Visiting the Galapagos isn’t just about the islands’ wildlife but also the richness of Ecuador. Every way you turn there is something amazing: the Amazon rainforests, the Andes and the beautiful capital Quito with it’s cultural legacies, from the Incas to the Spanish.
Of course the main event is the diving! Five million years ago a series of volcanic eruptions created the Galapagos. Still one of the world’s most active volcanic regions this, along with it’s isolated position, creates a unique environment. The islands sit at the crossroads of seven major ocean currents which sweep in wildly differing conditions. Each of these is consistently unpredictable but they encourage a rare mix of tropical, subtropical and temperate marine species.
After a few days in Quito, we headed to tiny San Cristobal. The island’s harbour was crowded by small boats and masses of sea lions who were sitting on the boats, the steps, the sand and every available rock.
We boarded the liveaboard, a pretty blue trimaran, that sat sleek and sparkling in the midday sun. It wasn’t long before we set sail towards our checkout dive. We dropped into the water just off Isla Lobos and descended to just eight metres. The visibility was pretty low, but we did get our first breathtaking glimpse of sea lions in the water.
These guys move at breakneck speeds, whistling past your mask and away again before you’ve hardly focused on their arrival. After we had taken off the kit, we returned to the island to walk among the same chaps who’d come to see us underwater. They seemed oblivious to human presence, not caring how close we stepped.
We headed north to Gordon Rocks, a sunken caldera enclosed by two hilly half moons. The landscape seemed barren to us with a few small, very un-tropical corals, some recognisable damsels and angels plus the endemic giant hawkfish at a hefty 51cm-long. However big animals are attracted by the currents that rush through this ancient landscape and within seconds we spied a school of eagle rays followed by a green turtle. Exiting the caldera we met the strong currents and cooler waters we had been warned about. The outer wall was absolutely sheer and full of bubble-shaped holes (erosion evidently), each with a pencil urchin or a fish in it. A gang of young sea lions came to visit, then we ran into more current so we stopped in a small cave and found the cute barnaclebill blenny.
Our next stop was at Isla Santiago and Cousins Rock, home to passing birds and sea lions. As we approached, they slid down the rocky walls to meet our RIB. We rolled in and they slipped away, leaving us to investigate a series of terraces carved into the rock. This stepped wall had a thicker covering of small black coral bushes in tones of gold and yellow.
There were masses of longnose hawkfish and just one unusual Galapagos ringtail damselfish, which sports yellow eyeliner. Sandy bottomed ledges were littered with starfish and the occasional whitetip reef sharks. At the bottom of the wall, we found a spit of rock poking out into the current. Off in the distance were more rays and a school of small pelican barracuda and we were again captivated by the sea lions who darted around, herding schools of tiny snapper, their favourite meal.
Our first two days had been pleasant, the water was cool but comfortable and we had enjoyed investigating such a different undersea terrain. But then we arrived at Wolf Island, regarded as the pinnacle of diving here. We stared up at the dramatic sheer sided landmass and the many birds that live there. You can’t walk on the island, nor for that matter can the animals. Even the sea lions struggle to find resting spots. Boobies settle in every nook and cranny while frigate birds circle above.
We had been warned that ‘The Caves’ was a very different dive to our previous ones and that was no exaggeration. The currents were absolutely fearsome, going from almost nothing to serious washing machine in a heartbeat. We descended down a wall interspersed with several caves. The first had a swim-through which felt more like a suck-through but the next was protected by boulders creating a calmer haven. We paused to admire snappers and butterflyfish, some morays and several Galapagos sharks which swam among distant scalloped hammerheads.
They all sat beyond the oily thermoclines, not troubled by the currents at all, but our view was less than perfect. We continued along the wall until we were swept off in a strong upwelling current. It was a scary moment and we were glad to ascend safely to the tender.
It had been quite a dive, exhilarating if a bit risky, so we were pleased to move to ‘Rockslide’ which turtned out to be one of the best dives of our liveaboard trip.
Darwin Island soars up to 160m (525ft) above sea level and to one side sits one of the country’s most impressive landmarks, Darwin’s Arch, the result of an age-old eruption. We had been briefed that the dive below was even more difficult – and potentially more thrilling. We descended over another boulder-strewn slope. Aggressive currents swept up from who-knows where to hit the reef broadside and then split in all directions. It seemed we were going to catch both surge and current so we dragged ourselves down over the barnacle-covered terrain, pleased to be wearing strong gloves.
We admired morays and lobsters as we crab-walked along until we reached a sandy channel. Slowly, we become aware of a silent wave of scalloped hammerheads passing by. Some were curious and moved in closer, while others stood their distance. The visibility over the channel wasn’t great as the currents had lifted the sand, but our reward for peering into the blue was a quick view of a regular visitor – a bottlenose dolphin that swam swiftly by, grinning from ear to ear as they do.
Both Wolf and Darwin island had produced quite a show, two days of high-voltage adrenaline rushes, but it was time to head to Isabela, the archipelago’s largest island. Isabela catches the full force of the Equatorial currents so the water here is always cool. And by cool, we are now talking dry suit temperatures.
Whoever said a 3mm suit would do was mad. We pulled on every extra layer we could then descended on Roca Rodonda famed for its bubbling volcanic gases. The water was beyond cold, however, fizzing all around us were streams of bubbles – like glasses of champagne.
Nearby Punte Vicente Roca was by far the coldest dive we have ever done – consistently under 13C (55 Fahrenheit) – and by the end of the day we were grateful to bask in the sun just admiring the beauty of the landscapes around us.
Our last dives were at Cape Marshall, a sharp wall covered in tiny yellow gorgonias that never seemed to be bigger than about 20-25cm (8-10 inches). We rolled backwards into a massive gang of steel pompano then spotted some new fish – an aggressive bullseye pufferfish and his relative, the guineafowl puffer. This was meant to be “the” manta ray dive but there wasn’t a single one to be seen… the water was still freezing and when we hit a series of thermoclines, the visibility went right down.
The liveaboard sailed along the coast a little, hoping that we would find mantas but, sadly, we didn’t. The crew thought it was due to the unseasonably cold currents, but it seems the cool water had some benefits too… a pod of Bryde’s whales and then one of orcas appeared then swam with our boat. It was an exciting end to our diving.
Getting to the Galapagos
Fly to Quito then onwards to San Christobal
December to May is warmer, June to November is colder.