Ten Delicious Places to Dip into Diving

The Galapagos: South American Spectacle

When Charles Darwin explored the Galapagos aboard the Beagle some 150 years ago, he took away with him the genesis of his theory of natural selection. Today, this set of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean is regarded as a living laboratory of evolution—where the giant tortoises and finches and a great many topside creatures have been gradually changed by their unique environment.

That uniqueness extends underwater as well, with a Noah's Ark full of critters either transformed by their local environment, or simply made more dramatic by their presence here. Among them are colonies of sea lions, sea turtles, penguins, endemic tropical fish, and great schools of pelagics—deepwater denizens including hammerheads and the massive Galapagos shark.

Sited some 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, these islands are often mist-shrouded and—despite being on the Equator—cooled by the Humboldt current flowing up from Antarctica. Originally charted by the Spanish as Los Islas Encantadas (The Enchanted Isles), the Galapagos have become a classic destination for veteran divers. The oceanic pinnacles—including the northernmost isles of Darwin and Wolf—are the best for the charismatic megafauna. About 20 percent of the fish are endemic to these islands, as are strange animals like marine iguanas and flightless cormorants, which dive to 60 feet and more to catch fish.

Since 98 percent of the 13 major islands here are protected as national parks, the only practical way to experience them—topside or underwater—is from a boat. Liveaboard dive boats travel among the islands, equipped with compressors and staffed with Ecuadorian dive masters trained in local ecology and certified by the park service. But don't expect Love Boat-style accommodations or diversions. People come to these islands for the rare, in-your-face nature, not luxury. Make your reservations well in advance with a reputable company. And beware: There are many inexpensive, but marginally safe dive boats that run day trips out of the tourist towns on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. The gist: The longer a boat or tour wholesaler has been operating, the better.

Practically Speaking
You can fly to the mainland jumping off points of Quito and Guayaquil in Ecuador from major American ports like Miami, New York and Los Angeles, via American and Saeta, the Ecuadorian national airline. Saeta jets will also shuttle you out from the mainland to the two airports in the Galapagos, on San Cristobal and Baltra, adjacent to Santa Cruz. It's often necessary to spend a night coming and going on the mainland. (Some use this as opportunity to schedule extra days to visit the cloud forests and highlands of the surrounding Andes.) Cruises can be anywhere from seven to 18 days and can be pricey, starting at $2,500.This usually does not include airfare from the U.S.

There are snorkeling opportunities for non-divers, but for the more hardcore dives, you should have some active scuba experience under your belt—currents can be tricky and the waters cold, with thermoclines sometimes dropping the temperature another ten degrees at depth. Bring a wetsuit and a hood.

Bill Belleville, an Away.com contributing editor, is a Florida-based writer specializing in nature and marine issues. He contributes widely to national magazines and has scripted and co-produced two PBS documentaries. River of Lakes: A Journey on Florida's St. Johns River has recently been published by University of Georgia Press.

Published: 30 Nov 1999 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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