Diving in the Galapagos Islands ranks at the top of most divers' bucket lists – and for good reason. In the Galapagos waters, you find yourself blowing bubbles with a playful sea lion, looking down on a school of hammerheads or watching in dazed awe as a whale shark or a manta ray glides slowly past. It is also the only place on earth where if you go snorkeling, you can sometimes have as good an animal encounter as you would scuba diving.
Galapagos diving is challenging, and not for beginners. The Galapagos Islands lie at the center of seven major currents, which create temperature drops, sudden murky seas and unpredictable conditions -- often in the same 50-minute dive. Unlike the Caribbean or the Maldives, most dive sites lie a good hour by small boat from the main port of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island -- so pack your seasickness pills.
There are two ways to dive the Galapagos Islands. One of the most common for serious divers is a so-called "liveaboard", which spells out exactly what you do -- you live aboard a small boat for several days. On the plus side, you get to dive three times a day and visit far away dive sites, with the chance to see an abundance of marine life. On the minus side: You can't get off the boat, as the number of visitors to the islands is strictly controlled. If you choose this option, you'll miss out seeing the islands' iconic land animals. By the same token, you cannot dive if you are on a cruise around the islands (though you can snorkel).
So perhaps the best way to see the Galapagos underwater is to combine a cruise around the islands with a few days on land, which is exactly what I did. That way you can see the best of both worlds.
Click through to see photos from a Galapagos diving trip – and how you can do it yourself while you're taking a Galapagos cruise.
--By Adam Coulter, U.K. Editor
It's best to dive before your cruise; if you dive at the end, you'll have to wait 24 hours before you fly. If you can stay two days before your cruise, that will give you the chance to do four dives. I managed to squeeze in an additional two, as my cruise stopped in Puerto Ayora for the day.
I stayed at the Finch Bay Hotel, a recently refurbished eco-hotel in Puerto Ayora, Galapagos' main town. The hotel sits on a small, crescent-shaped bay, protected by mangroves, and popular with families. It lies a short panga ride from town, where you'll find most of the dive centers along the port front.
All diving is done independently from the cruise operators, and you'll need to do your own research and make your own bookings. There are a number of dive centers in Puerto Ayora, most opposite the port. I dived with two excellent operators -- Scuba Iguana and Academy Bay Dive Center.
The easiest thing to do is either pre-book, or just walk in and make a booking (sometimes a walk-in will get you a cheaper price). Diving is not cheap in the Galapagos, expect to pay $180 for two dives, plus all equipment.
On the way you'll likely pass the fish market where, if the catch is in, you might see some hungry sea lions and patient pelicans begging for scraps.
There is great diving an hour to an hour-and-a-half boat ride from Santa Cruz, so you won't be missing out if you choose not to go on a liveaboard. The best spot is Gordon Rocks, where the majority of these images were taken. Nearby islands Cousins and Bartolome, are also excellent for sea lions and penguins (pictured). Punta is the best spot for white tip reef sharks.
The other main population center is on the island of San Cristobal, the only other island with an airport. You'll find dive centers in the main 'town' (really more of a sleepy fishing village), of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.
It takes about an hour or so to reach the dive sites accessible from Puerto Ayora, by small boat in often choppy seas. The dive briefing takes place on the boat from a qualified instructor. All divers are required to do a practice dive in shallow water before their first dive.
This group of rocks lies to the east of Santa Cruz Island, in a semi circle. The rocks sit at the confluence of four currents, hence the site’s colloquial name: the Washing Machine. If you are unlucky enough to be caught up in the churn, the best advice is: hold on to the rocks. Unlike in most other dive sites, you are encouraged to wear gloves for this reason. There is little to harm, as there is only very limited coral in these latitudes. Gordon Rocks is one of the best sites in the Galapagos to see hammerheads, white tip sharks and rays.
One thing you are almost guaranteed to see on any dive in the Galapagos is hammerhead sharks -- great schools of them, nonchalantly swimming past you, or often underneath you. What is unusual (and exciting), is spotting family groups like this one, where you can clearly make out father, mother and baby. Hammerheads may look terrifying, but they are harmless and like most of the other sea creatures (bar sea lions), indifferent to divers.
Unlike most sharks, hammerheads school in vast numbers -- sometimes hundreds at a time, becoming solitary hunters at night. It's slightly alarming at first when you start to make out the dark shapes appearing just a few meters below your fins, but the sharks are not interested in what's happening above them -- they're on the hunt, stalking their prey along the bottom of the sea. They eat a wide variety of prey including fish, squid, octopus and crustaceans -- and even other sharks.
Sea lions are the most playful and inquisitive of all the marine animals you will come across in the oceans around the Galapagos. Sea lions will often swim up to divers and snorkelers, entranced by their bubbles. They will stare hard at you, trying to figure out what type of animal you are, before zooming off to play in the surf or chase after a fish. In the main they are harmless, however, as with all animals that have a lot of human encounters, there have been incidents -- mainly with territorial males -- whose playfulness becomes more aggressive. Their name (lobo del mar in Spanish, or wolf of the sea), comes from the sound the males makes which sounds like a lion's roar, rather than their temperament.
The most common rays you're likely to spot on a dive are eagle spotted rays and mobula rays, the latter of which you may well mistake for a manta, as they are a similar shape but several sizes smaller. You'll know when you see a manta ray; it's unmistakable size -- with the two horns protruding -- and vast wing span, often more than 2 meters across, make it one of the most stunning underwater creatures to spot in the Galapagos.
Stone Scorpion Fish
Blink and you might miss it -- or worse still step on it! This perfectly camouflaged stone scorpion fish lives in the rocks and crevasses around the rock outcrops, waiting patiently for its prey. Each fin consists of a series of highly venomous spines which it uses for defense, rather than attack. Its form of attack is to wait around on rocks for unsuspecting small fry such as fish, shrimp or crab to float by, which it then swallows whole.
White Tip Reef Sharks
One of the most exciting sights for me (apart of course from vast schools of hammerheads), was seeing these white tip reef sharks so close up. This dive took place at a site called Punta, off North Seymour Island, which is made up of a series of crevasses and tunnels below the water. Within those tunnels and ledges, you will find white tip reef sharks – not swimming about, but resting on the ocean floor. On our dive we saw several lying there, just a few feet away, while others, as in this image, bunched up all together in a cave.
Giant Galapagos Seahorse
These are a sub species of Pacific seahorses, common all along the west coast of the Pacific, from San Diego to Peru. They are far larger than many seahorses, growing as long as 16cm. Most are the color of brown algae, but this one is particularly striking, glowing gold and red. Seahorses are found in shallow water just off the coast, clinging to rocks with their tails. They feed mainly on passing plankton.
Marine turtles are a common sight on most dives, as they thrive in the nutrient-rich waters that surround the islands. As with all sealife living in the area around the Galapagos, they are protected. However, many are just passing through, heading up to nesting grounds on Central American beaches, where many will get caught up in the long nets of Japanese and Russian fishing vessels which ply this part of the Pacific Ocean.
Marine Turtle (Continued)
Just like on land, the marine animals allow you to get close and have your picture taken. This beautiful fella was quite happy to observe the photographer, my dive buddy Derek, as I floated just behind him. The trick with all the animals is not to spook them; give them a respectful distance and many will come to you. Turtles aren't especially inquisitive (unlike sea lions), but they are also remarkably calm creatures and are quite happy for a group of divers to snap them.
Marine Turtle (Continued)
Marine turtle shot from above. No, he hasn't lost a flipper, it's just the angle from which this picture was taken. Unlike most other diving around the world, where you're likely to see one highlight per dive, Galapagos diving leaves you spoiled for choice. On my very first dive I saw turtles, hammerheads, reef sharks, mobula rays and a Sun fish, or mola mola. On another dive, there were so many white top sharks I didn't know where to look. So keep your eyes peeled at all times, especially into the blue.
These are a common sight in the Caribbean, where they spend the majority of their time in coral reefs, but a far less common in the Galapagos Islands, where there is little or no coral. One of the things you will notice if you are used to reef diving, is the distinct absence of color when diving in the Galapagos. The rocks are all volcanic black and the only coral that there is is also black. So reef fish, like this wrasse really stand out.
The marine animal that all divers long to see is a whale shark, and the Galapagos Islands are one of the top spots to find them. This fella was spotted in Gordon Rocks by a group of divers from Academy Bay Diving; while the site is not a prime spot for whale sharks, once in a while you can get lucky. The prime spots are on the remoter islands of Darwin and Wolf, in the far north of the archipelago, which you can only reach on a liveaboard.