I have become fascinated by those islands that share the Eastern Pacific with California’s Islands. None of them hold coral reefs like those across the same ocean, but just the same, not unlike California’s islands, the islands of the Eastern Pacific share wild mixing of cool, cold and warm currents and nutrient rich waters forming a bath bound to breed unique and plentiful marine life. Add in isolation, and you have a formula that will create fantastic diving adventures.
No more is this true than at the Galapagos Islands. Here you have not just a convergence of two or three currents but four, and sometimes even five powerful oceanic currents. Although directly straddling the equator, the archipelago is bathed in what is considered temperate waters. But that is only when you consider “average” temperature. Surface temperatures vary from 70 – 80°. At depth they will range from the low 60s to 70°. But more importantly, and strange, is you can be basking is 80° at 40 feet during a dive then drop to 70 feet and—WHAM!—the upwelling makes the temperature 65°! And the fish go crazy. Hammerheads (not just one or two but schools), white tip sharks, tuna, tropical fish, temperate fish (some of the same we see here in California), turtles and—perhaps the weirdest of all—penguins swimming along side iguanas. And, oh, did I mention the huge colony of sea lions?
Biologically, the Galapagos Islands is a confusing place with so much diversity and, in many cases, uniqueness. Perhaps the simplest way to understand it is to understand the physical force which caused the islands to come about.
At roughly 580 miles offshore, the Galapagos are a relatively young set of volcanic islands, only about 3 million years old with many much younger (a mere blink in age of the earth). Their distance from any other major land mass, and their youth makes them an ongoing evolutionary experiment of nature, sometimes rapid. While continental species have had to reach a relative degree of stability, the Galapagos continues to be changed by volcanic eruptions, shifts in currents (such as El Niño and La Niña), along with the separation, destruction and creation of new islands.
The bio-diversity of the Galapagos is like no other place. There are 13 primary islands, along with 5 smaller islands. Add in the incredible amount of islets and rock formations that are all part of the Ecuadorian National Park System and World Heritage Site. There are over 400 endemic species throughout the island chain. It is this incredible atmosphere that inspired Charles Darwin to write “Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection,” over 120 years ago.
Divers come to the Galapagos for a variety of reasons but perhaps no more compelling than the big animals—sharks, sea lions, turtles, whale sharks, dolphins and whales. While most are available year round, each has a season that is better.
Schooling hammerheads seem to top the list for many divers. They are always present, more in some locations than others, but for much of the year they are too deep. During April through November the hammerheads come in shallower, sometimes as little as 60 feet. They like to hang out at the thermocline. Shy and wary, they depart quickly if pursued. If you see one or two, sit and wait and odds are more will come. More often than not, you will have to dive deep to see the massive schools—100 to 140 feet.
The Galapagos is not for the novice diver. Though most of the diving is done at depths shallower than 80 feet, there is plenty of rough water and heavy current diving to keep you on your toes. Though I must admit with all the warning about advanced diving I was apprehensive at first. After several dives at different islands I soon realized that this is perfect for the California diver—this was a piece of cake. A little beach diving in Monterey or a day in five-foot seas at San Nic will prepare any California Diver for the “advanced diving” at the Galapagos.
After you’ve dived with the hammerheads, turtles, whale sharks, rays and incredible schooling fish, you must make a land excursion to see the giant tortoises, the sea lions and the iguanas. We experienced the incredible adventure of watching a sea lion give birth literally a few feet from us. We almost had to back up to get the whole picture in focus. The Galapagos adds the island excursions that many other destinations skip due to the unique experience found nowhere else in the world.
I cannot think of an experience that you cannot have in this archipelago, except maybe kelp. There were times that the diving was eerily similar to a dive in the Channel islands, until a hammerhead or green turtle would swim by.
A live-aboard dive operations are the only practical way to dive the widely spread island group. Peter Hughes’ Sky Dancer was our luxurious home for seven days. We ate, slept, dived and hiked. For more information on their excellent seven or ten-day expeditions, visit www.peterhughes.com.