Destination Galapagos Islands
by John Kinsella
The Galapagos Islands, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978, has an astounding 97 percent of its more than 45,000 square kilometres/28,000 square miles preserved as a national park. A truly unique cluster of less than twenty volcanic islands, the Galapagos Islands is an internationally acclaimed dive destination some 900 kilometres/560 miles west of South America. Best known for Charles Darwin’s visit in 1835 aboard the HMS Beagle (where the variety of endemic species captured the geologist’s attention and led to the publication of On the Origin of Species) the Galapagos Islands have become a vital international center for conservation and science.
Located at a major intersection of several ocean currents, these islands are home to a staggering array of marine life, nearly 20 percent of which is found nowhere else on earth. On his travels, Darwin managed to collect fifteen fish species, five of which bear his name.
Relatively strong currents characterize the diving here and drift dives are common, so diving in the Galapagos Islands deserves proper preparation. In places, divers may encounter descending currents and safety stops are often made in blue water with no references and demand appropriate buoyancy control. Surface conditions can be choppy and surface signaling devices are highly recommended.
While it’s possible to arrange land based dive and snorkeling adventures, live-aboards allow divers to reach the more distant sites in comfort. In fact, you can reach many of the best dive sites only via a live-aboard.
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This tiny island is home to fur seals, sea lions, whales, marine turtles and marine iguanas. It may be small, but it has some of the best diving in the Galapagos.
El Arco could well show up on anyone’s list of the world’s top 10 dive sites, in large part because divers regularly encounter schooling hammerheads, whale sharks and spotted eagle rays along with prowling Galapagos and silky sharks. It is accessible only by live-aboard and one dive strategy is to simply hold your position underwater and let the pelagic show cruise by.
El Arenal is an access route to Darwin’s Arch and abounds with marine life. Big-eye jacks along with hammerhead, blacktip and whale sharks all frequent the area.
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The largest island in the Galapagos is actually a conglomeration of six large volcanoes and is home to Puerto Villamil, the third-largest town. Crossed by the equator, you can also see Galapagos penguins north of the equator.
Cape Rosa offers rock fissures and sea lions off what is arguably considered the most beautiful island of Galapagos. You'll also have the occasional sea turtle or penguin flashing by to spice things up.
Roca Redonda, off the north coast, is an underwater volcano where divers can find Galapagos sharks, schools of hammerhead sharks and barracudas. This dive site can be challenging due to its unpredictable currents and surge, which can be very strong in shallow water.
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The westernmost island is relatively young, geologically speaking, and erupted as recently as 2005. It is also home to masses of marine iguanas that gather on lava rocks to soak up some sun before their next dive.
Cape Douglas is known for drift diving and is a great spot to watch penguins “fly” past. Currents shape the dive, which can be challenging in rough weather, but you can see fur seals and Galapagos sea lions mingling with munching marine iguanas .
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Cousin’s Rock, northeast of Santiago Island features sloping rock plates and steep dropoffs. Divers can find Galapagos black coral (which is actually yellow) here and, if you look closely you may find an elusive frogfish, octopus, seahorse or nudibranch hidden among coral branches. Currents are moderate as is the surge, depending on the current sea state).
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San Cristobal Island
This was the first island Darwin visited on his voyages and is home to the capital of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, although it is the second most populous town.
Pitt Point is an exposed rock at the most northeasterly point of the island. This is an arid area above water but underwater, divers will bump into schools of snapper, grunt and jacks. Topside, three booby species call this place home; there is a colony of red-footed boobies and both Nazca and blue-footed boobies are frequently also seen. Divers can sometimes see diving boobies while underwater, and again, as with many Galapagos dive sites, surge can be a factor.
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Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz is home to the Charles Darwin Research Station, which is the headquarters for the Galapagos National Park Service. It's also where you'll find Puerto Ayora, the biggest town in the islands. There are also a flamingo lagoon and mangroves, which serve as a marine nursery. Land based diving is possible, though relatively short boat rides are still required for access to some of the best sites.
Academy Bay has several dive sites within a short boat journey. Some of these are calm with little current and are perfect for relatively inexperienced divers. Other sites may have currents and surge that require more experience. As always, rely on the advice of local dive professionals. Sea lions, various rays, moray and garden eels, marine iguanas and sharks abound.
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West of Santa Cruz lies an offshore pinnacle called Nameless Rock. A boulder shelf at about 18 metres/60 feet has sponges, soft corals, Galapagos sharks and schools of pelagic fish. Currents (sometimes descending currents) and surge determine diving here.
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Depths: From snorkeling to more than 40 metres/140 feet.
Visibility: Although 30 metre/100 foot visibility is not unheard, it’s usually 10 - 20 metres/30 - 70 feet. Visibility depends to a great extent on the amount of plankton in the water. It’s a double-edged sword: the colder months have more plankton and poorer visibility than the warmer months; but more plankton means more active marine life.
Currents: In some areas, currents can be very strong and surface conditions very choppy. Always depend on local advice and sound judgment. Descending currents may be encountered at some sites (when strong currents meet vertical walls, for example).
Water Temperature: Temperatures range form 20-28° C/71-85° F throughout the year, depending upon site and island.
Dive Season: For divers, July to November is the peak season when whale sharks prowl the waters off Wolf and Darwin Islands.
Weather: In this highly variable climate, the hot/rainy season is from December to June, with high humidity and average temperatures of 26-30° C/79-86° F. Days are generally warm and sunny with occasional showers. From June to November, expect cool winds and an occasional light misty drizzle. Temperatures average 20-24° C/68-75° F during the day and are lower at night. From December through May the seas are relatively calm and the weather warm.
Access: This is live-aboard country so access is almost invariably by boat. Live-aboards frequently employ small inflatables or other chase boats to drop off and pick up divers.
Skill Level: Advanced. You can learn to dive here, but to make the most of the opportunities for advanced divers, you'll want to consider building up your training and experience before arrival, especially in current-rich environments.
Scuba Gear: Full cold-water dive equipment with suits up to 7 mm based on expected temperature. Bringing as much personal dive equipment as possible, particularly appropriate exposure protection, is the best plan. Check with local PADI Dive Centers or Resorts in advance about hire gear.
Length of stay: Two weeks allows for a live-aboard trip and some time for topside travel. It would be a tragedy to miss the terrestrial element of a Galapagos Islands adventure.
Featured Creatures: With treasures that include three species of hammerhead shark, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, giant land tortoises, a few finch for every island, the list of must-see animals is simply staggering. Fur seals and sea lions, manta rays, whale sharks and giant schools of pelagic fish are also all highlights here.
Currency: US dollar. Cash, particularly small denominations for tips, is handy. Expect high surcharges on credit card use.
Tipping: Definitely tip your live-aboard crews. Divemasters and naturalist guides should be tipped separately. Generally, tips should be cash. Tipping taxi drivers in town is unusual, but tipping an excursion, city tour, or shopping trip guide is appreciated. Tipping at restaurants is 10 to 15 percent.
Transportation: Taxis in towns and boats everywhere.
Major Airports: Flights to the Galapagos originate in Ecuador at José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport (GYE) in Guayaquil or Mariscal Sucre International Airport (UIO) in Quito and continue to Isla San Cristobal (SCY) or Isla Baltra (Seymour – GPS).
Religion: Predominately Catholic
Electricity: 110-120 Volts. Primary Socket Types: North American non-grounded and grounded.
Airport Entry/Exit fees: The departure tax is usually included with the airfare. If you are making your own arrangements, there are fees involved for visiting the National Park. These are usually included in packages.