East Galapagos Islands
The center islands of the Galapagos are surrounded by water that is not so deep as in the north or west. Most places are more protected and the water generally is somewhat warmer (21 to 26°C around Santa Cruz and slightly cooler around Santiago). Dive sites are very varied and can be combined with land trips to the different islands. There are nice reefs near Floreana (Devil’s Crown, Onslow island) and Bartolomé island.
Most of the scuba diving in this area is done in day trips from Puerto Ayora, where there are several dive operators with small, but fast boats. Your other choice is to go on a liveaboard trip which either gets you around the central and southern islands or to the north and western part of the Galapagos.
Santiago (San Salvador / James)
Also known as James and San Salvador the central location and numerous landing sites make Santiago a part of almost every Galapagos itinerary. A favorite island for pirates and whalers, Santiago has a long human history as well as some outstanding opportunities for wildlife viewing. Highlights of a visit include the fur seal grotto, pink flamingo lagoon as well as the chance to see Galapagos Hawks and vermilion fly catchers.
Once rich in vegetation, feral goats were released on the island in the 1880’s. The goats thrived in the lush environment eating everything in sight and their numbers grew to over 100,000.
Their presence has severely impacted the island’s flora and fauna. The national park service working toward eradication, have improved the situation. Still, it is not unusual for visitors to see goats or signs of their presence.
During the 1920’s and again in the 1960’s human impact again took its toll on Santiago. Near Puerto Egas salt mining operations were attempted. Great effort was put into extracting salt from the crater though little profit was made and the venture was abandoned. Equipment and building were left behind some still remaining on the island today.
Visitor sites are located on both the east and west sides of the island, making multiple visits likely on longer trips. Many cruises may stop here en route to Tower or include sites in conjunction with visiting Bartolome or Sombrero Chino.
A visit to Puerto Egas begins with a wet landing on the dark sand beaches of James Bay. The visit begins with a walk along the rocky coast giving visitors the opportunity to view some of the Galapagos Island’s best tide pools. Sponges, snails, hermit crabs, barnacles and fish including the endemic four-eyed blenny can be seen. The walk also presents visitors with a variety of shore birds, marine iguanas, sally light foot crabs and sea lions.
James Bay (Puerto Egas) has a large fur seal colony. Fur seals and sea lions are seen underwater on most dive sites. Here they are extremely playful, come close to the diver, play with you, literally swim hoops around you, going straight for your head and turning aside at the last possible moment. Then they hover close by and seem to imitate you by letting air out of their mouth, push you a little here and there and check out your fins. While the females come close, the males patrol more on the edge of the group and try to keep their females together. Fur seals and sea lions can also be seen while snorkeling. This is a interesting dive site because you can find some animals here that you usually only find in Isabela such as sea pens, horn sharks and sand anemones because the water is quite cold here. Also good for scorpionfishes, seahorses, iguanas, sea robins and moreys
There are two interesting excursions normally visited from Puerto Egas. The first is a short walk from the landing site brings visitors to the site of one of the Galapagos’ first entrepreneur endeavors. For decades salt was extracted from a local salt crater. The industry was abandoned in the 1950’s leaving behind a variety of rusted old machines and parts of buildings. The trail follows the path once used by wagon trains to the crater cone.
The steep trail is easy, but can often seem one of the hottest hikes in the islands. Feral goats prune the arid vegetation, which lines the trail. The goats feed on any leaf within reach leaving little left for the endemic island creatures. Bird lovers will be delighted with the opportunity to catch a glimpse of one of Darwins finch, the endemic Galapagos hawk, or the colourful vermillion flycatcher.
Finally reaching the crater rim presents an incredible vista. Looking into the crater you are able to see this extinct volcano whose floor has sunken below sea level. Saltwater seeps into the crater creating a small salt lake. The sun evaporates the water, leaving the salt that many have tried to mine without success.
Looking away from the crater are the older orange lava fields supporting vegetation including the palo santo trees and the younger desolate black lava fields.
The second excursion begins just a short distance beyond the tide pools is the fur seal grotto. Fur seals and sea lions can be seen swimming in the rocky lava ringed pools. This may be the only opportunity visitors have to see and swim with fur seals.
Fur seals were once hunted to near extinction for their coats. The Galapagos Fur Seal is the smallest of the fur seals found in the southern hemisphere, now compare in numbers with the sea lions. During the day they hide from the hot equatorial sun in shelves or caves of the rocky lava cliffs. At night they feed on squid and fish avoiding the sharks, which are their natural predator.
The crystal clear water, volcanic bridges, fur seals and sea lions make this a magnificent place for swimming and snorkelling.
Less than an hour north of Puerto Egas, Buccaneers Cove served as a safe haven for pirates, sailors and whalers during the 18th and 19th century. Anchoring in the protected bay they were able to make much-needed repairs to their ships while other men went ashore to stock up on salt, tortoises, fresh water and firewood. Several years ago ceramic jars were found at the bottom of the bay, the disregarded cargo of some mariner from years gone by. Inside the jars were supplies of wine and marmalade.
Albany Rock is a small crescent-shaped island near Buccaneers Cove. You dive at a protected cove with little current. There is a sloping rock wall covered with sea fans and yellow black coral and large boulders, rocks, and underwater pinnacles with many crevices. Marine turtles, barracudas, golden and spotted eagle rays and Galapagos shark have been seen here and on the rocks live groupers like the common flag cabrillas (Epinephelus labriformes) and on the sandy plateau red lipped batfishes have been found
Few boats stop at Buccaneers Cove today. Though many cruises by at a slow speed giving visitors the opportunity to view the steep cliffs made of tuff formations and the dark reddish-purple sand beach. This dramatic landscape is made all the more impressive by the hundreds of seabirds perched atop the cliffs. Two of the more recognizable rock formations are known as the “monk” and “elephant rock”. A large population of feral goats now frequents Buccaneers Cove and this portion of Santiago. The National Park Service has fenced off part of the area to protect the native vegetation from the destructive eating habits of this introduced species.
A wet landing on the large coffee-coloured sand beach is just north of the prized fresh water supply that once attracted pirates and whalers.
Visitors who now come to Espumilla Beach come in search of birds rather than water. A short walk inland takes visitors through a mangrove forest normally inhabited by the common stilt. Sea turtles also visit these mangroves to nest. Beyond the mangroves is a brackish lagoon where flocks of pink flamingos and white-cheeked pintails can be seen.
The trail makes a loop heading over a knob into a sparsely forested area then back to the beach. Along the way, those with a watchful eye may spot a variety of Darwin finches or a vermilion flycatcher. Once back at the beach visitors may have the chance to swim or snorkel time permitting.
In the early 1900’s the volcano on Santiago erupted, lava flowed eastward towards Bartolome. Edges of the lava field advance in tongues, hot magma raced ahead, flowing around and eventually engulfing any obstacles in its way. The extreme heat created by the flow would cause obstacles like trees to evaporate, leaving behind only an imprint of the life which once existed.
The Sullivan Bay lava field is a variety of interesting patterns. The shapes and textures of trees, which once existed there and hornitos caused when pockets of gas or water trapped under the lava exploded. The Sullivan Bay lava is known a pahoehoe (Hawaiian for rope). This thin-skinned lava’s molten material cools down after an eruption causing the surface materials to buckle creating a rope-like appearance. Panoehoe lava is rare to the rest of the world but is common to the volcanoes of Hawaii and the Galapagos Islands.
In the nearly 100 years since the Sullivan Bay flow, only a few plants have managed to take root in this harsh environment. The low-lying mollugo is commonly the first plant to emerge from a bare lava field. Together with the lava cactus (brachycereus) found here these plants are evidence of life returning to Sullivan Bay.
The walk takes approximately an hour to an hour and a half. Returning to the shoreline black and white oystercatchers can be seen fishing for crabs and mollusks in the tide pools.
Cousin’s Rock is a well-known dive site and is situated off the east coast of Santiago (north of Bartolome). This is one of my favourite dive sites, mostly because of the combination of nicely covered rocks and the possibility to see large animals as well. The rock has a triangular shape and rises about 10m out of the water. Underwater it is steep on the northern and western side and sloping on the eastern side. In the south lies a large rock separated by a narrow channel from the island.
We started on the steep wall and basically just jumped right into an enormous school of black striped salema (Xenocys jessiae). It was so enormous, that when we swam into the school we were completely surrounded by fish, it actually became dark and even for our bubbles, the fish wouldn’t budge much. I stayed still and stopped breathing and the fish closed in and nearly touched me.
You dive on a series of ledges made up of many layers of volcanic rock and overhangs alternating with steep slopes and walls of black coral. The wall and slope are nicely covered with black corals, small hard corals, sea fans, hydroid bushes and red sponges. Because of the many ledges and overhangs, small animals can hide well – you will find different species of hawkfish (Oxycirrhites typus, Cirrhitichthys oxyphalus, Cirrhitus rivulatus), nudibranchs, seahorses and even frogfishes. Out in the blue, you can see mobula rays, mantas and sharks (white tipped reef sharks, hammerhead sharks). Cousin’s Rock is also known for the large groups of spotted eagle rays seen here and there are a lot of sea lions which like to chase the salemas.
Around the southern part, there is also a nice area with a large rock separated from the mainland by a small channel. The rock has a huge longish overhang where black coral bushes grow. There can be current here, so it is always not possible to swim around it. Just go back and cross over through the small channel. Google Earth pictures: Cousin’s Rock
Rabida Island (Jervis)
Rabida is a small island to the southwest of Santiago with interesting reddish lava. There is a large saltwater lagoon with flamingos and a colony of pelicans. Isla Rabida is actually the best place to see breeding pelicans. You dive on the western side of the island (West Cove) and the north (North Point), where it drops down to over 30m. There is a large colony of sea lions and you can of course also encounter them underwater. Eagle rays, white-tip and Galapagos sharks, schools of salema and sea turtles are also seen here. The place is also good for observing marine iguanas feeding underwater
his small island located just off Sullivan Bay east of Santiago. Bartolome, a desolate island with few plants is the most visited and most photographed island in the Galapagos. The island consists of an extinct volcano and a variety of red, orange, green, and glistening black volcanic formations.
The best known of the island’s features is the tuff cone known as Pinnacle Rock. This large black partially eroded lava formation was created when magma expelled from the volcano reached the sea. When the seawaters cooled the hot lava it caused an explosion. The exploded particles eventually fasten together forming a rock composed of thin layers.
Bartolome’s Pinnacle Rock has become one of the best recognized and most photographed sights in the islands. A prominent sight it was used as a target for US airmen during WWII. Lying beside the Pinnacle Rock are twin half moon shaped beaches.
The northern beach is a popular snorkelling site where visitors have the opportunity to swim with fish, sea lions and Galapagos Penguins. Much larger animals can be found near the southern beach including stingrays, spotted eagle rays, white-tipped sharks, and black-tipped sharks.
Little vegetation grows in this barren place. Mangroves border the beach and the small shrub tiguilia grows in the volcanic sands. The seeds and tiny white flowers of the chamaesycae provide food for the island’s finch. These plants are common to arid regions and are able to survive in these harsh volcanic conditions.
Seasonally Bartolome is the mating and nesting site for the green sea turtles. Very little was once known of these enchanting creatures of the sea. They lived secretive lives only surfacing to breathe. In recent years, sea turtles have been the subjects of a variety of international studies.
The Pacific green sea turtle frequents the Galapagos Islands mating in the waters and laying eggs in the sands of the beaches. Green sea turtles do not mate for life or form bonds with their mates. Both the males and females of the species have many partners each season. Peak mating occurs between November and January.
Females come ashore at night during high tide to lay more than 80 eggs at a time. The female may lay eggs 8 times per season. The female comes ashore and digs a pit with her flippers near the high water mark. After laying the eggs she covers them with sand before returning to the sea. The process takes 3 to 4 hours.
The temperature of the incubation determines the sex of the young turtles. Eggs incubated at 82ºF will be males and those incubated at 90ºF will become females. The eggs hatch in approximately 2 months. Very few of the hatchlings survive their first year of life. Eggs are vulnerable to pigs and goats, as well as the natural predator the trox suberosus beetle. Seabirds prey on the young turtles making their way from their nests to the sea. Once in the water orcas, sharks and crabs feed on the turtles. With the high mortality rate and disappearing nesting grounds around the world green sea turtles are now an endangered species and the Galapagos breeding grounds is an important area for the preservation of these creatures.
Begins with a rock and concrete pathway. The walk continues through volcanic sand, which can be slow to cross. Once through the sand, the steep ascent continues up a wooden stairway. From landing to top the walk takes approximately 30 to 40 minutes.
The volcanic landscape on the journey up seems barren except for the lava lizards scurrying about. Further up volcanic spatter cones with deep red, gleaming blacks and intense greens can be seen on both sides of the trail. The spatter cones and lava tubes give the feeling that you are hiking on the moon rather than an island in the Pacific.
Arriving at the top you are treated to one of the great panoramic views of the Galapagos. To the distance, the islands of Santiago, Santa Cruz, Baltra, North Seymour, Rabida as well as a number of rocks and small inlets can be seen. The islands vary in colour from a bright orange to blacks and greens. The turquoise waters and white shores add to the incredible scene. The eroded pinnacle rock stands at the end of the island posing for pictures.
It’s easy to see why this is one of the most popular photographic spots in all the islands.
Down below you will find the jutting Pinnacle Rock. You can dive or snorkel around this rock but also at the East Point. Already close to the beach, you will find sea anemones, sea urchins and I even saw an octopus while snorkelling in the northern bay. While diving you will find morays and schools of the Panamic sergeant major (Abudefduf troschelii – Fishbase) and the Bullseye puffer (Sphoeroides annulatus – Fishbase) on the walls, slopes, overhangs and around the caverns and crevices
During World War II, Baltra was established as a US Air Force Base. Crews stationed at Baltra patrolled the Pacific for enemy submarines and protected the mouth of the Panama Canal. After the war, the facilities were given to the government of Ecuador. Today the island continues as an official military base.
Until 1986, Baltra was the only airport serving the Galapagos. Now one of two airports, those passengers arriving on Tame will land here. Upon arrival passengers must show their passport, INGALA Visitor Control Card and pay their Galapagos Park Fees (or the receipt of paid park fees) at the kiosk. Their hand luggage will then be inspected to ensure no foreign plants or animals are being imported.
Once these formalities are completed arriving visitors on cruises or pre-arranged tours are the meeting by their naturalist-guide or other crewmember holding a sign with the name of the boat. A short bus ride from the airport is the harbour where the boats wait for passengers to begin their tours. Baltra does not have any visitor sites.
Diving Around Baltra (South Seymour)
On Baltra is the main airport of the Galapagos, where flights from Ecuador mainland land. There are two islands north of Baltra, the small island Mosquera and the larger North Seymour with narrow channels separating them. This area offers superb diving (if the visibility is fine). Google Earth pictures: Baltra, Mosquera, Seymour
North Seymore: We did several dives on the northeastern part of Seymore, some starting just at the corner, some a bit more south. You dive on a rocky slope and end up in the shallower area close to the island. Jacks, manta rays, eagle rays, marble rays, stingrays and even hammerhead sharks and marlins have been seen here. There are also lots of reef fishes like Yellowtail grunts and blue-striped snappers (rayado) and salemas in schools. Since there are a lot of fish here, you can often observe birds like boobies diving into the water from above and swimming down to catch them and of course, there are also sea lions here.
Seymour Channel (to the south) can be an excellent dive site. The area is not very deep (about 20m) but sometimes there is quite a lot of current. You start from the eastern corner and following the major currents, you dive relatively fast over the rock plateau. Galapagos sharks cruise around and there are fish everywhere. There is a large sandy area at 15m with a colony of endemicgarden eels and white tipped reef sharks sleeping. You finish the dive either over this sandy area or you cruise along the slope of Seymore and end up north of the beach.
Mosquera is a large sandbank which lies north to south on a shallow area between Baltra and Seymore. There are two dive sites, West Beach and East Mosquera. Check dives are done here frequently because it lies close to Baltra.
East Mosquera: You start in the southeast corner and then go to the north. The eastern side forms a vertical wall with large boulders, the top is around 15 to 22 meters. You start your dive on a slope with boulders which at some places gives way to a mini wall and then reach a drop off where you usually find schools of grunts and snappers. The current comes from the east most of the time and can be quite strong in the channels north and south of Mosquera.
West Beach: There is a large colony of sea lions on the western sandbar.
Daphne island (Mayor and Minor)
Daphne Mayor: Here you dive in the south on a flat slope with large rocks between. It is worth to go close to the island on the last part of the dive, because there are areas with corals and with sea urchins, sea stars and everything is covered with cardinal fishes. We saw manta rays, green turtles, Almaco Jacks, sea lions, yellowtail grunts, large flag cabrilla and lots of blue-striped snappers. Sometimes sharks and eagle rays are also seen here. Google Earth pictures: Daphne
Daphne Minor: You can dive around the smaller of the two islands in one dive, especially if the currents help you part of the way. This is mostly wall diving, though there is a shallower plateau where you can make your safety stop. The walls are nicely covered with black corals and Gorgonians. A lot of small fish hiding there, marine turtles and sea lions join you and Gringos (Creole fish) school close to the rocks.
Piedra Ahogada (Drowned Rock): I heard, that this is a place, that pieces of machinery and small lead bombshells are lying around, probably from the U.S. Air Force which had a base on the Galapagos during World War II. It is said that this rock was much larger before it was used for target practice by the U.S. Air Force. Close to Daphne there is a dive site Tiburon Arecho (Horny Shark) which is a seamount that peaks at about 16m.
Santa Cruz (Indefatigable)
Located near the center of the archipelago, Santa Cruz is the center of tourism in the Galapagos. Its close proximity to Baltra airport makes the island readily accessible. Puerto Ayora the largest settlement in the Galapagos is the homeport to many yachts, as well as home to the Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Research Station making it included as part of most cruise itineraries.
Santa Cruz’s human development began in the 20th century, between WWI and WWII settlers from the United States and Europe moved to the area. Santa Cruz made a perfect destination. A large island with a variety of geology, wildlife and vegetation, all of the Galapagos life zones are present on Santa Cruz. The villages of Bellavista and Santa Rosa were established in the highland’s humid zone. This region made prime farmland for the new immigrants who planted avocados, coffee, sugarcane, bananas, oranges, lemons, and farmed cattle.
Though the presence of humans and introduced animals has affected Santa Cruz, day trips from Puerto Ayora offer visitors many interesting sites.
Wild Galapagos Tortoises roam free crashing through the mist covered guayabillo, pega pega, and grasses of the humid zone. Flycatchers, Darwins finches and owl fill the scalesia forests near Los Gremlos. Almost every bird found in the archipelago has been seen within the many life zones on Santa Cruz.
The coastal region offers spectacular scenery. On the north shore of the island, accessible only by sea is an extensive mangrove lagoon called Caleta Tortuga Negra (Black Turtle Cove). Here among the mangroves turtle enjoy swimming in the calm waters, peaking their heads above the surface while fish, rays and small sharks circle below. A land iguana colony makes the northern Conway Bay their home. Sea lions cover Eden Island and almost every beach on Santa Cruz has their share of marine iguanas. Puerto Ayora along the southern shore is lined with cactus, marine iguanas, pelicans and boobies co-existing with tourist boats, restaurants, small hotels and houses.
Gordon’s Rocks (Roca Gordon) is said to be one of the best dive sites around Santa Cruz. The rocks lie a short distance north of the Plazas islands off the east coast of Santa Cruz. You dive in remnants of an old crater about 100m across. There are two large crescent-shaped rocks on the north and south (the rim), and a smaller rock with a channel and 3 underwater pinnacles in the west. In the middle of the area lies another pinnacle jutting up to about 17m. You can dive on all sides of the crater, both inside (sandy area) and out (vertical walls, very deep). Currents can be very strong here, the local name for the dive site is La Lavadora (washing machine). Since there are often heavy currents, eddies and down currents, swells and surge (especially inside the caldera) and the water is deep, this dive site is not for beginners.
We did several dives here and depending on the current we started the dive either along the wall or with a visit to the pinnacle in the middle. This pinnacle is beautifully covered with black corals. At the top are large clouds of endemic blacktip cardinalfishes (Apogon atradorsatus) covering everything. After you take a good look around you should start towards the three pinnacles in the northwest which connect the rocks underwater. They jet up to nearly the surface (6-2m) with deeper channels (15m) between. There is always some current and swell here, but it is easy to shelter on the lee side. Channels, crannies and cracks run down the rock, good places to see stingrays and sleeping reef sharks. On our dives we literally swam in fish soup, sometimes you felt like you had to push the fish away! You can also dive on the outer side of the rock, here it drops nearly vertically down to several hundred meters. There is a good chance for schools of hammerheads, whitetips and Galapagos sharks, amberjacks and pompano, eagle rays and golden cow rays, marlins and green turtles. This is also a good place to observe fur seals underwater.
Check out all the dive operators first, before you choose one. Some have relatively slow boats, some have better equipment than others. All dive sites are within easy reach of Puerto Ayora, the dive sites in the sheltered bay are also good for beginners and since they lie close to Puerto Ayora, they are very convenient for the dive operators. These dive sites are interesting, but there are better dive sites further north (for example Gordon Rock). The visibility there is also better than in the Bay itself. Outside of the bay, there can be strong currents, but there is a better chance to see sharks and other large pelagic fishes. Google Earth pictures: Puerto Ayora
Coamaño Island (Caamaño)
Is a small island just outside the bay. An easy dive. Sea lions join you as soon as you enter the water. There are also marine iguanas and tropical fishes.
Punta Estrada (Sea Turtle Canyon) is a point to the west of Academy Bay. Waves and currents are quite moderate here. You can see stingrays, marine iguanas feeding, sea lions, green sea turtles, golden rays, whitetip reef sharks. If you go to the east side of the point where a channel leads towards the mangroves you might also see pelicans which dive into the shallow waters there.
El Bajo Solmar, a nice dive site which lies in the south of the Academy bay. A bajo (Spanish for low) is the name for a submerged shoal. Around these places usually a lot of fish gather. You might find whitetip sharks, morays, eagle rays, stingrays and turtles.
Punta Nuñez Cliffs lie to the east of Academy Bay. I read it is wall diving and there is even a cave.
Nameless Rock (Isla Sin Nombre)
Nameless Rock lies to the west of Santa Cruz towards Pinzon, it is actually only a single large rock! It is a difficult dive on a steep wall with strong currents, down currents and surges. It is worth it, though, you might see Galápagos sharks, schools of pelagic fish, turtles and rays and there are sponges and small corals on the rocks. Only for experienced divers.
Guy Fawkes Island
The Guy Fawkes island is two crescent-shaped islands and two small rocks and lie to the northwest of the coast of Santa Cruz. Diving here is easy with not much current.
Isla Pinzon lies on the northwest side of Santa Cruz. The dive sites here are not so well known, because the island is visited infrequently. Currents can be a bit tricky and the dive sites are quite deep. There is an underwater plateau where you can find eagle rays, mantas, marine turtles, eels, seahorses and lobsters. In the shallow area near the tower rocks, you might also find horn sharks and red-lipped batfishes (Ogcocephalus darwini).
Santa Fé (Barrington)
There are three dive sites around Santa Fe island, the Lagoon, La Botella and the Caves (a cavern with a tunnel).
La Botella: The dive site lies on the west of Santa Fé close to a sandy bay where you can anchor. This is a very easy dive, no current at all, so the dive center we dived with traditionally goes there on Sunday mornings – so if the guests still have a hangover from Saturday night they can still manage this dive! You dive along a slope over boulders with black coral bushes. We saw a couple seals and rays and a large school of yellowtail surgeonfishes (Prionurus laticlavius). There are also small nudibranchs (Tambja mullineri) and hawkfishes and small colourful gobies are found between the rocks.