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Website home>Dive Destinations>Galapagos>Wolf and Darwin islands

Your Guide to Darwin and Wolf Island

Galapagos Scuba Diving Adventures

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...Highlights: whale sharks, hammerhead sharks, shark action, dolphins, manta rays, turtles, seals/sea lions, schooling fish & big pelagics, non diving activities...
...Darwin and Wolf's diving environment: drift diving, advanced divers, off the beaten track...

Wolf and Darwin islands are often the centerpiece of any Galapagos liveaboard cruise as they usually deliver big shark encounters, dolphins, rays and sea lions, as well as plenty of other breath-taking underwater action.

The famous Darwin Arch of Galapagos - photo courtesy of Explorer Ventures

It is not an area for beginners. Currents, 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.

In the north west corner of the archipelago Darwin Island, together with nearby Wolf, is the focal point of any dive trip in Galapagos and no high quality liveaboard charter will neglect this area.

Surface conditions and currents 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 70s°F (20s°C). 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 color to the sites.

However, it is for the breathtaking scuba 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 sea 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 59 to 79 ft (18-24m). 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 scuba 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 sites in the Galapagos Islands. Of course behind these brightly colored 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 liveaboard 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 59 to 75 ft (18-23m) in depth. This is most easy to scuba dive 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.

Wolf Island Is found in the far north-west of the Galapagos archipelago. 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 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 center 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.

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 positives. 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 49 to 65 ft (15-20m) 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, mesmerized by the sheer biomass and wondering where your fellow liveaboard 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 trip's 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 33 ft (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 sea 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 26 to 33 ft (8-10m). 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 scuba 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 rest of the dive, finning deeper down the rocky slope. It is now that thoughts turn to the hammerheads. At a sandy patch at about 82 ft (25m) 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!

If you have the necessary skills and temperament to handle the sea conditions here, Darwin and Wolf islands are ranked amongst the very best dive sites in the world.

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Reef Summary: Remotes isles
Depth: 25 - 80 ft (8 - 25m)
Visibility: 16 - 82 ft (5 - >25m)
Currents: Medium to strong
Surface conditions: Choppy with currents and surges, can make diving difficult
Water temperature: 70 - 77°F (21 - 25°C)
Experience level: Advanced
Number of dive sites: 4
Diving season: All year round
Distance: 215 miles (350 km) from San Cristobal
Access: Galapagos liveaboard

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