Rob K5PI on 15m, 2001 WPX CW |
Galapagos Islands Trip
by Robert Brandon, K5PI
I'd been hoping to make a trip this year that would let me indulge my two
favorite hobbies, ham radio and scuba diving, so when Trey N5KO invited me
to go to with a group to the Galapagos, it only took a minute for me to make
up my mind. I made plans to leave on Monday, May 21 and to return Friday,
Getting to the Galapagos from Austin takes a few steps. One must first get
to Quito, Ecuador and from Austin on American Airlines that meant stops in
Dallas and Miami. I met up with Trey and Bob W6RGG in Miami and we spent
Monday night in Quito at a very nice hotel, the Dann Carlton, and visited
with Pedro Katz HC1OT, who had set up all our reservations in Quito.
The next day we were up early to catch the TAME Airlines 727 to the
Galapagos. There are 13 major Galapagos Islands in all, with Santa Cruz
being the most populous and the main tourist center, its nearby neighbor
Baltra as the airport and military headquarters, and San Cristobal, the
rather sleepy government center and our destination. We had heard that the
main airport in Baltra was closed and that all flights from the mainland
were arriving in San Cristobal. No such luck, however. The airport had
reopened the day before and we landed in Baltra. Fortunately, Guido Rosillo
HC8GR, knew this and made arrangements for us on the island hopper. We
loaded into an eight seat, twin-engine plane and made the short hop to San
I was surprised at my first visions of the Galapagos Islands from the air.
Since the islands are just below the equator, I expected lots of vegetation,
but instead I saw large areas of flat, arid land covered with cactus. I saw
very little beach, just an abrupt drop-off from the land down to a rocky
Guido was waiting for us at the San Cristobal airport and after a short stop
at his house; we headed up to the vacation home owned by Trey and two
partners, the headquarters of the Galapagos Radio Society, and the super
Almost as soon as we left town for the trip up the hill, we went in to fog.
At 2000 feet above sea level, HC8N is quite literally in the clouds, and the
ferns lining the roadside made it clear that fog is very much the norm.
Once at the top, we saw entire fields of ferns.
The house and the station have been a work in progress since 1998. Some of
the first HC8N radio operations were from tents. The house is now three
stories, and on this trip, a carport had been converted into a large kitchen
and dining area that easily accommodated our group of eight.
GETTING READY FOR THE CONTEST
The top level of the house is the U-shaped operating room with a concrete
table all the way around. Ken K6TA and his wife Kay K6KO had arrived a
couple of days earlier and had already done some operating. The five of us
set to work hooking up six stations for the contest. I brought my TS-850,
which was set up for 10 meters. We set up two of the resident TS-930s for
15 and 20. Ken set up his FT-1000MP for 80 meters. Another 1000MP would
arrive the next day for 40M. We set up the resident TS-850 for 160. Bob
had brought an AL-1200 amplifier to complete the set of six identical
amplifiers. We installed the transformer and tube in the new AL-1200,
repaired a couple of keying interfaces, hooked up a few dozen jumpers and
almost all the RF connections were ready to go the first evening.
We polled the group, and decided to use TR software for logging. Two of us
were TR enthusiasts, four were experienced users, and only one would be new
to TR. After sorting through a big batch of serial cables, discarding a
couple of duds, and hooking up two hubs, the computer network was ready to
As things came together at each station, we'd get on the air and make a few
contacts to make sure everything was in order. Since I was slated to work
15, I put out a few CQs and was an instant celebrity. I started "shoveling
QSOs" as Trey calls it and had several hundred in the log before I knew it.
This was my first time on the end of such a pileup, and it took me a while
to get into a rhythm. I stayed simplex since that was how I'd be working
the contest, but used the RIT to work callers a bit off my frequency. It
was almost impossible to pull anything out of the 10-15 who were calling
zero beat. What a beautiful cacophony to hear 20 or 30 Morse code signals
calling at the end of each brief contact!
The next morning, Wednesday, Trey and I went halfway up the 40-meter tower
to shift the 3-element beam back into the horizontal plane. The rotor for
the top 2 element 40M beam was dead, but that was more work than we wanted
to take on and besides, it was pointing north where it needed to be. We did
a little more tinkering with cables and the network, and we were almost
ready to go. Rusty W6OAT, Jon N0JK, and Olli OH0XX arrived in the afternoon
after a flight SNAFU. They were in sight of San Cristobal, when the pilot
turned the plane around and returned to Quito because of a mechanical
problem. (No parts on the islands, I guess.)
By Thursday morning, we were essentially ready to go. Rusty was getting up
to speed on TR, and the rest of us were making more contacts to look for
more bugs. The TS-850 on 160 was dropping back to half power occasionally,
so we swapped it out with a 930.
Jon set up some simple satellite gear on the roof, worked several passes and
gave out about 20 contacts in all, including several Europeans who were very
happy to log a new one on the birds.
Friday, we were all relaxing and trying to get ahead on sleep. As we
discussed contest strategy, Trey told us that 15 meters would be open around
the clock and that except for an afternoon lull, so would 20. The low bands
of course would be nighttime bands, so the only real wild card was 10. Trey
said that in the world record 1999 WPX CW multi-multi from HC8N, 10 had been
open almost around the clock with rates of 100 contacts/hour into Europe
possible from 0900Z via long path. The strategy was simple -- call CQ on
all the open bands. The operators were set up with Rusty on 10, me on 15,
Bob on 20, Olli on 40, Ken on 80, and Jon on 160. Trey, Jon, and Ken all
played key roles as relief ops so those of us on the most active bands could
rest. There was a bit of band swapping, but for the most part, each op
stayed on his primary band.
No contest would be complete without a last minute problem. Fifteen minutes
before the start of the contest, the computer on the 160 station wouldn't
launch TR. Trey did some troubleshooting, but it seemed apparent that some
files were corrupted. He took the helm of the 15M station, and I attempted
a reinstallation of TR. We had shuffled a lot of floppies around and I
couldn't get a full version on floppy without stopping one of the active
stations, so we took that computer off the network and let Jon use CT.
Ten through forty meters were very productive during the first hour with
rates of 134, 169, 122 and 97. These were the best hours for 10 and 15. We
were disappointed, though, when 10 closed abruptly during the 0800Z hour.
Rusty was back at it, however, about three hours later and took the rate up
to near 100 for several hours. The band closed again on Saturday, but this
time much, much earlier -- about 0100Z, just after dark.
Fifteen meters was the "money band", accounting for a third of all contacts.
Nine of the first ten hours were over 100, then things slowed during the
1000 and 1100Z hours (42 and 64) before roaring back to life as the sun came
up Saturday morning. All day Saturday, rates were in the 80s and 90s. I'd
hoped for a strong run into Japan Saturday evening, but the rate tapered off
until the sun came up across Europe. I had a truly magic hour during 0800Z
(2 AM local). I'd only slept about 3 of the previous 36 hours, but I really
got “into the zone” and cranked through 95 contacts without ever breaking
stride. It seemed as if we were being spotted on the European and/or
Japanese packet cluster about every few minutes because the callers would
come in groups of 5-7. Just as I’d work through those, another group would
arrive - all good, solid signals and good operators
Bob's rate on 20M peaked in the fifth hour of the contest at 137. The rate
dropped off precipitously during the day starting about 1400. Things would
pick up again about 2100.
Olli had a strong first five hours on 40M, and then things tapered off a bit
through the night until the band closed the next morning. Things were
slower the second night.
Ken and Jon plugged away at 80 and 160 both nights, and made a good batch of
contacts. Jon said conditions were quite good on 160 the second night, but
there just weren't’t many signals on the band.
We ended the contest with 11,158 contacts after dupes and 1322 prefixes for
a score of 52.3 million. Europe made up 44% of our total contacts, the US
was 35%, and Japan was 12%. We contacted 132 countries in all, including
Monaco, Ghana, Bahrain, Ogasawara, Dodecanese, Chagos, Macao, Syria, and
We broke down the station right after the contest, and relaxed with another
terrific meal prepared by Guido’s wife Chelita. Trey presented a number of
contest plaques to Guido, and Guido in turn presented us all with
certificates making us members of the Galapagos Radio Society. After a
little more work collecting and consolidating the log files, it was off to
ON TO SANTA CRUZ
Ken and Kay were staying a few more days, but the rest of us were up early
to catch flights. Everyone headed back to Quito, except me. I took the
island hopper back to Baltra and then the ferry to Santa Cruz for some scuba
The island of Santa Cruz is the center of tourism, and the town of Puerto
Ayora is the center of activity. It’s a pretty laid back town, thankfully
free of American restaurant chains, and one could walk the entire strip in
10-15 minutes. Most people sign up for multi-day cruises around the
islands. There are boats with very simple accommodations all the way up to
some very fancy yachts. They would make stops to see the volcanoes and the
unique wildlife, but since I only had two and a half days, I checked into an
inexpensive hotel (with window unit AC but no hot water - very few hotels
had it) and looked for a dive shop that did daily trips.
I went out in the morning with the SubAqua dive shop and after a 45-minute
boat ride, we arrived at Gordon Rocks. Gordon Rocks is a group of three
large rocks that jut 50-100 feet into the air around a submerged volcanic
crater. We were briefed on the challenges of this dive - similar for almost
all dives in the Galapagos - strong and unpredictable currents, not only
lateral, but also currents that swept up. The visibility would be varied
and perhaps limited (30-60 feet typical, sometimes 15-20); and the water
would be chilly (upper 60s F). We donned our full 6 mm wet suits and heavy
weight belts and went over the side.
We regrouped underwater along the wall of the crater and immediately saw a
sea lion slip gracefully by. We swam on at about 70 feet in a light current
and worked our way around the rim of the crater. In most places and
especially in the Galapagos, one has to look all around, both near and far,
to spot all the things that can be seen. The big stuff that helped give the
Galapagos a #1 ranking of top dive spots in Scuba Diving magazine are often
overhead. Sure enough, I turned back and looked up just a few minutes into
the dive and saw a large manta ray flying slowly above us. Just ahead,
though, the divemaster was pointing up to something that was just coming
into my view - a school of at least 25 hammerhead sharks! Hammerheads are
regularly visitors to the Galapagos, and our divemaster told us that they
feed in the open ocean (whew!) and apparently come to the islands to get
their bearings and for parasite removal by various cleaner fishes.
Just as the hammerheads disappeared from view, my dive buddy pointed down to
a rock just below us. Okay - it looks just like all the other rocks. She
pointed again, but I saw nothing. Then it moved - an octopus, slightly
larger than a softball, slipped over to the next rock apparently unimpressed
by our strange appearance and bubbles.
A few minutes further, the divemaster pointed up the wall 15 feet or so to a
large gray shape moving powerfully along. It was a Galapagos shark, an
indigenous species with a reputation for curiosity and aggression. This one
wasn’t interested in us, however. The divemaster, who’d been in the islands
for ten years, told us that he’d never seen anything even close to a shark
attack, but he said he personally witnessed seven incidents where divers
ignored warning grunts from territorial male sea lions and ended up with a
well-bruised calf from where they would clamp on and shake their heads.
We did another dive that first morning at North Seymour (a.k.a. Baltra) and
saw some whitetip sharks, a couple of motley colored, lumpy stone fish, and
The next day we headed out for a couple more dives, this time
at South Seymour. At South Seymour we spotted a speckled
flounder, several blacktip sharks, and on this dive, a half dozen female sea
lions followed us along and periodically swam between us. The second dive
began rather uneventfully, but about ten minutes into the dive we turned a
corner and came into an area where a couple of currents intersected - in
places it looked almost like heat waves off a distant road. There was a
very large group of fishes -- hundreds of surgeonfish, yellow tail grunts,
and other common fish, . . . and at least two dozen blacktip sharks. The
sharks were lounging in groups of 2-5 in sandy patches and only moved
occasionally to swim around and settle into a better position on the sand.
We stayed and watched the show for maybe 10 minutes or so, and then our
divemaster swam slowly up behind a group of three, moved slowly forward in
the sand, and reached out a hand to stroke the tail of them. Accustomed to
cleaner fish, I suppose, the shark didn’t seem to mind at all. I gave a
couple of signals to the divemaster and he motioned me forward. I was
expecting the sandpaper feel that their skin is supposed to have, but the
tip of his tail was smooth. I decided I was pretty fond of all my
extremities and so I moved back after just a brief touch.
I would certainly liked to have spent several more days there, but I had to
fly back to Quito the next day. I spent my last afternoon at the Charles
Darwin center, the visitor areas of which might have covered 20 acres.
There was a small beach, displays on the history and ecosystem of the
islands, and a good-sized facility for raising the indigenous giant
tortoises for which the Galapagos are so well known. Because of the
proliferation of a non-native species of rat and several other non-native
predators, it is now necessary to raise all tortoises there until they are
2-3 years old. I saw a dozen adults as I walked through the facility, and
they were huge! A guide told me that these adults were about 80 years old
and that they would probably live to be more than 200! Their heads and legs
were 5-6 inches in diameter, their shells were on the probably 2 feet by 3
feet, and they must have weighed several hundred pounds. In the past,
sailors would take several of these giants on board for fresh meat during
The next day, I flew back to Quito, arriving in time for a late dinner and a
good night’s rest. The next morning, I was up early for an uneventful
flight back to Austin. Thanks to Trey for the great opportunity and to the
contest team for a great showing!
Copyright 2001 by Robert Brandon, K5PI