Diving and Snorkeling, Galápagos Islands
Devil’s Crown is said to be one of the best sites for snorkelling around the Galapagos Islands. Here the cone of a small submerged volcano has been eroded to look like a crown. The rocks of Devil’s Crown are situated just a few hundred metres of the coast from Punta Cormorant. So after visiting Punta Cormorant, we went back to M/S Cachalote to quickly change to swimwear and wetsuit and to grab out snorkelling equipment.
The current at Devil’s Crown is quite strong so we drifted with it while snorkelling. And as always when we snorkelled Roberto followed with the panga (dinghy).
Here are some of the species we saw: King Angelfish, Yellow Tailed Surgeonfish, Moorish Idol, Mexican Hogfish, Blue-chin Parrotfish, Cornet Fish, Guinea fowl Puffer, cardinal fish, triggerfish, wrasses, an Eagle Ray, a Sting Ray and a White Tipped Reef Shark. Two persons saw a Galapagos Shark, but I didn’t, I wish had though as I have never seen one before. We were looking for Hammerhead Sharks which can be seen here, but unfortunately we didn’t see any. To see a Hammerhead Shark is still high on my wish list!
When we were in the panga going back to Cachalote to have lunch, one of the tourists said that he had dropped one of his fins, so we went back to the place where he thought he had dropped it. Our guide Darwin threw the other fin into the water to see how it moved with the current. He dived in after it and it took quite long until he came up to the surface again with the fin. Then he went back down to look for the other fin and after a long time he came to the surface with the lost fin in his hand. Very impressive!
Life underwater in the Galapagos is as rich as life on land so is definitely not to be missed. You don't need to be a diver to enjoy the underwater; snorkelling in these waters is an experience that you will difficultly forget! If you want to dive you will have to book a cruise that caters for divers. For those who want to snorkel almost any cruise (at least on a small boat) will stop you for a snorkel 1 or 2 times a day. Where you will be snorkelling will depend on the itinerary of the boat, but I can assure you that every snorkel will be great.
You will definitely be encountering plenty of tropical fish and sea lions. Sea lion pups are especially playful and actually approach you to play with them. They may nibble at your fins or blow bubbles in your face - it is truly an exhilarating experience to make friends with them.
You will also have a good chance of encountering marine turtles, rays and sharks.
A couple of things that you surely won't be able to see anywhere else in the world (well one is impossible, the other not with so much simplicity) is swimming with marine iguanas and seeing penguins flying underwater! Note that the latter can be seen only in certain parts of the Galapagos.
Another interesting thing to see from an underwater perspective is diving blue footed boobies. You will have seen them from the shore or the boat but seeing what happens underwater puts this onto a whole new level. The speed at which they dive underwater is incredible and even the depths they reach. And the precision is to be envied.
Don't even contemplate not snorkelling or diving in the Galapagos - you would be making a big mistake!
Continuing along the rocky outcropping after snapping pictures of a few blue booted boobies and keeping your eyes on the water for the odd sea turtle (well, it isn't called Turtle Bay for nothing) you come to a beautiful half circle bay white sand beach. You can just lounge around or take a dip as the water is much warmer than the ocean and very calm especially if there isn't much wind. Bring your snorkel gear as along with sea turtles you might see sea lions and sting rays. While I did see a sting ray from the rocks from overhead I didn't see much of anything on my brief snorkel tour. It was just bad luck as we spoke with others who had. Sometimes you just have to be in the right place at the right time. Cost of snorkeling in Turtle Bay? Free if you have a snorkel and you'll find if you book all your trips through an a nice outfitter they might let you hang onto your gear for the whole time you are in town or at least let you use it to do some stuff on your own too.
Isabella is a huge island and you could do a week tour just circumnavigating it but you'd have to charter your own boat to do it as no tours are run to the more remote parts of the island. That said, there are a few relatively close and quite inexpensive tours you can do and you are pretty much guaranteed of seeing lots of wildlife if you do.
The one just about everyone does is the Bay Tour. This cheap tour basically takes you back out into the bay from which you first entered to reach Isabella in the first place. For $10 a person I didn't expect much more but along with the scenic views you get from the bay of the island which you are generally too excited (and crammed into the boat!) to take any photos the first time you make two very worthwhile stops. The first is Las Tintoreras which are lava islands just off the coast of Isabella. There is a National Park trail that leads around one which brings you to a sea lion colony and the prime attraction, a narrow waterway in which white tipped sharks breed. The latter is easily observed from a wooden deck above. The sharks are quite small but you do get a great view of them. It's pretty much guaranteed. Of course, these are lava rocks and there are heaps of marine iguanas scurrying all over. We also saw a hawk eying them up and his catching one would have made it the value trip of a lifetime!
On the way back to port the driver stops in a shallow part of the bay and lets you snorkel. Most of the equipment is included but they do charge an extra $5 for a wet suit which at the time of year we were there (October) is a very wise investment. Our driver was quite excited as we approached as he saw a school of manta rays circling. We had hoped to see one but I must say the sight of six or seven of these huge aquatic “bats” was a bit daunting. I nonetheless quickly suited up and entered the water as my wife more slowly followed. It was an amazing feeling when my mask first went under water and I could see just how big these creatures are. We swam around and they paid no attention to us as they circled around endlessly. This would have been more than enough but just then we saw a school of golden rays, nine in all making a similar circling path. We followed them for ten minutes, careful to maintain our distance even though they were relatively close to the water's surface themselves. My wife never saw it but I also saw a small white tipped shark just below her. She said when back at the boat she was happy to have missed it. Too much excitement for one day I guess. And a great $15 spent I'd say.
The Bay Tour is easy to set up. In fact, it's hard to avoid doing one. Everyone will try and sell one to you. Basically, a water taxi driver is assigned to you for the round trip. He takes you on the small walk and drops you off to snorkel. It's nice when things can work so simply.
The surreal landscape of Los Tunneles would have been enough in itself but then we saw what seemed a non-top tour of passing marine turtles. Some were huge and it seemed all different colors including one particularly beautiful red one. The water was so clear it made taking photos of them an easy task. It almost looks like I took them while snorkeling! This was all so amazing we almost forgot this was in fact a snorkel tour and soon our captain said it was time to get in the water. Unfortunately, he also explained we were not allowed in this particular area as it was a big breeding area but he said we'd see turtles if we looked hard enough. So, we got into out wet suits which was a good thing as the water was surprisingly cold. The visibility was amazing and we all soon went our own ways, there was a labyrinth of waterways and I soon forgot about the turtles and started to worry more about getting lost! It was amazing swimming through the arches and if one was quite adept you could go through a tunnel.
We got pretty far from the boat and actually into the area we first entered from the sea. The water was even colder so we quickly turned back. On our way back and with no warning we were right next to a huge marine turtle. We tried to swim with it and it toyed with us momentarily before a few flips of his legs put him not only out of reach but even sight. We saw a few smaller ones that let us get closer, not yet having the experience to fear public enemy #1, man. The next thing we knew our captain was calling us back in. We swam back as quickly as we could. We were surprised we could find our way and I had imagined having to climb up on the lava arches and yelling to be rescued. But we did manage to make it back with stories to tell. Not everyone was as lucky as we were but this was no time to gloat and everyone was ecstatic about the tour.
I'd have to say it was the best $35 I spent in all of Ecuador. These tours more or less go out when they have enough people to make it worth their while unless you want to charter the whole boat. One good thing about staying in a hostel is you meet other people interested in doing the same kind of stuff you want to do and that's pretty much how this all worked. We got a group together and it just happened. Some people had been waiting some time to do it but I guess we just lucked out when it fell during our three days there. We used Isabella Dive Center which had very good equipment. Since we booked both Los Tunneles and the Bay Tour with them we talked them into letting us keep our gear to snorkel on our own at Concha Perla too.
The beautiful cove to your right in the panorama is perhaps the most photographed non-animal sight in the whole archipelago. This half moon white beach in contrast to its turquoise waters would be scenic enough without the huge rocky tower next to it but Pinnacle Rock adds to its already prominent luster. The rock has an interesting story to to boot as it seems to be a result of US target bombing practice during WWII.
Once back from the walk to the island's peak, you are ferried over to this beach where you can relax, explore, or do some snorkeling. We opted for the later and headed out to look for turtles which are known to breed in the clear tranquil waters of the secluded bay. Though we didn't see any turtles that day we had an amazing experience just the same. The current was pretty strong but we managed to swim all the way around Pinnacle Rock to an adjoining little cove. Once on the other side we ran into another couple that had done the same. As soon as we stopped to say hello the woman started yelling when something swam towards her. Having already had a sea lion encounter we quickly deduced what it was. This was a good sized one though and we'd only really seen a small pup up close. We put our masks back on and got under water immediately. It was big but surely just an adolescent and a playful one at that. It swam powerfully at us and would veer away at the last minute. It was quite exhilarating to say the least. The other couple had started swimming to get back around Pinnacle right away and we couldn't believe they'd let an opportunity like this slip away. Eventually, the sea lion tired of us and we figured we better get back to the boat and started swimming back.
It was a lot easier going in this direction and the current just took us. On our way, we could relax and have a look at what was beneath us. On the way over we had been too busy fighting the current to notice but there it was: hundreds of different colored starfish. Orange, blue, yellow. It was like an inverted galaxy; as if we were floating on our backs, looking up at the sky.
Once back at the beach, it was already time to get in the dingy back to the boat. Everyone told their stories as travelers always do. Many had seen turtles, having stayed in the bay. We talked about our sea lion but what could we say about the starfish? Some things you just can't share and your own private galaxy is one of them.
One tour that is a bit harder to arrange, at least in the off season, is Los Tunneles. This is a trip to the lava tunnels that the island is most noted for. The island's particular volcanic origin led to their formation which would be spectacular in their own right but what makes them more so is they are breeding grounds for marine turtles. Though the tunnels are less than an hour from town via boat we were taken on a rough detour out to a small and eerily beautiful rock island well out to sea. Well, it seemed like that as the seas were swelling and the boat crashed repeatedly en route. It seemed like a price to pay for going to an amazing place so everyone was perplexed when we turned right around (after a quick photo) and headed back towards the island. As it turns out, Los Tunneles are actually part of the mainland. With the rough seas, our captain approached the narrow opening to the tunnels slowly but very confidently. It was amazing how he basically surfed the boat in on a wave. Once in the protected tunnels, the water was flat a glass and if possible clearer. We meandered around admiring the lava arches, some perched with blue footed boobies until we came to a place we could dock and take a walk on the amazing natural formations. Once on top, it was like being in the desert with huge cacti everywhere. The black lava rock combined with the aquamarine water was surreal.
At this dive site, we didn't really get deeper than about 3 meters since we really only went to swim with the sea lions. What a rush!
They twirl around you, swim right up and blow bubbles in your face, tug at your fins, play tag....
The more you flip around and do twirls to attract their attention, the more they play with you. If you take your 'octopus' regulator and purge it, they will think you are blowing bubbles at *them* and come and blow some back at you, into your mask!
We had some underwater videographers in our group, and I am now the star of one flim clip as a sea lion and I did a complicated pas-de-deux in the water. By the end of a few minutes, my heart was pounding and I was breathing hard. Those guys sure can swim (I mean the sea lions, of course)!
Here's a photo of a couple of these cuties inviting us to come and play.
A great small excursion that most visitors to the Galapagos miss is Las Grietas. This brackish tidewater pool is pristine and its aquamarine water is worth the walk just to gaze at from atop the cliff tops that surround it. But by all means, do make the short trek to the pool itself and have a dip. The water is cool and refreshing and generally warmer than the ocean in the months we were there. Bring a snorkel as the water has absolute perfect visibility and must be about 100 feet deep. I've never dived or snorkeled in such clear water in my life. We saw a school of parrot fish and you can swim to the far end in five or ten minutes. The first time we went it wasn't all that warm when we left town and we didn't bring gear or even a bathing suit. Once on the walk there the sun came out and we were sweating by the time we got there so I jumped in in my underwear. We made sure to come better prepared the second time.
For most, Bartolome is the highlight of their Galapagos Islands tour and for good reason. Though lacking in the profuse wildlife of some other islands in the archipelago, Bartolome does not lack in physical beauty. In fact, the classic panoramic view of the islands is taken from its highest peak looking back on an assortment of volcanoes and turquoise bays lined with snow white beaches. Its volcanic origin and relative youth lends the landscape to a quite barren and lunar one. Even smaller ships cannot dock so you have to enter from Sullivan Bay on a dingy and the short trip into the cove next to Pinnacle Rock comes about as close to Galapagos expectations as you can get. Once on shore, you do a half hour walk up to a 114 m peak for the requisite photos. The walk is a dry and hot one and the only plant life are very odd small cacti with a few lava lizards thrown in for good measure.
We booked our Bartolome trip through the Charles Darwin agency and it was $85 per person including wet suit and all snorkeling gear. It also included not only a good and filling lunch but also a small breakfast which was dolled out on the bus on our way to catch the boat along with a bottle of water and some juice. It was a long day and made longer by rough seas on our return journey. The trip there was beautiful and we saw numerous sea birds including the magnificent frigate birds that followed our ship. These relatives to the pelican are quite large with males over two meters. The male has a red throat which they blow up like a balloon during mating season to attract females.
On first encounter the island of Floreana was a bit disappointing. Since we were not on a cruise, we were not allowed to visit the old Post Office nor the flamingo nesting areas that are very restricted. Where we did land was certainly scenic but not so much as Las Plazas had been a few days prior. Still, the walk along a half moon bay towards a dormant volcano was pretty and I'd run into the cutest bird when I lagged behind the group and stopped to take a pee on my way.
The area where we were to snorkel was indeed lovely and the presence of some sea lions was certainly more than the excitement I'd have felt looking at a post office or a flamingo for that matter. Everyone into the pool as they say and we were off. We swam and saw our first marine turtles under water. On our way back we were soon approached by a very playful sea lion pup. It swam circles around us and we soon realized just how futile our “fake” fins were when confronted with mother nature's creations. After a fair amount of time with the little one when our guide yelled for us to get out of the water. It seemed a big male bull who had been bellowing loudly since our arrival was heading towards to the water and our guide didn't want us in the water with him. I must say I didn't particularly want to be in the water with him either!
We booked the Floreana day tour with Charles Darwin and it was $75 per person including wet suit and snorkel gear as well as a nice lunch. A bus comes to pick you up right at your hotel for the trip across the island where the day tour boats go out.
The ride back managed to not be too anticlimactic and with an outing like this that takes some doing. Sometimes not all of it good. Our good captain was determined to show us a penguin, the one truly different form of wildlife that Bartolome is noted for. Unfortunately, it was not the time of year when they congregate there and to be honest, with global warming their populations have plummeted in recent years. Still, we were hopeful. We had actually swam around the Pinnacle in hopes of snorkeling with one and little did we know how close we came to that reality. One of our non-snorkeling tour mates had persuaded the dingy driver to give them a ride around the Pinnacle and had spotted one while over there and hence our captain's determination to show us all the same. We did get lucky and saw one on the rocks not far from where we were in fact snorkeling with out sea lion. It was pretty far away and the Galapagos version of penguins are quite small but it was exciting nonetheless. With a penguin finally “under our belt,” it was time to head back to Santa Cruz.
There was a gorgeous sunset staring back at us as our boat make the long trip back. It was one spot we wished we could be camping overnight and it was with a sense of melancholy that we looked back not only physically but also emotionally on the whole Galapagos Islands trip. It was the last day of our adventure. We'd be going back to Quito and reality the next day. Reality has a way of sometimes coming sooner than planned. The rough seas made the ride back a cruel reminder of what one has to sometimes endure to gain access to one's dreams. Some of the less fortunate felt truly sea sick and I think everyone felt at least a tinge but I set with my eyes on the horizon as any good captain will tell his crew. And that horizon was filled with a big setting sun. Somewhere in the distance was Bartolome and all the memories that flood through me even now.
The snorkeling along the edge of the lava flow at Sullivan Bay was excellent and we stayed in the water for 1.5 hours. We visited several great snorkeling locations during the cruise with M/S Cachalote, but I think this was my favourite. The sky was clear this day and the visibility in the water was good as well.
As in other places there were many playful sea lions in the water and they followed us as we snorkelled along the coast. I saw a Marin Iguana at the bottom starting to swim up to the surface. When it came to the surface a sea lion got hold of his tail and played with him. It was funny for us to see, but I don’t think the Marine Iguana appreciated it that much. A penguin swam past my shouting through the water at a very high speed, and at one point a Blue-footed Booby dived into the water just in front of me. We also saw a lobster.
The water was full of colourful fishes and among other we saw mullets, wrasses, Lizardfish, King Angelfish, Yellow tailed Surgeonfish, Black Striped Salema, Blue Striped Snapper, Sergeant Mayor, Flag Cabrilla, Blue-chin Parrotfish, Mexican Hogfish, Cardinal fish, Triggerfish, Spotted Porcupine fish and blue porcupine fish which I think was Pacific Burrfish.
Another beautiful spot and a place to snorkel for free providing you have gear is Concha Perla. This majestic little semicircular bay is reached by a boardwalk path at the end of town close to the docks from which you'll emerge on a wooden deck. So, don't go expecting a beach as there isn't one but there is some very clear water which is teaming with marine life from schools of colorful fish, to marine turtles and if you're lucky sea lions. You can head down a few rocky tributaries if you're adventurous and even head right into the bay. I went out briefly as I hadn't seen any turtles or sea lions and I knew there was a sea lion out that way as I'd seen him from the path on the way into the snorkeling area. I didn't stay out long as the water was quite a bit colder and I didn't want to get hit by a boat since I didn't have a dive flag!
This is a dive that circles the base of a submerged cinder cone. It's not an especially deep dive--less than 25 m, and there is only a moderate current, so it makes for a relaxed dive of at least an hour (if you don't get cold first).
As soon as we dropped in, we saw a small school of hammerhead sharks, but they were gone in a flash. There are lots of reef fish at this site: rays, chubs, grunts, snappers, goatfish, wrasses and so on.
We also saw a couple of large marbled stingrays. Although it's hard to tell from the photo, they must be about 1.5 m in diameter.