Remote and isolated, the Galapagos Islands are world-renowned for incredibly exciting diving and fascinating land excursions. All the astonishing variety of creatures and plants in the archipelago either flew, swam, or were blown there at some point in time. Due to the archipelago’s isolation, and singular and unusual conditions, many species in the Galapagos both underwater and on land are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else on earth. The barren, volcanic landscape has its own unique, haunting and mysterious beauty. The Galapagos became a national park in 1959, and is certainly one of the most popular tourist destinations on earth.
The Galapagos Archipelago is actually a province of Ecuador, consisting of 13 large islands, six small islands and well over 200 islets and rocks. The Galapagos Islands straddle the equator, some 600 miles or 973 kilometers off the West coast of the mainland of Ecuador. Only four of the Islands, Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabella, and Floreana, are inhabited. Most of the people reside on the islands of Santa Cruz and San Cristobal.
Although there are two major airports in the Galapagos Islands, there are no international flights. Visitors to the Galapagos must fly through the Ecuadorian cities of Quito or Guayaquil. To enter Ecuador from the United States at this time all you need is your passport and a copy of your Vaccination Certificate. Visitors to the Galapagos must pay a $20 transit fee in cash at the airport on the mainland, and then a $100.00 park fee in cash upon arrival in the Galapagos.
Visitors to the Galapagos can stay in one of numerous hotels on Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela or Floreana or on one of many live-aboard yachts. The live-aboard yachts, which depart from Santa Cruz or San Cristobal, are designated as either Dive Yachts or Land Tour Yachts. Land Tour yachts offer land walks, panga (inflatable boat) rides and snorkeling. The dive yachts focus mainly on diving. On my recent trip in May, I elected to travel aboard Galapagos’ newest luxury dive yacht, the Tiburon Explorer.
Each dive operation devotes the first two dives to check passengers dive gear to make sure they are properly weighted. The week-long itineraries for dive yachts are roughly the same. There are four major currents that converge on the Archipelago. As a result, the water surrounding the northern islands, Darwin and Wolf, is usually warm, while the water west of Isabela is very cold and the water near the central islands is moderately cold. All diving is done from inflatable boats referred to as “Pangas.”
The Tiburon offers a week of diving in some of the best locations including Darwin Island, Wolf Island, Fernandina, the west coast of Isabela and Cousin’s Rock. The week also schedules land tours at North Seymour to see Blue Footed Boobies and Frigate Birds; and on Santa Cruz Island to see Giant Tortoises.
The Tiburon anchored on the east side of Mosquera, a small low profile islet, near Baltra. This area is frequently used for checkout dives. We dove along the top of a drop-off at a max depth of 50 feet, swimming along a slope of jagged, barnacle covered boulders. We found large scorpionfish, moray eels, schools, and white-tip sharks to entertain us.
North Seymour Land Tour
Because this site is so close to Santa Cruz Island, North Seymour is one of the most visited sites, but it is also one of the most fascinating land excursions. Visitors will find a rich variety of wildlife including sea lions, blue-footed boobies, frigatebirds, and iguanas. We passed through nesting areas of frigatebirds and blue-footed boobies. During the Spring mating season, the male frigatebirds display their huge, red, balloon-like sac on their throats. We also observed blue-footed boobies sitting on eggs or interacting with fluffy, newly hatched chicks. The blue-footed booby is quite distinctive, displaying its large, vivid, eggshell blue feet.
On the second full day, we woke up at Wolf Island, having run overnight. Diving in the northern islands of the Galapagos is always an adrenaline-charged and exciting undertaking, which includes close encounters with the unique and fearless marine life. We clambered aboard the pangas, and motored to the southeast corner of Wolf, between the dive sites named “Landslide” and “Shark Bay.” Normally, the current hits this corner and splits, driving current to the north into Shark Bay and to the west along the Landslide. We flipped backward off the panga and descended to about 50 feet and waited for the guides to check on the conditions. Almost immediately, a group of seven eagle rays swam up to us. A few of us interacted, taking a few photos and video. In the distance, we could see shadowy figures of scalloped hammerhead sharks, swimming on a parallel course. There were many close encounters with reef fish and schools of fish.
We returned to Landslide for the next couple of dives where we encountered hammerheads, turtles, Galapagos sharks and many schooling fishes. As the visibility increased, many other pelagics swam closer, presenting great photo and video opportunities. It was almost as if they didn’t perceive us as a threat and were hanging close for protection or perhaps for their amusement.
On the late afternoon dive, we headed north into Shark Bay. As we followed the sloping wall a bit further, we were visited by several playful sea lions. We also found ‘fish balls’ formed by closely compacted schools of pompano, jacks or chubs.
At the north end of Shark Bay, there is an interesting site called The Caves. There are a series of caves, occupied by sea turtles, white-tipped sharks, and rays. Toward the end of our dive, juvenile booby birds began to land right next to us on the surface of the water and would occasionally stick their heads underwater looking for baitfish. One booby popped its head underwater right in front of me, giving me the opportunity to get a photo. As we were doing our safety stop at 20 feet, we were passed by a small pod of bottlenose dolphin, capping off a pretty nice day of diving at Wolf.
On the next day, we dove a site named “the Theater” at Darwin Island. This exciting high-octane dive begins on a rocky ledge, just in front of the famous Darwin’s Arch, the top of which had recently collapsed on May 16, 2021 from natural erosion. Very large whale sharks are known to congregate at Darwin that sometimes measure 17 meters (56 feet) long.
Leaning forward, we gripped the ledge at a depth of 50 feet, gazing intently up into the hazy water. A dense school of Pacific Creole fish hung high in the water column, signaling that the current was going to be light for a change. We could see a massive shadowy form slowly approaching our perch at the “Theatre,” its outline slowly becoming more distinct. An enormous whale shark appeared in front of us. We instantly took off, fins churning, to get in front of the huge fish for a closeup frontal view. She continued to move forward, propelled by her massive tail. Getting in front of her, I started snapping photos, trying to match her speed. Finally, I hung in the water and just watched her entire length pass before me.
As I returned to the theater, a large hammerhead swam up to me and then slowly veered away. My buddy and I swam upward toward a large school of big eye jacks that just hung in the water column. The jacks parted slightly as a solitary blacktip shark slowly cruised their perimeter. Finally, our guide used his rattle, signaling us to follow him into the blue, ascending slowly to begin our safety stop. We kept an eye out for whale sharks, and we were almost instantly rewarded. After four dives at Darwin, we spent about an hour taking pictures of Darwin’s Pinnacles, the yacht and a beautiful sunset.
Cabo Douglas – Fernandina
After another day of diving at Wolf, the yacht made the long overnight trek south, to the west side of Isabela. We wanted to observe marine iguanas feeding underwater. They sun themselves in the morning hours to warm up, so they can spend an extended period of time in the very cold waters around Cabo Douglas. The Cromwell current brings cold, nutrient-rich water from the deep ocean and it is not unusual for the water to dip to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius). The Galapagos marine iguana is the only lizard/iguana in the world that swims and feeds underwater. These gentle herbivores survive mostly on green algae, which they easily tear off rocks with their short, blunt snouts and razor sharp teeth.
Before the dive, we took a panga ride to check out the nearby shoreline. We found thousands of marine iguanas strewn over most of the flat and sloping surfaces along the shoreline. There were also Blue footed boobies, flightless cormorants, lava herons, juvenile sea lions and even a couple of penguins competing for space. Like clockwork, the marine Iguanas started entering the water about 11:00am. We followed minutes later, and found countless marine iguanas scattered about the bottom, munching away on green algae. 20 minutes later, we started descending along a steep slope. As I was photographing a large male iguana that was feeding at 30 feet, a flightless cormorant swam over demanding that I take its picture also. Shaking my head at the luck, I continued to descend to a depth of about 95 feet. I found a couple of horn sharks and a red lipped batfish. After spending a few minutes at that depth, I decided to ascend. All in all, it was a very successful Photo shoot at Cabo Douglas.
Punte Vicente Roca – Isabela Island
After lunch, we crossed the channel to Punta Vicente Roca. We jumped into the water along the wall at the north side of the cove and swam toward the point where there is usually a Mola Mola (Ocean Sunfish) cleaning station at a depth of about 100 feet (30m). We found them just off the corner at about ninety feet. The water was very cold and murky, but we snapped some photos and began our slow return along the wall. As we swam back, we found many colorful sea fans, as well as hundreds of striped Golden Hair cleaner shrimp. A couple of young sea lions appeared to escort us back to the shallows.
That afternoon, the crew and guests celebrated ‘re-crossing’ the equator and prepared for our final day of diving the next day at Cousin’s rock, located just off the southeast corner of Santiago Island.
Cousin’s Rock – Santiago
Cousin’s Rock is one of the best places to find sea horses. We spotted four in all. We also found several white-tip reef sharks hiding along the terraced ledges that run along the east side of Cousin’s Rock. Amongst the black coral trees, we also saw many long-nosed hawk fish, fanged blennies, as well as blue lined nudibranchs and predatory Pluerobranchs. As usual, we spotted many schools of fish. When we surfaced, we discovered a colony of fur seals playing among the rocks.
Santa Cruz Island- The Highlands and Puerto Ayora
Our final excursion was a bus ride into the Santa Cruz highlands, where we observed giant tortoises in the wild. We marveled at these large creatures weighing up to 450 pounds, that can live as long as one hundred and fifty years. We then traveled to Puerto Ayora, on the south side of Santa Cruz, where we would shop for memories and meet for one last dinner in the company of strangers, with whom we had shared so many adventures during the week-long itinerary.
We reflected on the incredible underwater journey that we had taken in this special place named Galapagos. Our diving was done for this trip, but I for one was already dreaming of my next adventure to the amazing Galapagos Islands.