the world.

We hadn't been back on the boat more than five minutes when a pod of dolphins was spotted. Donning masks and fins, we immediately went back in. Away from the island and in the blue the water appeared clearer, and these graceful mammals were right below us. They were swift, and we had barely two minutes to appreciate their speed and agility, their grey-blue backs lightening as they broke the surface to breathe. As we waited for the RIB, our guide urged us to stay together and to not get separated from the group. Silky sharks are more inquisitive than most, and a lone diver has been bumped on more than one occasion by these sleek, stone-brown skinned fish. And bitten on others. So don't let the pretty name fool you, these are as dangerous as any other shark if you are not careful. Nobody wanted to be last out of the water and onto the RIB, that's for sure.

Day Two and we were early to rise again. We visited Landslide and Shark Bay again, and were lucky enough to see infant hammerheads on these dives. At the same point we'd observed the seals in action the previous day, the plateau was now patrolled by five or six large Galápagos sharks, treating us to some close-up views of them. At this shallow depth we could have hung around for another half hour, but our guide signalled the end of the dive, as we had another two to get in before sunset.

At the tip of Wolf lies a pinnacle, a tower of rock set apart from the rest of the island. The currents here, depending on the time of day, can be ripping. I'd not experienced anything quite like this since diving Pulau Weh last year. Lose your grip on a rock here and you could end up surfacing a few miles away, alone in open ocean. We picked our way through small ravines, racing to the cover of boulders one by one and pausing to catch our breath. Turning to look at a fellow diver means clamping the regulator mouthpiece between your teeth; the water movement is so rapid here that it can otherwise be torn from your mouth. A hand on the mask is also essential to prevent it being filled with water and ripped from your face. I looked around and could see Stefano, but the group was breaking up. Where was Maxy? I was a little worried as he's inexperienced, but I was relieved to see him up on a wall above, clinging on for dear life but clearly enjoying himself: the young have less fear. He soon made his way slowly down to rejoin us.

As we rounded the pinnacle, I was caught in an up-current and was pushed too rapidly to the surface. I stuffed my fingers into a crack in the rock and gripped it for my life. Looking down, I could see that a few of the Brasilians had gone deeper after exiting the small swim-through, and the group was stretched out. I spotted the guide, and waited until he had got the rest of the group's attention..I acknowledged his signal to drift away from the column in the direction of his jabbed thumb. The up-current eased as we escaped the raging water surrounding the pinnacle. Out in the blue, with no points of reference, we were in another world. We gathered together, each of us counting off the minutes until we could surface. We bore an inspection from a couple of hammerheads and a Galápagos shark momentarily intrigued by our silhouettes from below: tense moments.

There was silence from the Brasilians on the ride back to the Explorer. The old fella we had nicknamed Sven, after his resemblance to the ex-England football manager, looked shattered; breathing deeply and staring into space; mildly traumatised. Maxy was bouncing around like a child after a roller-coaster ride, and wanted to return there on the last dive of the day: his reaction was the opposite to theirs. In truth, I don't think the guide anticipated the varied ages or fitness levels of the group; that dive was not for the faint-hearted, the conditions very demanding. Fun for an ebullient young Scotsman, draining for an sextagenarian Brasileño.

Our final dive was more memorable for Stef than for myself. We'd explored a small series of caverns close to the main boat, full of dormant marble rays. We'd been well ahead of the rest of the group, and decided to see what was happening outside the cave's entrance. At the mouth, the small plateau widens, with steep walls on either side. Within 15m, the shelf ends and the abyss begins. Seeing nothing out in the blue, Stef went to investigate one of the walls for life. I looked amongst the rocks on the shelf, and spotted a huge moray eel. I'm not usually excited by these, but was a little bored whilst waiting for the rest of the group to exit the cave. And there was nothing else around to look at. To hold my position in the water, I inhaled slightly and then kept breath. And so I hovered motionless for a full minute. I'd soon had enough and exhaled, watching the mouth of the cave as divers began to re-emerge. Next I checked on my friend, who was a good 10m away and in some state of agitation. He signalled to me by jabbing two fingers at his eyes and shrugging Did you see it? I shrugged back, fingers pointed at my own mask See what? Hand flat and vertical, he tapped his forehead rapidly: Shark. I shook my head and shrugged again, gesturing around me Where? He pointed directly, frantically at me, eyes wide in the confines of his mask. I gathered it had come close, and moved my hands apart to ask him How close? He held his arms barely outstretched. Jesus...

We ended the dive and broke the surface. Stef couldn't spit his regulator out quickly enough to tell me "Fucking hell, man...I thought you were a goner" he gasped. He described what had happened. As I'd hovered above the rocks, a bulky Galápagos shark had swum towards the cave from the blue, clearly wondering exactly what I was. As I was not emitting bubbles, the animal was not wary of me. So whilst I was concentraing on the eel, Stef estimated that the shark had come within two metres of me, diverting in its path only when I exhaled, having seen enough of the eel. Due to its proximity he also had a good idea of it's size: 7 feet long and twice my size.

As much as I love being around sharks, I don't know quite how I would have reacted had I looked up to see it bearing down on me. With a cardiac arrest, in all likelihood. And if I'd held my breath a fraction of a second longer, the potential outcome is quite unthinkable. So thank you, moray eels...thank you for being so bloody boring.