The Galapagos Islands have long been known as destination for scientists, biologists, naturalists and wildlife enthusiasts. Charles Darwin referred to the islands as a living laboratory of evolution and over 40% of the species of flora and fauna are endemic or unique to the Archipelago.
They are volcanic in origin and geologically speaking, relatively young. The current islands are only about 5 million years old, although evidence of older now submerged islands would suggest a historical age of around 12 million years.
They straddle the Ecuador, some 1000km or 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, to whom they belong politically, in the northeast Pacific Ocean. Despite their tropical location they have two very marked seasons, a cool dry season, from June to November and a hot rainy season from December to May. This is due to the influence of major marine currents and the powerful trade winds, which affect the area. From the south and the west come the Humboldt and Cromwell currents, respectively, both originating in the Southern Ocean. These bring nutrient rich cold waters from Antarctica, which collide with hot tropical waters from the north, brought to the Galapagos principally by the Panama current. The meeting of these currents creates conditions that produce an explosion of life, starting with the primary production of phytoplankton that provides the foundation of life throughout the food chain to the very top, animals such as the Blue whale and apex predators such as sharks.
The islands were declared a National Park in 1959, a World Heritage Site in 1978, a Biosphere Reserve in and a Marine Reserve in 1998. This foresighted protection has meant that the land area and surrounding ocean has been safeguarded to an extremely high level, impeding exploitation of its natural resources. Despite attempts at long-lining and other illegal fisheries the waters around Galapagos are teeming with life.
The unusual combination of polar waters in tropical areas give rise to one of the highest bio diversities on the Planet. The marine reserve has representatives of the fish populations from all around the Pacific. Tropical species from the Indo Pacific swim alongside cold-water species from both north and south. The abundance of life and nutrients means that marine megafauna thrive here too. Enormous schools of baitfish are food for even bigger schools of tuna, jacks and mackerel. Sailfish and swordfish are common in offshore feeding frenzies surrounded by sharks and dolphins. Over 30 species of shark have been identified here, including Hammerheads, Black and White tip, Galapagos and Silky sharks, Tiger, Thresher, Blue and Mako are also found as well as the mightiest of all, the Whale Shark.
For most dive destinations, diving with whale sharks is either not allowed or discouraged. In the Galapagos, this is the most preferred approach for the best encounters. They are most common between the months of June to November with the greatest concentrations during the months of July to September. The population that visits the Galapagos is unique in as much as it is comprised almost entirely, over 99%, of adult females. The reason for this is not known but studies show that they are not feeding and in the absence of males, mating is unlikely. Most appear to have extremely distended abdomens, which leads scientists to believe they might be in an advanced state of pregnancy and birthing either within the Galapagos Marine Reserve, (GMR) or on seamounts nearby. The best dive site for observing whale sharks is at Darwin Arch, close by Darwin Island to the far north of the archipelago. This is also the foremost dive site in the Galapagos for schooling Hammerhead sharks and often big numbers of Galapagos, Black tip and Silky Sharks.
The different areas of Galapagos seem like completely different dive locations. The western side of Isabela and Fernandina islands boast a totally different group of species. The experience of diving with penguins in other than the freezing waters of Antarctica is unforgettable. As are the bizarre looking Marine Iguanas, that forage in the shallow waters for algae. These are the only true marine lizards in the world. Often sharing the same habitat are Flightless Cormorants, (another Galapagos endemic), Molas or Sunfish, Giant Manta Rays Galapagos Sea lions and Fur Seals.
If you are truly into wildlife experiences then you can also combine diving with a land trip, either before or after your diving. Unlike the African plains or the Amazon jungle, the wildlife in the Galapagos shows no fear of humans. If you sit quietly the animals often forget you are just a couple of metres away, carrying on with courtship, foraging, feeding and mating.
For photographers, both on land and underwater, for wide angle, telephoto and macro, this is perhaps the most exciting and rewarding destination that combines so many special opportunities in one single area.
Whether you are a diver, wildlife enthusiast, scientist, naturalist or all the above, Galapagos is perhaps the singularly most unique destination on this planet and undoubtedly will be that once in a lifetime voyage you cannot wait to repeat.