Galapagos scuba diving and land trips often feature high on the bucket-list of any adventurous traveller. Considered a living, breathing laboratory of natural history, and with so many unique ecosystems and species, it’s fair to say the Galapagos is a must for nature-lovers, whether they dive or not.
For divers, this archipelago offers an extra dose of adventure, with some of the world’s most breathtaking and awe-inspiring underwater experiences packed into one remarkable destination. Descend through rafts of playful sea lions and fur seals, dodge penguins and watch marine iguanas feed, and dive with some of the oceans most impressive pelagics, from whale sharks and mantas, to Galapagos sharks, tigers, and vast schools of hammerhead sharks.
And if that’s got your scuba-senses tingling, then read on, because that’s not even the half of it.
What’s so special about the Galapagos?
The Galapagos Islands have long held a place in the minds of adventurous travellers, thanks to Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ - the book that laid the foundations for our current understanding of the natural world. But these stark, almost barren, volcanic islands aren’t your typical tropical getaways. Instead it is the many unique plant and animal species that call the Galapagos home - along with a disregard for the ‘typical’ - that makes the islands so enticing.
The Galapagos Islands break the mould in almost every way, but it is the incredible number of unique species - endemics - that really set the islands apart. From the equator-dwelling penguins to algae-munching marine iguanas, some 30% of plants, 80% of land birds, and 97% of the reptiles and land mammals found in the Galapagos can be found nowhere else on earth! And, with habitats changing from island to island, some species have evolved in complete isolation from their neighbours, giving each island its own unique flair.
This astonishing biodiversity continues below the waves, as well, with around 20% of marine life endemic to the archipelago. The seas surrounding these islands teem with a baffling diversity of life, allowing divers to encounter anything from turtles and dolphins to yellow-bellied sea snakes and sea lions. Plus, if you’re looking for big fish, the Galapagos is the place to be - mantas, devil rays, and eagle rays, as well as some 30 different species of shark all inhabit these waters. And, for the final crescendo, the Galapagos forms the southwest corner of the infamous Hammerhead Triangle - where divers can get up close and personal with huge schools of hammerhead sharks.
The Galapagos Archipelago was created by volcanic activity over millions of years, as the Nazca plate moved southeast and collided with the South American plate. San Cristobal is considered to be one of the oldest islands, at around four million years old, while Fernandina is thought to be less than 700,000 years of age. This volcanic activity has also given birth to deep hydrothermal vents which, despite their extremely hostile environment, are home to a host of weird and wonderful creatures. In fact, exploration of hydrothermal vents found along the Galapagos Ridge has led to dozens of new and intriguing creatures being described.
Obviously, the remote location of the Galapagos Islands helped much of the wildlife evolve in perfect isolation, but strangely, it also keeps this archipelago remarkably well connected to the rest of the world - through powerful oceanic currents. In fact, the islands lie at the convergence of several such currents, including the South Equatorial current, Cromwell, Panama and Humboldt currents. The latter, named after the naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt, creates cold-water upwellings around the islands, perfect for the growth of phytoplankton and in turn, providing the foundations for one of the most productive ecosystems in the world.
The combination of these geographical factors has created a truly unique diving destination, where both tropical and temperate marine species thrive alongside one another. But the conditions do come with a price, as the majority of sites are best suited to advanced divers who are comfortable in deep, cold water, with fierce ripping currents.
Altogether, the Galapagos Archipelago comprises around 20 main islands and more than 100 smaller islets and rocks. There are a total of four inhabited islands within the archipelago - Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela, and Floreana. All inhabited islands are well-connected by speedboat and ferry, with several also offering domestic flights. Tourist infrastructure is well established on these islands, including a wide selection of accommodation, as well as dining options and activities. To protect the local wildlife, the smaller, uninhabited islands can only be visited as part of a land-based adventure tour or day trip.
An astonishing 97% of the land surface in the Galapagos has been designated as a national park, and, as with any protected areas, visitors are expected to take extra care not to negatively impact the environment. For example, to enter any area designated as a national park, you’ll need to be accompanied by a certified naturalist guide and refrain from bringing food, or smoking. You’ll also have to check your shoes before transferring between islands, to avoid accidentally transporting foreign seeds into the next fragile ecosystem.
Liveaboards, land tours and laid-back diving day-trips
With any remote, island-based destination, planning the best way to explore can feel a little daunting. And, with such strict rules designed to protect the area’s unique flora and fauna, the Galapagos can feel particularly intimidating. That said, navigating the Galapagos is actually less intimidating than it first seems, as there are plenty of scuba diving packages, land tours and cruises, as well as an established tourism industry. The main deciding factor for any visitor is whether you’d rather be above water, or below.
Exploring the Galapagos Islands with a scuba diving liveaboard
For most serious divers, the biggest allure of the Galapagos is the remote Darwin and Wolf Islands, that deliver reliable encounters with colossal schools of scalloped hammerheads. Lying some 14 hours northeast of the main island group, these two remote outposts can only be explored by liveaboard. Any worthy liveaboard trip will visit these sites, with some itineraries spending up to four days here getting to know the famous residents, alongside all the other top sites throughout the archipelago.
Boats are not allowed to offer both Galapagos diving and land tours on one trip. This means your options for exploring uninhabited islands will be limited. But, if you’ve got the time, and the budget, you can add a week to the beginning or end of your liveaboard voyage to make the most of the Galapagos above water as well. Some vessels even alternate their itineraries between land and sea exploration, so you can spend your entire trip on the same boat! Either way, most diving itineraries will include unmissable highlights such as a trek up to Bartolome lookout, and afternoons in Puerto Ayora or discovering the famous giant tortoises on Santa Cruz.
Galapagos diving day-trips
Boats aren’t for everyone - even when it comes to divers. And anyone prone to seasickness, new to the world of scuba, or after some beachfront relaxation, might prefer to skip the liveaboard. Unfortunately, land-based diving in the Galapagos will limit your diving options, but hopping between inhabited islands is easy, whether individually or part of a tour, thanks to daily ferries and plenty of water taxis. This makes it possible to spend a couple of days on each inhabited island in the Galapagos, enjoying diving day trips to local sites, before moving on to the next. Plus, it goes without saying that when staying at a resort, you’re free to roam the inhabited island at your leisure, and organise guided land-tours of the uninhabited islands, too!
Best scuba diving in the Galapagos
No matter how you decide to explore the Galapagos, you’ll want to make a list of those must-see dive sites - the ones you’d never forgive yourself for missing. Here’s a small selection of our all-time favourites…
Kicker Rock - San Cristobal
Kicker Rock is one of San Cristobal stand-out dive sites. Rising around 150 metres out of the ocean, this volcanic tuff cone has divided in two, creating a thin underwater channel that reaches depths of 18 metres. Manta rays, spotted eagle rays, and frolicking sea lions can all be seen here, as well as whitetip reef sharks, hammerheads and the elusive Galapagos shark.
Gordon Rocks - Santa Cruz
Gordon Rocks is the remains of an eroded volcanic cone, and is undoubtedly among the best in the central islands. But it’s not for the faint-hearted. Washing-machine-like surge, ripping current, and impressive schools of hammerheads are the order of the day here, alongside Galapagos sharks, sea lions and fur seals.
Cabo Marshal - Isabela Island
Often dubbed the ‘ray capital of the Galapagos’, Cabo Marshal is one of the region’s most reliable manta cleaning stations. Here, close to the steep northwest wall of Isabela Island, these huge creatures gather high in the water column. Lucky divers can also spot small schools of devil rays, cow-nose rays, and more.
Shark Bay - Wolf Island
Wolf Island’s Shark Bay is one of the archipelago’s marquee dive sites. Playful sea lions greet divers with mischievous and acrobatic displays as they descend in search of some of the Galapagos’ most impressive hammerhead schools. Yellowfin tuna, pelican barracuda, and jacks can also be seen, as well as Galapagos sharks, silky sharks, and eagle rays cruising lazily past.
Darwin Arch - Darwin Island
located on the southeastern corner of Darwin Island, Darwin’s Arch rises high above the surging ocean below. This site has no predetermined entry or exit point and is dived in a variety of ways depending on the current. This is another famous site for schooling hammerheads, but you never really know what will show up - whale sharks, tiger sharks, and Galapagos Sharks are also on the cards, as are eagles rays, tons of turtles, and much more.
By now, you’re probably itching to get in the water, right?. But before you back-roll off your chair and land in a heap on the floor, get in touch with our expert team. With tons of personal experience, and plenty of priceless insights, they’ll help turn your dream Galapagos diving getaway into memories you’ll cherish forever.