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Your Guide to Scuba Diving in the Galapagos Islands

Ecuador's Evolutionary Melting Pot of Marine Life

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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...
...Diving environment: drifts, advanced divers, off the beaten track...

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, quite simply, the Galapagos Islands have the best liveaboard diving trips 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 vacation in Ecuador involving sea lions, penguins, seals, eagle rays, marine iguanas, sea turtles, golden rays, whale sharks, hammerheads and many other shark species, is a phenomenal experience. These encounters, which are at once educational and exciting, make the appeal of the archipelago obvious.

Diving in the Galapagos Islands with scalloped hammerhead sharks - photo courtesy of Galapagos Sky
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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 - especialy at the islands of Darwin and Wolf - 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 upswellings 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 vacation experience. To do so in this far-flung part of Ecuador, 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 land mass of the archipelago and will deliver some of the most memorable moments of your Ecuador dive package. Hundreds of hammerheads and Galapagos sharks can pass right by your nose and you can expect incredible whale shark encounters when in season. Wolf and Darwin are the 2 essential stops on any dive cruise here.

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 scuba 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 diving 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 130 miles (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!.
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Here, after dropping to about 33 ft (10m) of water onto a rocky plateau, you will fin along the edge of the wall that drops away to a depth of 100ft+ (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 13ft (4m), an impressive sight. Seeing these large graceful creatures swooping around effortlessly is an amazing addition to your Galapagos vacation 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 traveling 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 tour routes, 1 or 2 dives at Cabo Marshall will be your final ones - 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' favorite 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.
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The site, which will likely form part of your Galapagos liveaboard cruise, 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 Pacific 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 north western region of the archipelago is the focal point of any dive trip to the Galapagos and no high quality Ecuador liveaboard charter will neglect this area. Here you will see vast schools of hammerheads, eagle rays, Galapagos sharks, mackerel, manta rays, dolphins and sea turtles. If you are fortunate you might have an encounter with a whale shark, especially between June and October.

Most of the action is close to the Darwin Arch. You will either drop down to a rubble slope of plateau and watch the action going on all around you. Surface conditions and currents can be tricky here, although water temperatures tend to be warmer so 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.

This is 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 focused on the outrageous visual action going on. Get into a comfortable viewing spot and enjoy the show.

Gordon's Rock

This is considered to be one of the better sites in the central region of the archipelago and may form part of your liveaboard vacation. It is in fact the remains of a crater measuring about 330ft (100m) in diameter and is located to the north of the Plaza islands, 50 miles (80 km) west northwest of San Cristobal.
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This is another site where the conditions will remind you why this part of Ecuador 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, 53 miles (85 km) from San Cristobal, is the dive site known as Punta Carrion. It is often visited prior to the big steam north to Darwin and Wolf Island and so may represent your first real scuba dive after your check out dive.
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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 26ft (8m) depth, you will proceed on this dive where there is little to be gained from going deep. You can stay between 40 and 60ft (12-18m) 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 scuba 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 to around 60°F (16°C) 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.
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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 59 to 72ft (18-22m) 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 color 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 Ecuador dive, look out for the 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 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 scuba divers, to where you can enjoy a little space to yourself.
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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

Wolf is found in the far north-west, close to Darwin Island. This region forms the area around which all Galapagos diving liveaboards are based. No enthusiastic diver could fail to be impressed by the huge numbers of hammerheads, Galapagos sharks, dolphins, and playful sea lions. As if this is not enough, mighty whale sharks steal the show at the right time of year.

There are 3 sites at Wolf Island. The Caves represents a series of swim-throughs and a cave where hammerheads, Galapagos and whitetip reef sharks, large pods of bottlenose dolphins, and eagle rays roam on the hunt for the huge biomass of grunts and amberstripe scad. Landslide is a rubble slope where you can spot huge walls of hammerhead sharks, glasseye snapper, and tuna. Shark Bay is a place not only to see hammerheads and silky sharks, but also offers a superb dive with playful sea lions that always seem to be intrigued and interact with scuba divers. Other fish that are present include yellowfin tuna, pelican barracuda, African pompano, blue and gold snapper, guineafowl pufferfish, and striped-belly pufferfish.

How to Dive Ecuador

While there are some resort package options, serious scuba divers cannot come to Ecuador's Galapagos Islands and fail to visit Darwin and Wolf islands, therefore we currently only recommend liveaboards here. They offer much more than a land-based vacation 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. Availability can be an issue so make sure you plan ahead. We recommend booking 12 months in advance of your trip to avoid disappointment.

For more information on your cruise route and duration options, and all the other travel information you might need for diving in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, visit our Galapagos liveaboard section.

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 trips 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.

The Diving Season

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 characterized as follows:

January through 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 68 to 77°F (20-25°C). January through April can even push the temperatures up as far as 81 or 82°F (27-28°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 4 mm wetsuit 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 through December, sees less rain but is also cooler above and below the waters. Water temperatures in dry season are usually 66 to 73°F (19-23°C). This is when there is a strong chance of multiple whale shark encounters and is often referred to as 'Peak Tourist 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, especially on the journey across the islands of Darwin and Wolf, 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 emphasized as the best time to come (June through November). However, many of those in the know contend that January through May, with warm water and sunny skies, offers the best diving in Galapagos all round. 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. For more on the climate of the Galapagos Islands, visit Climates To TravelOpens in a new window.

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Where is Galapagos and How Do I Get There?

Review our maps below of the islands, their host country Ecuador, and their location in the world. Here, you will find information on how to get to Galapagos.

Map of the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador (click to enlarge in a new window) Map of Ecuador (click to enlarge in a new window) Map of the world (click to enlarge in a new window)

Reef Summary

Depth: 16 - 65ft (5 - >20m)
Visibility: 16 - 82ft (5 - >25m)
Currents: Medium to strong
Surface conditions: Choppy with currents and surges, can make diving a little tricky
Water temperature: 61 - 82°F (16 - 28°C)
Experience level: Intermediate - advanced
Number of dive sites: ~30
Distance: 600 miles (960 km) west of the Ecuador mainland
Recommended length of stay: 1 - 2 weeks

Useful References

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