If the Galapagos Islands weren’t already high on your diving bucket list, there are now more reasons than ever to visit this fantastic diving location. Not only does the area present the opportunity to dive with hundreds of fascinating hammerhead sharks, but it has also recently become one of the world’s largest Marine Sanctuaries, boasting such masses of marine life that truly need to be seen in order to be believed.
In an effort to protect and preserve this precious marine life, Ecuador has now joined a host of other nations in creating an official Marine Sanctuary that encompasses the entire archipelago of the Galapagos Islands. Ecuador’s president, Mr Rafael Correa, announced on March 21st that the Galapagos Marine Sanctuary will provide 18 000 square miles of protected waters, serving as a safe haven for the abundance of marine life in the area including the many different species of sharks, one of the main reasons so many divers flock to the area.
The main part of the new Galapagos Marine Sanctuary includes the already-established Marine Reserves around the northern islands of Wolf and Darwin, whilst the remaining parts are made up of 21 other conservation areas that are much smaller in size.
Darwin and Wolf are extremely remote islands located over 450 miles from the central archipelago and are especially significant thanks to their location at the point where four ocean currents meet. With no airports and no dive resorts, the only way to reach these northern-most islands is by liveaboard trip which will see you aboard a vessel for a minimum of 7 days. The trip is well worth it however, as this area boasts some of the most diverse diving conditions on the planet. In fact, marine scientist Pelayo Salinas de León from the Charles Darwin Foundation describes these islands as having “one of the most spectacular and significant marine ecosystems that we have on the planet.” The islands are also the sites for a number of scientific expeditions, with scientists coming from near and far to explore the completely unique conditions which bring a fantastic array of underwater life to the area.
Although there are only a few official dive spots around these remote islands, a recent study in 2015 found that the area surrounding Wolf and Darwin has a fish biomass of 17.5 tonnes per hectare, a phenomenal statistic showing just how many marine animals can be found in this underwater paradise. To provide similar statistics for comparison purposes, sections of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef only have a biomass of 1.7 tonnes, and even the closest runner up, Cocos Island National Park in Costa Rica, is still only half that of the Galapagos area. Although of course these numbers mean that the underwater experience at the Galapagos Islands is unlike any other, when compared with historical data, it does show a decline in biomass numbers, especially in the shark species, hence the reason for the expansion of the protected areas.
Officially, marine sanctuaries differ somewhat from marine reserves in that their main focus is to protect a larger marine area from hunting and illegal fishing. Marine reserves on the other hand, are usually found within designated marine protected areas and follow strict rules aligned with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). These Category I protected areas aim to protect natural biodiversity and sometimes also focus on geological and geomorphological features. This level of protection means that every aspect of the area is firmly controlled and monitored including human impact, visiting rights and usage rights, but certain activities such as legal fishing may still be allowed. Many of these marine reserves are also highly significant areas for scientific research.
While the Galapagos Marine Reserve has been restricting fishing activity in recent years and attempts have been made to prohibit illegal and unsustainable fishing methods, this has not been enough to avoid worrying reductions in the marine population. These findings led to the start of the discussion planning to increase the protection of the area from a marine reserve into a sanctuary. With these new rules, all types of fishing are prohibited and visitors are unable to remove any underwater resources either. This restricts both oil and mining operations and opens the area up for tourism and scientific research only.
Thanks to the forward-thinking actions of the Ecuadorian government and the dedicated environmentalists, volunteers and scientific researchers at places such as the Charles Darwin Research Station, divers from this generation and the next will be able to enjoy the fantastic marine life this area has to offer.
The waters surrounding the archipelago of the Galapagos Islands will astound even the most experienced of divers with masses of marine life in all shapes and sizes.