Best diving in the world. Period.
Where on Earth?
To many the name Galapagos is synonymous to the “Darwin” (or the other way around) given the resounding impact of Charles Darwin’s visit to the islands on the formation of his Theory of Natural Selection. They are an archipelago of 2 volcanic islands formed between 3-5 million years ago, sitting in the Pacific Ocean 1000KM off the South America coast. It is Ecuador’s first national park since 1959, and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.
Being able to inspire Darwin, the Galapagos is blessed with over 2900 species from the very rare red- and blue-footed boobies, flamingos, giant tortoises on land, huge schools of fish, rays, mola molas in the sea, to the playful sea lions and GOT-reminenscing marine iguanas in between. But truth be told, nothing comes even close to the inexorable traction and magnificence as: The sharks.
Thanks to its unique fervent conservation efforts and unique geological make up, the Galapagos houses the world’s largest aggregation of hammerheads, Galapagos, blacktip, silvertip, silkies, tigers, reef sharks and last but not least, the majestic whale sharks. Even with the slightest interest in diving, you probably have seen pictures on the internet, of tens of hundred of hammerhead sharks forming wall, so dense at times it covers up the entire sky.
Wolf and Darwin Islands
Located in the northern archipelago, the pair has hands down the best diving at Galapagos –– some might even argue best in the world because as the proven breeding ground of endangered hammerheads, there’s simply nothing like it. Land Slide at Wolf is usually the first dive you do in the area. Even if you’re reasonably experienced the shock factor can still be daunting. Upon a speedy descent, before you enter the world of sharks, you’ll be welcomed into a world of current. The group drift together in the direction of the current until schooling hammerheads appear –– they do, minutes into EVERY dive I did at Wolf, like a wildlife safari on Fast Forward –– then you needed to find the steadiest rock nearby and hit Stop, and quietly observe the jaw-dropping spectacle of a life time.
Because the sharks swim counter current, everything plays out in slo-mo. It’s just a stream of hammerheads, wagging their way forward, sometimes in the direction of the divers though they never come closer than 10 feet. Sometimes a hammerhead struggles with the current more than we do and has to turn around. Galapagos and blacktips tend join the march in smaller numbers and deeper waters, everything everywhere moving in such beautiful unison in Planet Earth’s endless cycle of life. You might find yourself filming for 5-10 consecutive minutes because each wave of the show simply outwonders the previous one and you can’t stand missing a beat of it.
Dives at Darwin play out similarly. You enter from either left or right side of the small island in current direction, searching for the hammerheads. The main difference being, between June-Nov, huge female whale sharks will likely show up, amongst the sharks, in the blue or at depths, often times with an entourage of blacktips or Galapagos sharks, making the schooling hammerheads instantly invisible. Because of their bulged bellies, for the longest time, it’s hypothesized that these are pregnant females who come to Galapagos to give birth. Until 2 years ago scientist conducted ultrasound tests on these sharks and shockingly, no embyros were found!
So sadly we’re back at square one with our very limited understanding of these biggest fish in the ocean.
Currents & Thermoclines
Many Galapagos Dive sites especially Wolf & Darwin, are infamous for their strong currents, which can be a breezy or scary rollercoaster ride. My 3 point of reminders are:
1. Stay relaxed. Fighting the current will stress you more and exhaust both you and your air in no time.
2. Keep DM in sight so you’re always drifting at the same speed while being on the same level. Playing catch up in the current is NO fun.
3. Gloves a must –– to watch the “show” you have to suspend in the current by holding onto rocks, which tend to be covered in sharp barnicles. So get a sturdy pair (some experienced divers just use garden gloves), one which you can operate the camera with on:)
I experienced my first visible thermocline in Galapagos, where warm and cold currents meet and water temperature drops drastically (up to 30F in 2 feet) in a small space in a vertical column. It usually passes fairly quickly but you do need to prepare for the worst –– so a 7mm wetsuit is strongly recommended throughout Galapagos. Do it within reason too –– I put on a 7mm over a 5mm on my first dive at Wolf – buoyancy nightmare aside I also ran out of air. Subsequent dives in a 7mm with a hooded vest worked out just fine. I guess the excitement beholding walls of hammerheads and passing whale sharks was enough heat already.
Thermoclines also affects visibility, and ironically that’s often when the action begins!
When to Go
There’s not a bad month. January through June is wet season but with warmer waters between 20-25C/68-77F. But for nearly guaranteed multiple whale shark encounters, July–November is the time, though the water temperature usually dips down to 19-23C/66-73F.
7mm full suit, plus flex layers you can add on or take off (essential for dry season)
3mm+ strong gloves!
3mm+ booties –– keeping your feet warm helps a lot
3mm+ hood, or hooded vest
Reef hooks –– lots of discussion as to whether you need them. Based on my experience, NO, and here are 3 reasons:
- The current in discussion mainly applies to Wolf and Darwin where you have rock formations that are FAR easier to hide behind, lean against, lay on, or hold onto than hooking into, and which could serve as a natural platform for you camera but better stability
- You do need to move quite a bit. Hooking and unhooking just gets annoying quickly and crawling with hands feel both easier and more secure in current
- Hooking in can be perfect for action in one primary direction – like Blue Corner in Palau. But there are simply too much going on here you need to look up and down, turn around, in left and right. Having a rock based shelter allows and a floaty hook doesn’t quite.
Compared to many parts of the world, tourism infrastructure in South America is still very rudimentary. But part of the beauty lies in how hard something is to find. But ever since Galapagos built its all renewable energy powered, state of the art airport, things got a lot easier and luckily the place has remained relatively unexploited. Most airlines have flights into Quito (capital) or Guayaquil (largest city in Ecuador), where you take a local flight to Baltra.
My journey took more 36 hours: Shanghai ––> Seattle ––> San Francisco (3 day pit stop) ––> Fort Lauderdale ––> Quito ––> Baltra. Good news is airports at Ecuador are quite well equipped. There overnight lounge at Quito cost $15 but came with abundant snacks and comfy-ish sofas to nap on.
Visited Oct 2017, liveaboard (Galapagos Aggressor III)