The Galapagos Islands, 500 miles off the coast of Ecuador, are famous throughout the world for their spectacular biodiversity.

They were made famous by the pioneering founder of the Theory of Evolution, Charles Darwin.

He visited the islands in the 1830s and was astounded by the unique species found here, quite distinct to anywhere else in the world. This led to his revolutionizing theory that species evolve and were not merely created.

The archipelago was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1959, further protecting the exclusive species found there. This protection has also created an environment in which many animals hold no fear of humans, leading to breathtaking organic encounters with the local wildlife.

sea lion on galapagos beach

With this protection, and tourist numbers limited by the Ecuadorian government, the wildlife below the waves of the Galapagos has been allowed to flourish.

The cold Humboldt Current brings in nutrients that creates this bounty of nature and the wealth of excellent diving opportunities found there.

The result:

Some of the best scuba diving in the world.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Galapagos is a once in a lifetime trip that will be the pinnacle of any scuba divers career.

Highlights of scuba diving in the Galapagos

  • marine iguana galapagosFrolic in the waves with the resident friendly sea lions
  • Gaze in awe at the iconic image of schooling hammerheads silhouetted against the blue water
  • Dive with rare animals found nowhere else on earth including blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas and the only penguins found in the northern hemisphere
  • See huge pelagic life such as oceanic manta rays, whale sharks, and even the odd whale!

Marine Life of the Galapagos

The Galapagos is well known for its wide selection of big pelagic life and some of the best shark diving in the world. 

Starting small and working up, the macro world of the Galapagos is excellent. Many dive sites have a host of nudibranch, shrimp, frogfish, octopus, seahorse and other critters hiding within the rocks that photographers will just love. Be sure to bring your reef hook though!

The nutrient-dense water of the Galapagos brings in huge volumes of marine life to these islands. There are massive numbers of fish at most dive sites, a result of the heavy fishing restrictions, including massive pelagic fish like yellowfin tuna, marlin and barracuda as well as classic reef dwellers. There are also 4 different species of turtles found. 

scalloped hammerhead sharkOne of the more unusual encounters in the Galapagos are the marine iguanas.

These are the only marine lizards in the world and can be seen munching on seaweed below the surface, as if they were grazing a field of grass!

Each island boasts a distinct species, showing the process of evolution in action. They can reach 1.5m long and watching them swim is hypnotic. 

Some of the most famous residents are the sea lions. They delight in playing with divers and snorkelers and might even offer a whiskery kiss. Be careful to avoid approaching pups as their mothers or the big males can sometimes be aggressive. 

The Galapagos is a paradise for shark lovers. There are over 20 species of shark found here, the most frequently sighted include white and blacktip reef, Galapagos, silky, hammerhead and whale sharks.

blue footed booby in the galapagosRays are another popular Galapagos native, with a variety of types on show. There are a number of stingrays, ranging from the small bottom-dwellers to large individuals spanning over 2m with ferocious-looking barbs.

The beautiful golden, marble and eagle rays glide effortlessly through the blue, often in schools. The biggest and the best ray, though, is obviously the manta.

The Galapagos is one of the only places in the world where you can dive with both reef and oceanic mantas, which can stretch up to 7m in wingspan. 

The birdlife in the Galapagos is incredible on land, but they can be seen whilst diving too.

This is the only location in the northern hemisphere where you can dive alongside penguins whilst blue-footed boobies often dive down to feast on small fish.

When to go diving in the Galapagos

The eternal question:

When is the best time for diving?!

The truth is, the best time is all year round in the Galapagos! Well, depending on what you want to see.

June – November

From June to November is the “cold” season, which is also known as whale shark season – can you figure out why…?

These giants of the sea are drawn to the plankton blooms in the cool upwellings, particularly around Wolf and Darwin Islands. This can reduce visibility slightly. The only drawback is the reduced sunshine hours and more unpredictable conditions, though it is often dry.

Water temperatures can drop to as low as 15oC, though around 22oC is more common. Sharks like hammerhead, silky and Galapagos can still be seen throughout the season.

December – May

From December to May, the Galapagos warms up and brings tropical rains with it, though they’re usually light and quick. Water temperatures creep up to around 27oC, though they can still be as low as 18oC in places. The ocean is at its calmest and there are more hours of sunshine.

This is the busiest time of year, especially around Christmas, New Year and Easter. This season is often referred to as “Manta Season” due to the huge numbers of these majestic animals in the water. This is the best time of year to see huge schools of hammerheads, as well as mating marine iguanas and blue-footed boobies. 

May is one of the best months to visit. The rains are starting to cease and the waters remain warm. Also, despite it being slightly out of whale shark season, there are good chances of spotting them around Wolf and Darwin Islands.

Scuba Diving Conditions In The Galapagos

Generally, the scuba diving conditions in the Galapagos are good. From December to May, the seas are calm and there is visibility of 15 – 30m. Temperatures can range between 18 and 27oC. The ocean is at its calmest and promises the best conditions for liveaboards. 

From June to November, the water gets cooler (15 – 24oC) and the visibility reduces to anywhere between 6 and 20m. The water is also rougher and we suggest seasickness pills if you’re jumping on a boat during these months!

Difficulty of Scuba Diving in the Galapagos

The Galapagos Islands have a reputation for having some challenging diving. Whilst this is certainly true of some locations, there are many places where beginners or intermediate divers can enjoy the bounty that the Galapagos offers. It’s even possible to do your PADI Open Water Course there, though we would strongly recommend getting it before you go so you can maximize your time under the water, not sitting in a classroom! If you haven’t scuba dived before and you’re not sure where to start, check out our handy beginners guide to scuba diving here. girl scuba diving

All of that said, the best diving in the Galapagos is best suited to advanced and experienced divers. The water can be cold enough to warrant thick wetsuits and that’s without factoring in the currents, surge, choppy surface water and downdrafts. 

Risk equals reward to some extent with these dive sites but be sure to stay safe and within your limits. You can maximize your bottom time by diving with nitrox, but be sure to watch your depth. For safety reasons, it is also mandatory in most areas to dive with a dive computer and an SMB. 

Not got a dive computer yet? Check out our guide to the best dive computers on the market here. 

Best Dive Sites in the Galapagos

1. Darwin’s Arch, Darwin Island

darwin's arch in the galapagosPerhaps the most famous dive site in the Galapagos is El Arco, also known as Darwin’s Arch or El Arenal. Only accessible by liveaboard, Darwin Island encapsulates the wild heart of the Galapagos. A huge, dramatic stone arch above the water belies the diversity beneath the waves. Manta rays, turtles, dolphins, eagle rays, whale, silky, Galapagos, hammerhead, blacktip and whitetip sharks as well as huge schooling groups of jacks, snapper and other fish – all at an average depth of 9m! Regularly ranked as one of the top 10 diving locations in the world, it’s easy to see why! The surge and surface conditions at this site can be challenging and liveaboard operators often require a minimum of 50 dives. 

2. Shark Point, Wolf Island

galapagos schooling hammerheadsWell, the key highlight of this dive site is probably fairly obvious! This advanced site is battered by strong currents and surges and can experience low visibility, so it is best suited to confident and experienced divers. It is also a good idea to bring gloves (for hanging onto the rocks) or a reef hook. The reward for the adventurous is some of the most impressive marine life encounters in the world.

This is the location of the infamous shot of schooling hammerheads. It is frequently visited by pods of curious dolphins as well as turtles, eagle rays, densely packed schools of fish, mobula rays, mantas, sea lions, Galapagos, silky and whale sharks. 

3. Gordon Rocks, Santa Cruz Island

gordon rocks galapagosThis submerged crater is a great site for spotting big marine animals, in particular, schooling hammerheads. These predators are attracted by the strong currents that batter the site. It is a relatively enclosed space, so is a great opportunity to see them up close.

The currents and surge can be strong and this site is sometimes referred to as a washing machine, so beware. There is lots of other wildlife to see at Gordon Rocks including eagle rays, sea lions, marble rays, mantas, turtles, schools of fish and a variety of other sharks.

4. Roca Redonda, Isabela Island

hammerheads in the galapagosThis submerged pinnacle is actually the tip of an underwater volcano. It hosts densely packed predators including barracuda, hammerhead, Galapagos and silky sharks. Another highlight is on the shallow, sandy-bottomed part of the sight, where volcanic gases release bubbles, or “fumaroles” which trickle through the sand for a unique experience. 

5. Camaño Islet, Santa Cruz Island

marine iguana galapagosThis dive site is ideally suited to beginner divers who want to see what Galapagos diving has to offer. There is excellent macro life including seahorses as well as sea lions and marine iguanas. Maximum depth is around 15m and the visibility is excellent.

 

6. Kicker Rock, San Cristobal Island

sea lion in the galapagosThis dive explores between two rocks and has great marine life for divers and snorkelers alike, including turtles, rays, Galapagos and hammerhead sharks, abundant fish and marine iguanas. There is also a nearby sea lion colony on Isla Lobos, so you might get a friendly visit!

 

7. Cousins Rock, Santiago Island

manta rayThis graduated site is suitable for intermediate divers. You can witness the elegance of rare black corals dotting the steps of the site, which are frequently populated by seahorses. Reef, Galapagos and hammerhead sharks, manta rays and schools of barracuda can be seen in the deeper water whilst turtles, reef sharks and eels hang out on the reef.

8. Bartholomew Point, Bartholomew Island

galapagos penguin

Whilst the dive site offers many of the same spectacular marine encounters as the others, the big draw of Bartholomew Point is the tiny penguins that dart past you, in search of food and fun. They are attracted by the breathtaking bait balls which can be seen regularly. These also attract hammerheads and manta rays.

9. Cabo Marshall, Isabela Island

This is a superb drift dive along a wall. Due to the nutrients in the current, you can see oceanic mantas, mobulas and even whale sharks enjoying the plethora of food out in the blue. 

Liveaboards in the galapagos

Of the 13 main Galapagos Islands, only 4 are inhabited: Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela and Floreana. As a result, these are the only locations where you will find dive resorts or dive centers, or anywhere to stay. Whilst these islands have plenty of excellent dive sites within restraints of a day trip, you will be limited in the sites you can access. 

If you’re booking a trip to go scuba diving in the Galapagos, we highly recommend jumping on a liveaboard. It is not only more convenient, but for divers it is often more economical too. In addition, many locations, such as the epic Wolf and Darwin Islands, are only accessible via liveaboards as the boat journey is too long for day trips. You can see on the map how remote they are – they don’t even fit on the map!galapagos simple map

Most liveaboard cruises are around 7 nights in length and itineraries visit various locations. If you wish to visit the challenging Wolf and Darwin Islands, make sure you have sufficient diving qualifications and numbers of dives in order to go. 

It is common for liveaboards to combine diving stops with tours of various uninhabited islands. These offer the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see species found nowhere else on earth, like the vampire finch, blue-footed boobies or Sally Lightfoot crabs. 

The majority of liveaboards in the Galapagos are small and rarely take more than 20 guests at a time, adding to the exclusive feel of the trip. The crew are often well educated in the biology and ecology of the region and will be happy to educate you on this very individual archipelago.

Our Pick: Nemo II

nemo ii liveaboardWith only seven luxury cabins and an intimate feel, Nemo II combines exclusivity with affordability. 

 

 

Conclusion

With some of the highest marine biodiversity in the world, it is undeniable that the Galapagos is one of the best places to dive in the world. 

There are so many once-in-a-lifetime dives that it certainly earns its place on your diving bucket list!

So, between schooling hammerheads, oceanic mantas, penguins, sea lions and whale sharks…What are you going to see first?

Rachel Thannhauser Administrator

Rachel is a divemaster and full-time writer from Southampton, England. She loves the ocean, CrossFit, cooking, and travelling as much as possible – pandemics allowing!

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