Galapagos Diving, A World Apart
Galapagos Islands scuba diving can truly be said to be unique. Charles Darwin was impressed by the Archipelago’s isolation and the development of species that happened there independent of those developing on the continents of the world. Those circumstances that created the world that impressed Darwin also influences the underwater world that impresses scuba divers. Galapagos Island diving is something different.
Galapagos Diving Conditions
There are three main elements when we talk about diving conditions they are visibility, current and temperature. The weather and surface conditions are also factors getting to the site and does have some impact. What makes the Galapagos Island archipelago so unique is that they are greatly influenced by three major currents and some minor influences by four others.
“Considering that these islands are placed directly under the equator, the climate is far from being excessively hot; this seems chiefly caused by the singularly low temperature of the surrounding water, brought here by the great southern Polar current. Except during one short season, very little rain falls, and even then it is irregular; but the clouds generally hang low.”
-Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle , 1845
This great southern current the Darwin talks about is the Humboldt also called the Peru Current. This current brings cold antarctic waters to the islands, rich in nutrients it helps the marine life flourish. However, as it causes a lower water temperature it does allow the growth of corals. The Cromwell or Equatorial Undercurrent is a deep water current that approaches from the west and brings cold nutrient waters to the surface at Fernandina island and along the west coast of the large Isabela island. The Panama Current is a portion of the Northern Equatorial Countercurrent and it brings a warm tropical ecosystem into the islands.
The current have a fairly consistent pattern with the dominant current changing over the course of the year. However, storms and other events far from the Galapagos islands can impact on the conditions months later.
Galapagos Water Visibility
The cold currents will bring the nutrient rich water to the surface. The suspended materials will reduce the visibility. In these conditions visibility in the 10 to 20 meter range is expected, not great but still good in most of the world. The reduced visibility does have the upside, that is a larger biomass. The nutrients concentrate the fish that feeds on them and the concentration attract the fish that feeds on them. When the Panama current is dominant, 30 meter visibility is possible.
Galapagos Water Temperature
Water temperatures generally range from 60 degrees F° to 80 degrees F°. However, this range can at times be found on a single dive site as thermocline are common. Near the areas where the currents meet moving a few hundred meters can greatly change the currents and the water temperature.
Galapagos Diving Experience Levels
A quick summary will say that the liveaboards of Galapagos Islands are for advance Scuba divers. The liveaboards require advance certifications as well as proof of over 50 dives and recent diving experience. Some even expand the requirements to deep and Nitrox certifications. If you are considering a liveaboard, review the Galapagos operators experience and qualification requirements before booking. The dive leaders will do a check out dive with each diver the afternoon of departure Based on c-cards, log books and the diver performance on the check out dives, the dive master may restrict a diver from certain Galapagos dive sites.
Divers who do not meet the requirements of the liveaboards will find that it is still possible to dive the Galapagos Islands. There are many dive sites around the central islands that are suitable for experienced open water divers and a number of sites used for novice divers and Open Water diver Training
What So Special about Galapagos Diving
There are really two elements that attract Scuba divers to the liveaboards of the Galapagos.
- First for many divers is the challenge. Diving here, especially in the north islands, is something that takes skill and experience. The currents can turn brutal in minutes and control is important. Visibility can change on a dive and the need to wear different thickness of wet suits means that buoyancy issues can arise.
- The other and the main reason to head to the northern islands of Wolf and Darwin is the massive amount of marine life. This area has a concentration of marine life that is the highest in the world when measured by bio-mass. Ten times the concentration of the Great Barrier Reef. Much of this concentration is made up of sharks and rays. Manta Rays are very common as are massive schools of sharks. During the proper season a school of adult Hammerheads can number in the hundreds. It is also not uncommon to site five or more shark species on a single dive. Whale sharks are in the water year round but are very common in August to October. While the waters are temperate, about 50% of the marine species are tropical and 17%, or about 86 species are only found here.
Best Galapagos Diving Sites
The liveaboards that sail the Galapagos all head to the two most northern islands, Wolf and Darwin. These islands are the highlights of the trips. Depending on the season divers will have a day of diving on each island or 1 ½ days on one and ½ day on the other. Both islands offer impressive populations of sharks and rays as well as whales, turtles and dolphins.
- Wolf island has four dive sites they are: El Derrumbe, La Ventana, La Banana, and Shark Point. You may also see these same sites with slightly different names or English translations. The diving here is advance given the depth, currents, cold water, surface conditions and the possibility of rapidly changing conditions.
- Darwin island is best known for the Arch. This is two dive sites starting from the same point that offers a very different experience depending on the direction you will go. Some companies just call it the Arch while others break the directions down to El Arco and El Arenal.
Each Galapagos liveaboard will visit between 18 and 22 dive sites on each trip. The National park service will tell the captain what direction to travel but it is up to the captain to determine the dive sites to stop at. There are over 80 dive sites spread over 16 distinct islands on the way to the northern islands and on the return. The ships stagger their departures and alternate sites to lessen any impact, therefore it is difficult to name the best dive sites other that the northern island sites. Most include the islands listed here as well as others. Here are a few noted sites:
- San Cruz island has eight well know dive sites and the departure point of many of the Liveaboards. Gordon Rocks is an advance dive site known for its sweeping currents and schools of sharks including hammerheads. There are also additional dive sites around nearby islands sometimes considered a part of San Cruz.
- Isabela island is the largest island and well known for its diverse diving. Elizabeth Bay is one of five dive sites on the western side of the island. It best known for the sea turtles and penguins that join divers year round and whale sharks in December and January. Tortuga Island is one of 12 dive sites on the eastern side of the island. It is a drift dive.
- Fernandina Island has four dive sites and offers some outstanding cold water drift dives.
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