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Screws & Hammers in the Galapagos

A few screws and a heap of hammers diving after spinal surgery in the Galapagos

The Galapagos – my parents had been talking about diving in the Galapagos since before I was born. As a child it was the “holy grail”. I always heard “When you are old enough, we will go as a family to Galapagos.” The plan was to go with Kids Sea Camp in the summer of 2018, when both myself and my sister (ages 16 & 15) would be old enough to enjoy the challenge of the conditions, and mature enough to appreciate this amazing opportunity plus knowledgeable enough to know how special some of these environments are.

 However, during the summer of 2017 my back  started to curve. The curve got bigger quickly, and I got shorter!  We kept thinking, “Ah, it’ll be fine” and then as other people started to comment, we decided to get my spine checked. I had a 60 degree scoliosis to my spine, and it needed an operation quickly before it just got worse and worse. I was told I needed to have my back basically broken,  then straightened and screwed back together with two titanium screws in each vertebra, and two cobalt chrome rods to keep it straight. Meanwhile the bits of bone they had taken away were food processed to pulp, and put back in as a bone graft to fuse the spine at ten levels “Oh wow, I thought, that’s quite the operation!” However, with a fragile back like this, how on earth was I going to carry on diving??

 I went through the ten hour surgery, very successfully, thanks to an amazing team at Boston Children’s Hospital. During my post operative visit Dr Hresko said to me “You’re not fragile Zeb – you are screwed together with titanium”!! At that point, I knew I was going to be fine to dive again.

 As  a Kids Sea Camp regular, the most natural person to talk to was Margo Peyton. She has taken so many children diving, and so many adults with special needs, she would definitely have a plan! Margo herself has had back surgery too, and is still a stellar diver, so I knew I was in great hands. Margo was sure that this was do-able for me and she made sure to put a few special handling instructions in place for me, and she wasn’t wrong (she never is!).

 Firstly, my Dad suggested learning how to dive sidemount. This would be a way to take the pressure off the centre of my spine. I think in truth it was simply that he wanted to expand his own diving skills into a more technical area! Margo sent both myself and my dad to Grand Cayman to dive learn take a PADI sidemount course with DiveTech. It was a really weird feeling to be diving so differently, and whilst it was very interesting I didn’t really enjoy the extra hassle with two tanks, and being so different than the PADI dive training I had grown up with . I’m grateful to know how to do it, but I just wanted to feel normal again.

 Having established that I could dive sidemount, we decided to go ahead and book Galapagos, Margo got it approved because its been banned on the liveaboards. She spoke to the crew and management of Galapagos Sky who could not have been more helpful to me and made a special exception just for me.  However, as the trip drew closer, my back got stronger, I started back at the gym, and I knew that I had reached the point where I could try regular diving again. I dove central tank for a short time, close to home in a bay, and it felt GREAT! To be underwater was magical, in the way that I knew so well, without any anxiety of different systems, so I could just enjoy the underwater world.

 So we were ON not only for Galapagos, but for Galapagos with a regular central cylinder diving. I was so excited!!

The crew of the Galapagos Sky met my every need.  Margo chartered the entire boat for my family and 3 others and that allowed her to create everything I needed to make this trip a success. We handpicked dive sites, had easier in out assistance, and our own private guides. It may have helped that the staff saw that I had a whopping great scar down my back! It is very humbling for me as a strapping young lad, with a great six pack (even though I say so myself) to have to ask for help. They enabled me to step down into the Panga without kit, and then they would pass my kit to me and help me kit up on the Panga. This meant I didn’t have to carry my kit and walk around and down steps etc with kit on. After a short panga ride to the dive site, everyone else back rolled in, and then a few moments later I side rolled (to avoid the pressure on my back).

 And wow wow wow wow wow – was it worth it??!! The underwater life was just beyond amazing. Hammerheads in their schools on every dive, so many of them that at some points you just wanted to say “Seriously, I can’t see that turtle through the walls of hammerheads, can you just get out of the way for a bit?”. Then the magic of the Whale Sharks, just gracefully parting the water, not a sound,  the gentle giants of the sea came so close and seemed to be as curious about us as we were about them.. Then the schools of large oceanic wild dolphins dancing through the waters around us. I’d never dived with dolphins before. I had seen them playing at the surface many times, but had not been able to spend time underwater with them while diving.  

My all time favourites were the seals. They are so “clumpy” on land – but so absolutely full of grace and fun and frolicking under water.  They just loved to play in my bubbles, do tricks around us, sneak up on us and even try to get us to play. There were marine iguanas, red lipped bat fish, huge bait balls of fish and more topside birds than you can imagine. The  peace, just peace, every evening as we moored up over looking Darwins Arch and the other islands. The orange glow of volcanoes on the horizon, the gentle lapping of the waves, the smell of yet more delightful food cooked up by the crew. So may photos to be taken. So many experiences to remember. Sharks are plentiful and fat, Galapagos sharks, Silkies, Hammers and other reef sharks were around on every dive.

It truly was as Margo always said,  “The experience of a lifetime”, that I was so fortunate to have had because of the way Margo Peyton- owner of Kids SeaCamp, Fraser Purdon -with Scubapro my parents and so many other people worked together to make this trip happen safely for me. I am so very very thankful to all of you for this experience.

 If anyone has similar experiences and concerns, since scoliosis is surprisingly common, please do not hesitate to contact me. You can check out my website www.zebwakely.com where I share a lot of my underwater photos, or contact me via Kids Sea Camp, www.kidsseacamp.com the place where families of all abilities and disabilities dive together! I love them so much!!!

By Zebedee Wakely, age 16, Kids Sea Camp, PADI Master Diver

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