Diving in the Galapagos Islands
The Evolutionary Melting Pot of Marine Life
This legendary Ecuador diving destination is often considered by experienced divers to represent something of a pinnacle in their scuba careers. In that sense, many agree that the Galapagos Islands have, quite simply, the best liveaboard diving cruises in the world, plus incredible non-diving wildlife adventure cruises.
Such is the range of creatures, that it is difficult to avoid lists when discussing Galapagos scuba diving. Imagining a dive holiday involving sea lions, penguins, seals, eagle rays, marine iguanas, hammerhead sharks, Galapagos sharks, turtles, golden rays and whale sharks is a phenomenal experience. These encounters, which are at once educational and exciting, make the appeal of the archipelago obvious.
While many places have superior reefs, sea conditions and ease of accessibility, there is no other island chain here, the area is in a huge protected marine reserve and virtually free of commercial fishing, and the waters are densely populated by a vast and disparate array of marine creatures. Since the Galapagos are volcanic oceanic islands, unconnected to the continent, deep sea upwellings make the waters rich in nutrients and therefore thriving with life.
Learning about evolution by natural selection in a place where the evidence is so compelling and where historically, the Galapagos Islands played such a major role in the development of Darwin's revolutionary thinking is truly a unique experience. To do so in a place where each dive promises extraordinary sightings is nothing short of a ‘must do once in a lifetime’ experience for any semi-serious diver.
Wolf Island will be one of the mainstays of your liveaboard trip and promises lots of breath-taking action including amazing eagle ray encounters, lots of sharks and unforgettable dolphin moments. Darwin Island is the northernmost island of the archipelago and will deliver some of the most memorable dives of your holiday in Ecuador. Hundreds of hammerheads and Galapagos sharks can pass right by your nose and you can expect incredible whale shark encounters when in season.
Punta Vincente Roca is a cold water site that is like visiting a different country. With mola mola, red-lipped batfish, seahorses and horn sharks, there are lots of highlights plus the coastline is crawling with penguins, sea lions, marine iguanas and a variety of interesting birds.
Dive Site Descriptions
Cabo Marshall - It is easy to get spoiled on a liveaboard trip in the Galapagos. As you strike each 'charismatic' creature off your wishlist, experiencing excellent dives becomes the expectation rather than the hope. Cabo Marshall, some 210 km west northwest of San Cristobal Island, is all about mantas although, unlike elsewhere in the archipelago, it can be a little "hit and miss". Even if it is a miss you are likely to see white tip sharks and hammerheads, turtles and sea lions, but such is the quality of diving here, even that could leave you with a twinge of disappointment!
Here, after dropping to about 10m of water onto a rocky plateau, you will fin along the edge of the wall that drops away to a depth of 30m+. However, since you are seeking mantas who like to be near the surge or high in the water column, feeding or being cleaned, there is little benefit to seeking much more depth. You would be better advised to stay shallow and keep watching the wall and the blue.
The chances are you will encounter a variety of rays including giant mantas (Manta birostris) with wing spans of around 4m, an impressive sight. Seeing these large graceful creatures swooping around effortlessly is an amazing addition to your holiday experience. They seem happy enough to come reasonably close to divers but are not as playful and attention seeking as they appear to be in some other parts of the world.
You may also encounter other rays here, usually travelling in small schools. You may see mobula rays, most easily distinguishable from mantas by their more straight facing cephalic lobes (which give them their other name of 'devil ray'). Also watch out for the browner backs of a school of cow-nose rays, also swimming by flashing the white undersides of their wings. On many of the liveaboard itineraries, 1 or 2 dives at Cabo Marshall will be your final dives, a lovely way to sign off on a unique week of scuba diving in the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador.
Cousin's Rock - This is a well known dive site and is situated off the east coast of Santiago (north of Bartolome Island). This is one of many divers' favourite sites because of the combination of coral covered rocks hiding all sorts of smaller creatures, along with a huge variety of tropical fishes and great possibilities for you to see large animals as well.
The site, which will likely form part of your Galapagos liveaboard itinerary, is formed by a rock that has a triangular shape and rises about 10m out of the water. Underwater it is steep on the northern and western sides and sloping on the eastern side. In the south lies a large rock separated by a narrow channel from the island. This rock has a huge longish overhang where black coral bushes grow.
The wall and slope provide a series of ledges made up of many layers of volcanic rock and overhangs. The rock is covered with a forest of black corals, small hard corals, sea fans, and red sponges. Because of the many ledges and overhangs, small creatures can hide well so this offers great macro diving - you will find different species of hawkfish, nudibranchs and frogfishes. Plus there's an excellent chance of seeing Galapagos sea horses, octopus and green sea turtles.
Out in the blue you can see manta rays, Galapagos sharks, hammerhead sharks, reef sharks and schools of barracudas. Cousin's Rock is also known for the large groups of spotted eagle rays you may spot here. On your safety stop you'll be accompanied by scores of playful sea lions as they chase the salema fish. This is a great opportunity to spend time watching these agile creatures dive and play.
Darwin Island - The northernmost island of the archipelago is, together with nearby Wolf Island, the focal point of any dive trip to the Galapagos and no serious liveaboard will neglect this area.
Surface conditions and current can be tricky here, although since the Humboldt current has less effect this far north, water temperatures tend to hover around the low-to-mid 20s. There are therefore some warmer water species here. You can expect to see trumpetfish, trevally barracuda. Parrotfish, angelfish, surgeonfish and the delightful racoon butterflyfish are also frequently present, adding a dash of colour to the sites.
However it is for the breathtaking diving that Darwin Island is famed. Your breath may be taken away by the sight of vast schools of hammerheads or close encounters with individuals plus eagle rays, Galapagos sharks and turtles. These sites can be so thick with action that it is difficult to recall all the species that have come into view but mackerels, manta rays and even dolphins might put in an appearance. If you are lucky (you are lucky to be diving in the Galapagos at all) you might have an encounter with a whale shark, especially between the months of June and October.
It is said that there is only one dive site at Darwin Island and admittedly the starting point is always the same, in the region where the famous Darwin arch is located. However, there is a variety of different ways for the dive to proceed after the start, meaning 3 distinct profiles.
'Plan A' is a simple plan. Drop down to a rocky slope, use your hands to pull yourself along through the (sometimes ripping) current and find a place to settle somewhere between 18 and 24m. With a couple of comfortable grips and the current hitting you directly in the face you are ready to turn your head to your right and enjoy the passing parade. There will likely follow a succession of hammerheads, some distant, some very close weaving their way through the current. This dive gives you a great chance to really look at them in close proximity and marvel at their curious beauty.
On quiet times you can look at the little hawkfish and blennies in and around the rocky slope while the occasional Galapagos shark and pelagic fish species may put in a brief show in the blue. But this is really a one creature dive. It is all about the hammerhead sharks. You won't be finning around anywhere until it is time to let go and be whisked away through and up the water column to your safety stop. Here, a couple of playful sea lions might flash past your eyes and frolic around the hanging divers.
'Plan B'. In different current and conditions, you will dive here according to a very different plan. Here, instead of a rubble slope you will find, 'The Darwin Theatre', a plateau atop a wall which is a little sheltered from the strong current that runs over the top of the reef. If conditions allow, this will be a site where variety is the key.
Butterflyfish and angelfish are numerous as are a variety of wrasses, damsels and anthias. Also look out for lobsters lurking in the crevices. This can feel much more like a warm water dive than any of the other dive sites in the Galapagos Islands. Of course behind these brightly coloured fish flitting to and fro, you will see the large ominous shapes of Galapagos sharks and hammerheads.
You can move around the plateau to secure different positions from which to observe the action. Releasing your grip and rising a little will see the current sweep you and your group off the reef and into safety stop territory. As is a feature of diving at Darwin Island, your safety stop is not an exercise in mundanely watching your 3 minutes tick down. If there are not sea lions to amuse you then there may be dolphins swimming by, close enough to make meaningful eye contact, and make your heart sing.
'Plan C' involves basing your experience around a sandy flat ranging from about 18 to 23m in depth. This is easiest dived when the current has dropped. Hundreds of garden eels stretch up from their burrows and starfish are scattered all around the sea-bed.
You can expect inquisitive turtles and juvenile moray eels to also be among the marine life investigating the substrate. Sticking close to the sea bed, you will be looking up to see the hammerheads, Galapagos sharks and if you are lucky, the imposing mass of a passing whale shark.
Darwin Island is clearly not an area for beginners. Current, choppy seas, jagged rocks and more may be enough to spook the less experienced diver. Those with good buoyancy, who are comfortable in the water and have done a few dives in differing conditions, will be too distracted by the outrageous marine action to notice anything else.
Gordon's Rock - This is considered to be one of the better sites in the central region of the Galapagos Archipelago and may form part of your liveaboard itinerary. It is in fact the remains of a crater measuring about 100 metres in diameter and is located to the north of the Plaza islands, 80 km west northwest of San Cristobal.
This is another site where the conditions will remind you why the Galapagos is not a beginner diver destination. Surge and current can be strong here and it is often referred to locally as ‘the washing machine’. Yet the marine life seems to love the conditions, as evidenced by the sheer number of creatures. Hammerhead sharks, often seen in impressive sized schools, normally steal the headlines here. However there is a supporting cast including eagle rays, Galapagos sharks, manta rays, turtles and an exceptional amount of fish.
A nearby sea lion colony ensures that, in the right areas you may spot a few of these large but agile creatures on your dive. There is also the chance to spot the endemic fur seals.
Punta Carrion - Near to the eastern mouth of the Itabaca Channel between Baltra Island and Santa Cruz, 85 km from San Cristobal, is the dive site known as Punta Carrion. This site is often dived prior to the big steam north to Darwin and Wolf Island and so may represent your first real dive after your check out dive.
This may be your introduction to some underwater features of Galapagos such as rocky slopes where the boulder strewn reef is only occasionally interspersed with sandy patches. You will also see some almost ever-present creatures such as sea lions, creole fish and blue striped sea slugs.
After meeting at around 8m depth, you will proceed on this dive where there is little to be gained from diving deep. You can stay between 12 and 18m and vary between the wall and the blue. There is a strong chance of seeing mobula rays cruising past, sometimes alone, sometimes in small schools.
White tip reef sharks are also commonly sighted here and if you are lucky you may see some Galapagos sharks and hammerheads, 2 sights with which you will become increasingly familiar with on your Ecuador diving cruise.
Punta Vincente Roca - If any dive site in the Galapagos is going to test whether you brought enough equipment with you to withstand the cold, it is Vincente Roca, located on the north-eastern tip of the island of Isabela. Temperatures can get down into the teens here and an icy blast will greet you as soon as you roll in. The chill will stay with you until you emerge some 45 minutes later, so wear your hood and everything else you brought with you.
In most places this level of cold would mean an unpleasant experience. Not so in the Galapagos Islands. As if showcasing the archipelago's diversity, this site offers up a whole range of creatures vastly different to those you will have seen before. Mola Mola are frequently sited here sometimes several moving their curious forms around with their two main fins above and below their bodies.
Dropping down to a sandy floor at around 18 to 22m you will be on the look out for red-lipped batfish resting on the sea floor. Bringing a light along will really bring out the bright red colour of their eponymous lips. They may scuttle away over the sand with their leg-like fins much to the fascination of anyone watching.
Rising up from the sandy floor, you will fin along a wall with ridges, grooves and ledges all worth checking out. It also takes your mind off the cold to hunt around for the spider crabs and slipper lobsters and morays that live in the crevices. Cleaner shrimps are about and will crawl over anyone with the courage to expose the flesh of their hand.
Also on this dive, look out for the rather rare horn shark, aka the Galapagos bullhead shark, a small blotchy reef shark. Sea horse and even penguins add to the riotous fun of this chilly playground. Sea lions can be in playful form here, and you may even be treated to their antics of pestering a pufferfish, fully extended for its own protection as the sea lions prod and poke it just for fun.
Roca Redonda - In contrast to the often warm waters of Wolf and Darwin Island, the dive sites to the west of Isabela Island can drop in temperature considerably. So expect to be wrapping up warm in your thickest combination of exposure suit and using your hood. Roca Redonda can be a challenging dive site. The entry can kick up to washing machine conditions and the key is to get down quickly and pull yourself along the rocks, away from the kicking fins of other divers, to where you can enjoy a little space to yourself.
This site is famed for its fumaroles, where streams of natural gas bubbles are evidence of the rock's volcanic nature and activity. These are best viewed on a large sandy patch largely sheltered from the current. Little streams of bubbles percolate out from the sandy, gravelly sea bed and you might want to allow them to touch some exposed skin on your wrist to gauge their warmth.
Look out for the hundreds of blue-green nudibranchs that seem to enjoy the environment. When you have had your fill of enjoying the fumaroles, you can rise up through the current and explore the innumerable fish and sharks that frequent the water column. Hammerheads abound, sometimes with specimens of impressive size. Silky sharks are also a common sight, as are sea lions in the shallower water.
However this dive site promises perhaps your best chance of close up encounters with large numbers of Galapagos sharks. Both during the main section of the dive and also especially on your safety stop, you can find yourself surrounded in quite close proximity by several of these serious looking creatures. If you become isolated from your group this could cause your imagination to run wild so stick with your diving buddies and enjoy the safety of numbers as you run down your 3 minutes.
There is a section towards the end of this dive, at the edge of the reef where down currents are common so be prepared to react and control your buoyancy.
Wolf Island - Is found in the far north-west of the Galapagos archipelago, 350 km from San Cristobal. While there are many excellent dive sites around the main islands in the south, Wolf and Darwin together form the area around which all Galapagos diving liveaboards are based.
After your liveaboard trip you will understand why, because nowhere else features such jaw-dropping biomass of marine creatures. No-one could fail to be impressed by the huge numbers of hammerhead sharks here, or Galapagos sharks, or pods of dolphins or the playful sea lions. As if this is not enough, mighty whale sharks steal the show at the right time of year.
Wolf Island is named after Theodoro Wolf, a geographer famed for pin-pointing the centre of the earth (in terms of latitude and longitude), which is located in Quito. The island is approximately triangular in shape with 3 distinct dive sites. Because it is further south than Darwin Island, Wolf is likely to be your first experience of the far north, since your liveaboard boat will stop here first, after an overnight steam from the south.
Anchoring off the coast of the island, which is uninhabited and cannot be visited on foot, you are likely to frequently spot marine life in the sea around you. Dolphins are commonplace and will often ride the bow on your approach to Wolf Island. They might even ride the bow of your dinghy on the way to or from your dive. Watching them up close swimming at speed just below the surface and jumping and blowing spray in your face is an experience unlikely to be forgotten.
Turtles, sea lions and rays are also commonly sighted from the dive boat. Dinghy rides after the dive can also have dolphins and sea lions swimming alongside.
This is clearly not an area for beginners. Less experienced divers will need to quickly get to grips with current, choppy seas and jagged rocks. If you have good buoyancy, are comfortable in the water and have done a few dives in differing conditions, then your attention will be more focussed on the outrageous visual action going on. Get into a comfortable viewing spot and enjoy the show.
It is easy to exaggerate in the world of scuba diving. One can forget the boring phases of a dive and focus only on the positive. One can make them sound more fascinating on paper than they may have been in reality. Not at The Caves. Words seem inadequate. Listing creatures certainly won't do justice to this parade of aquatic wonder.
As with all dive sites around Wolf Island there are going to be sharks and turtles; that is a given. There may also be eagle rays and dolphins. Yet this is a site whose backdrop is a series of swim-throughs and a cave which would be fun enough to explore anywhere. When you consider that on exiting each one you could be greeted by hammerheads, white tip reef sharks or eagle rays, it dawns on you that you are, undeniably, scuba diving in the Galapagos Islands. Where else can you even struggle to pay attention to the briefing when there are dozens of dolphins breaching all around the boat?
This dive can last for 50 minutes or so without one of those minutes being considered a "quiet time". After exiting the second entertaining little swim-through, there is a boulder-strewn wall at about 15 to 20m depth where you can stay, holding on to rocks as Galapagos sharks circle and swoop around you. They are beautiful streamlined creatures, white bellied with silken grey flanks and a penetrating stare. Then you can turn on your torch and explore a reasonable sized cave bedecked in white soft corals reminiscent of a winter scene.
Exiting this cave, you are likely to be quite low on air and thinking about your safety stop but that doesn't mean the excitement is over. Far from it. In some ways, it is just beginning. The current picks up and takes you at increasing speed along and away from the wall. Here the life explodes. Peruvian grunts, Galapagos grunts, Amberstripe scad, wahoo, jacks and more aggregate in breath-taking numbers. There may still be sharks cruising through the melee, if you can see them!
You can spin around 360 degrees, mesmerised by the sheer biomass and wondering where your fellow divers are. Finally the current sweeps you out into quieter waters. With luck you will get a visual on the creatures whose noises you have been picking up throughout the dive.
Bottle-nose dolphins are around Wolf in huge numbers, so you have every chance to see them playing near the surface, or even indulging in some carnal shenanigans. This dive can come to a climax in more ways than one and will definitely leave you screaming for more.
Wolf Island will likely be your first stop after the long steam from the main islands of the archipelago. So it may be that Landslide is your first taste of diving the 2 jewels in the Galapagos Islands crown.
Rolling in close to the eastern wall of the island, you will probably start this dive by dropping down to about 10m and gathering your group there before setting off along the rubbly slope. The dive site resembles a landslide, with boulders and rubble all along the sea floor, as if having just settled from a recent tumble.
The boulders are covered with barnacles and when holding on to the rocks with your gloved hands, you will want to try not to dislodge them. Among the boulders are a lot of moray eels and there are some reef fish flitting around, but most divers' eyes are fixed into the blue.
You will likely stop and wait along the slope, hoping for action occurring a little away from the reef. The chances are you will spot some pelagic species such as tuna and glasseye snapper as well as turtles. You may well see your first Galapagos shark here too gliding past, giving you no more than a dismissive leer with its beady eye.
However the stars of the show here are the hammerheads. It is common to spot a few isolated sharks close to the slope and if there is plenty of current you may be able to see a school from your stationery position. A little excursion into the blue, especially when current is lax, might be called for. If you are in luck, you could run into a school of these magnificent creatures weaving their way through the blue; an impressive sight.
Wolf Island is also known for its eagle rays and it is quite common to see schools moving slowly against the current and coming almost to within touching distance where you can look them right in the eye.
A little to the north of Landslide is the site known as Shark Bay where, unsurprisingly, the promise of sharks awaits. You will drop in here in the shallows quite close to the shoreline where the rocky substrate sits at 8 to 10 metres. In this section, where the swell can be felt and you can see the waves crashing against the shore, there are likely to be sea sea lions (Zalophus wollebacki) frolicking in the water. This is the perfect dive site for them to come and check you out and could be your best bet for diving with these endemic sea lions in Galapagos.
So agile and inquisitive are they that there isn't time for you as divers to go to them. They will come to you sweeping up and around your head as quickly as your neck muscles can operate. They may bring their faces right up to yours and look you in the eye like a pet dog, allowing you a lingering moment of species to species contact, before turning on a dime and dashing off, leaving you breathless from the encounter.
One could spend a whole dive here but normally after a few minutes of sea lion fun and frolics, it is on with the dive, finning deeper down the rocky slope. It is now that thoughts turn to the hammerheads. At a sandy patch at about 25 metres there are some rocky outcrops which are a good place to cling on to scan the blue. You may see a school of a dozen or more scalloped hammerheads cruising impressively by.
Allowing the current to take you along adjacent to the slope you will keep looking out into to blue where, in addition to the hammerheads you can spot, yellowfin tuna, pelican barracuda, and maybe even the hyper-reflective jack that is the African pompano. Other sharks to look out for include the Galapagos shark and silky sharks. When conditions are right you can see a breath-taking numbers of sharks here. Eagle rays also swim by so slowly that you can get some great up close views.
On the slope and towards the shallower section there are a great variety of reef fish including blue and gold snapper, Guineafowl pufferfish (in their spotted and golden phases), stripe belly pufferfish, the occasional trumpetfish. In fact, while the schools of hammerheads are more likely in the blue, the better individual interactions can be had in the shallower water where individuals cruise around and are much more likely to approach you.
There is so much to see on this dive at Wolf that it feels like you have been down for 2 hours!
How to Dive Galapagos
While there are some resort options, serious scuba divers cannot come to the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador and fail to visit Darwin and Wolf islands, therefore we currently only recommend liveaboards here. They offer much more than a land-based stay and many of the best sites are inaccessible from land.
The boats are of a high quality so you need not worry about a lack of comfort or service onboard our recommended Galapagos liveaboards.
In addition to your week's diving, many guests choose to experience more of the islands' natural beauty through land tours. There are dozens of land tour operators here and many, especially those offering day tours from the towns, can be disappointing. Therefore we recommend you choose a non-diving liveaboard for a nature and wildlife adventure cruise to see more of the archipelago and its creatures and to really get the most out of your visit to this incredible destination.
There are 2 seasons in the Galapagos Islands: Wet and Dry. They fade into each other so there is no strict dividing line but they can be generally characterised as follows:
January to June is wet season with sunny spells either side of the brief but impressive showers which can occur daily. This period has warmer water temperatures generally fluctuating between 20-25°C. January to April can even push the temperatures up as far as 27 or 28°C in some places, if you are lucky. At this time of year you might get away with diving many sites in little more than a shortie and gloves (for holding on to rocks). However, some sites have specific currents that keep the temperature low such as Punta Vincente Roca where no human could comfortably dive without plenty of exposure protection, especially a hoodie.
Dry season, more or less from July to December, sees less rain but is also cooler above and below the waters. Water temperatures in dry season are usually 19-23°C. This is when there is a strong chance of multiple whale shark encounters and is often referred to as 'Peak Season'. It is the busiest time and many aficionados would not think of visiting outside of peak season. However, the colder water temperatures and choppier seas might make it a little uncomfortable for divers of a certain disposition.
The wisest course of action is to come prepared with exposure suits for a range of temperatures. Marine conditions are variable and it is better to be over-prepared than under-prepared when scuba diving here in Ecuador.
Often whale shark season is emphasised as the best time to come (June to November). However, many of those in the know contend that January to May, with warm water and sunny skies, offers the most pleasant all round Galapagos diving experience. This period seems to produce better sightings of creatures other than the whale shark, including a greater chance of manta ray encounters and the best hammerhead shark action.
Good for: Large marine animals, on-land wildlife tours, underwater photography
Not so good for: Beginner divers, devoutly warm water divers
Depth: 5 - >20m
Visibility: 5 - >25m
Currents: Medium to strong
Surface conditions: Choppy with currents and surges, can make diving a little tricky
Water temperature: 16 - 28°C
Experience level: Intermediate - advanced
Number of dive sites: ~30
Distance: 960 km west of the Ecuador mainland
Access: Ecuador liveaboards
Recommended length of stay: 1 - 2 weeks
View a map of:
• Galapagos Islands - Ecuador