Some 900 km west of the Ecuador mainland in the open Pacific Ocean is the island chain that forever changed our understanding of where we came from. The Galapagos Islands are considered by many to be the ultimate destination for nature lovers due to the vast number of endemic species recorded there. Although many places in the world have better reefs and friendlier sea conditions, you will not find anywhere that has more life. The Galapagos Islands and their surrounding waters are a national park, biological marine reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The park has strict control on tourist access to help protect the natural habitats. All visitors and tourists must be accompanied by a national park certified tour guide.
The Galapagos Archipelago consists of roughly 7,900 km2 of land spread over 45,000km2 of ocean. The island group consists of 18 main islands, 3 small islands and 107 islets and rocks. The Galapagos are volcanic oceanic islands that are unconnected to the mainland. Deep sea upwelling’s help make the waters nutrient rich, which attracts a huge range of different species, often in huge numbers.
The archipelago is on the Nazca tectonic plate, which is being pushed under the South American plate at around 6.4 cm per year. It is also located above the Galapagos Hotspot, where the Earth’s crust is being melted from a mantle plume below, and creating volcanoes. Many old islands have disappeared under the waves as they moved away from the mantle plume, however new islands are constantly being formed due to volcanic activity.
Diving Conditions and Weather
The Galapagos has 2 seasons: Wet and Dry. January to June is the wet season, at this time heavy showers usually occur daily, but the water temperature is warmest at this time of year, fluctuating between 21 – 25 degrees Celsius, sometimes even reaching 28 degrees. The dry season is from July to December. During this period there is less rain, but it is cooler than the wet season, both above and below the water. Water temperatures during the dry season are usually between 19-23 degrees Celsius but have been known to drop as low as 16 degrees.
Because the water temperature vary from day to day, and even on different dive sites, it is advisable that your bring a variety of different exposure suits with you so you never have to miss a dive because of the cold! Due to its open ocean location, swells are common and currents can be strong. It is not an advisable dive location for beginner divers or those who are prone to seasickness!
Galapagos is well known for big things. Whale shark season is supposed to be between June and November, but most seasoned Galapagos divers agree that the best time to dive is between January and May. During this time the waters are warmer and the skies are often sunny. Although there are less Whale sharks around at this time, they are still there, plus you have the best chance to see manta rays and hammerhead sharks.
Although whale sharks, manta rays and hammerhead sharks get most of the spotlight by divers visiting the area, there is always a chance of seeing devil rays, cow-nose rays, sea lion colonies, white tip reef sharks, turtles, Galapagos sharks, silky sharks, eagle rays and loads of other cool big stuff! Basically, the Galapagos Islands has it all (almost).
Due to its remoteness, the Galapagos Islands are not a cheap destination to visit. The only way to get there is by plane from the mainland airports of Quito of Guayaquil. You cannot purchase a one way ticket without proof of a return ticket, however you can change the return date or switch your departure to another island relatively easily. There are flights available daily from the mainland to Santa Cruz and San Cristobal.
How to Dive the Galapagos
Although you can dive from some of the islands, because of the size of the archipelago, the best way to dive the park is by staying on a Liveaboard. Wolf Island and Darwin Island are the reason why most divers go to the Galapagos, and those are only accessible via Liveaboard.
If you need to get a certification, this can be done in both San Cristobal and Santa Cruz. There are some sites that are suitable for beginners, but most are for advanced divers only.
It is important to know that regulations within the park change regularly. In 2007 the national park withdrew diving permits from many cruise ships. Many of the divers had booked their trips and permits far in advance, but lost them. Anyone planning to visit the park are recommended to get the most up to date information and rules about diving within the park to avoid disappointment.
Book Liveaboard Diving Trips to the Galapagos here:
Non Diving Activities
Unlike most dive destinations, the Galapagos Islands offers just as much above the water as it does below, possibly more. Wildlife watching is of course the number one activity when you are not diving. The best way to do this is to take a tour between the islands. You need to book well in advance as the tours usually sell out quickly, especially during high season. There are tours available to suit all budgets, but before you book look to see what islands the tour visits. The park restricts how many people are allowed to visit different islands, so a larger tour group may not be allowed to visit everywhere.
Because of its open ocean location, the Galapagos offers surfers some good waves, which many locals use on a daily basis. Boards are available for rent by the day or month at the port towns. There are restrictions on where you are allowed to surf so check before you head out. There is also a surf travel company that will take surfers on a tour of the best waves in the park.
Hiking is also a popular activity, with the highest point of the park being 1707 metres. Hiking is usually included as a part of the tours and cruises. This is a great way to see the difference in vegetation and terrain of the different islands, as well as the islands formation. Almost all hiking is restricted in the park, and guides are required.
If you want to help preserve the park, and help reduce the damage the tours are doing, why not offer to volunteer while you are around. There are multiple projects dealing with environmental, social and community issues.
Where to Sleep
There are hotels, hostels and other accommodation available in the towns of Puerto Ayora, Puerto Villamil and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. This should be booked in advance as rooms often sell out, especially in high season. If you want to see the best wildlife the islands have to offer then you will need to take daily boat tours to the other islands. Rooms can be found from as little as 25 USD a night for those on a budget, and those who are not can find rooms for over 500 USD a night.
Crime is generally not a problem in the Galapagos, although petty crime is sometimes reported in the towns. Some people have reported items going missing on cruises as the boats do not have lockable cabins. These missing items have, on occasion been known to show up in the crews quarters!
The wildlife on the Galapagos is famed for being fearless and usually docile. Sea lions can pose a threat to humans however, and it is advised that you never get too close to a colony while diving or snorkelling, especially when there are young around. The bulls can get very large, and can potentially inflict a deadly bite. If approached by a bull, swim away from the nearest colony and watch its movements.
Things to Remember
This is a national park, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The government of Ecuador are very protective over the park, and impose strict rules on all visitors. It is up to you to understand these rules and follow them, as failure to do so will result in you being removed from the park, and facing a possible fine. You must have a guide if heading out of the towns, and you are only allowed on land during light hours.
When traveling between the mainland and the islands, do not take any plant or animal with you. The islands have all evolved differently from each other, and one of the greatest dangers is invasive species taking over the islands. The park staff are working hard to remove rats, cats and dogs and other invasive species.
Do not take part in fishing activities while visiting the Galapagos. Illegal fishing still takes place within the park, and it is often difficult to know which tours are staying within the rules.
‘The Galapagos Islands’ was written by Mike