Reclining in the lounge of the Galápagos Master liveaboard on the first night of an excursion through one of the world’s most lauded dive destinations, I expected the briefing to be an impromptu infomercial about how the 19 islands are the best place to see almost any sought-after pelagic animal. What unfolded next was a bit unexpected.
“There are better places in the world to see whale sharks,” said the divemaster, Juan Carlos, clicking to a slide of an open-mouthed gargantuan on the flatscreen. “There are better places to see manta rays.”
“Better places to see hammerhead sharks,” he added a few slides later. “Better places for mola molas.”
At this point, I’m getting a bit nervous. Should I have bought a ticket to a niche destination to photograph only one of these subjects? But then he clicks to another slide—one with a collage of sea lions, penguins, schooling hammerheads, eagle rays, and dozens of other animals.
And it’s his next words that remind me why I’ve come: “But, the Galápagos has them all—and more.”
While underwater photography travel has branched into niche dive destinations known for only a single species, the Galápagos stands out from the pack by delivering dozens of prized subjects, frequently on just one dive. What’s more, the Galápagos has so many sights that can be found nowhere else: Endemic species of penguins and marine iguanas are just two of the species native to the Galápagos that fill the dreams of even the most traveled underwater photographers.
Schooling hammerhead sharks are a big draw for the Galápagos, but unique subjects like penguins, iguanas and flightless cormorants delight underwater photographers, too.
Galápagos Diving Made Easy (and Luxurious) on the Master Liveaboard
Looking at a map, the Galápagos appears to be the epicenter of water movement in the Pacific Ocean, with six major current systems arriving around the islands during different portions of the year. And as we learn in that first diving briefing, without the current there’s not nearly as much life.
The Galápagos penguin feeds on the upwelling brought by the Cromwell Current. Hammerhead sharks stay toasty in the warm water brought by the Panama Current. And endemic marine iguanas rafted their way from South America hitchhiking on the Peruvian Coastal Current. In the Galápagos, currents are a fact of life.
But the Galápagos isn’t just for the pros or BBC filmmakers anymore. The Galápagos Master liveaboard caters to all levels of divers, whether you’ve spent more time on a boat than at home or haven’t gotten wet in years. It’s a trend Juan Carlos is seeing increasingly—intermediate level and infrequent divers visiting the Galápagos.
The Galápagos Master features eight cabins, hosting a maximum of 16 divers per trip
The Galápagos Master helps make the most out of the trip for divers of all levels, from offering everything from full gear rental to a facsimile of a refresher course before the very first dive. And for less experienced photographers, Juan Carlos has some advice: Leave the camera on board for the first few dives. “Go enjoy the place first, and then you have a better idea of what to expect,” he says.
There’s also plenty to enjoy back on board the 106-foot vessel, which has a high crew-to-guest ratio of 3:4. Guests kick back and enjoy a selection of hundreds of movies to watch on the large screen TV in the salon. While at mealtime, highlights include freshly made ceviche, washed down with a margarita.
Talk about good cooking: The Master’s chefs prepare fresh food like this seafood and shrimp ceviche
Underwater Photography at Wolf and Darwin: Sharks and Rays
After a long voyage to the Galápagos, the last thing you’ll want to do is embark on a 16-hour crossing. But that’s what it takes to leave the main islands in the distance to reach the twin jewels of Galápagos diving: Wolf and Darwin.
The sun rising through the pillars of the famed Darwin’s Arch is a welcome sight after prolonged travel. Thousands of years in the making and hundreds of feet in height, the arch is a beacon for underwater photographers across the globe. The bird guano-crusted rocks slip into the ocean, sloping slowly away until a large drop-off.
Unlike most dive sites, you cannot predict your dive plan on Darwin’s Arch. Sure, you can read the water churning at the surface like tea leaves, but the currents are unpredictable in strength and direction—so it’s only after descending through the shallows that the divemaster indicates the direction you’ll be heading for the best action.
Before we can even get to the sharks of Darwin’s Arch, a curious sea lion stops by
On one dive, we duck down around the windward side of the arch, where the current drops. From his years of experience, Juan Carlos knows it’s here that sharks like to hang out and catch their breath from the four-knot current swooping past. Sure enough, it takes only minutes on most dives at Darwin before squads of a dozen hammerheads or more roll through the curtain of the less-than-ideal visibility.
The incredible upwelling of current brings other pelagic rarities to the edge of Darwin’s arch. Jacks schooling by the thousands, tuna, dolphins, eagle rays, mantas and more have been known to pass by this ocean oasis. During the cooler “dry season” from June through November, bus-sized whale sharks pass by in prolific numbers.
On other dives, when the action at the drop-off isn’t top notch, the dive guides prefer a slight detour, turning the corner and following a sandy channel that begins at 100 feet. Here, a handful of hammerheads patrol the bottom, each turning their mouth upwards for a cleaning by reef fish. At this moment, the sharks are more approachable and comfortable as I come in for a perfect profile shot.
Cleaning stations near Darwin’s Arch are ideal for getting close to single hammerheads
Darwin’s Arch might be considered the world’s best dive (and for good reason), but the Galápagos Master also treats its guests to the underwater sights of Wolf Island, a steep sliver of land fragment with giant volcanic craters, now drowned by the sea.
The dive site of “Landslide” is spotted easily from the surface as the sharp cliffs of Wolf Island are broken by a section of rock that seems to slip gently into the ocean. Underwater, the strong lateral and downward current along the sloping rocks makes you feel like you’re in a landslide of your own. The experienced Master guides waste no time in finding the perfect spot to grab a hold of a rock.
As if to show off in the strong current, eagle rays make slow passes right above the divers’ heads—our bubbles breaking over their bright white undersides. The eagle rays’ curiosity is present on almost every dive at Wolf. It’s a behavior that can continuously delight and distract.
Eagle rays are common around Wolf Island and seem to not care about getting close to divers
But with the tap, tap, tapping of a reef hook against his tank, Juan Carlos signals that something is passing in the blue. We unhook and fin out as the current drags us along. The sight comes into clear focus: we are on a collision course with more than 300 hammerheads. Not a bad way to end a dive.
The Endemic Marine Species of Fernandina and Isabela Islands
Compared to the warm water at Wolf and Darwin, the first plunge into the waters of the southern islands feels like an ice bath. A dense fog covers all but the tip of Fernandina, a small volcanic island, as we don thick hoods and gloves to back roll into the water, still dark from the night before.
Here, hundreds of hammerheads and eagle rays are not present—but are replaced by animals found nowhere else on Earth. The Galápagos batfish is a strange site indeed, waddling along the sea floor with his bright-red lips sticking out against the beige sand. With one wiggle, we watch as one batfish takes off in flight, zooming through the water column.
A red-lipped batfish flies through the chilly waters off of Fernandina Island
The Galápagos cormorant also flies underwater—and only underwater. With wings one-third the length needed to fly through the air, the flightless cormorants take a dive into the ocean to catch a meal. I watch as a flurry of air and feathers drops down onto us not far from the batfish. The cormorant uses its webbed feet to duck between rocks, searching for a nice octopus or squid, as I struggle to follow along with fins of my own.
Always pay attention in the Galápagos: Here a diving cormorant surprises me on a dive
Life is abundant at all times in the Galápagos—even during safety stops. With the Galápagos Master moored just off of Fernandina, the sun is finally at full strength, and sea lions have come out from the shore to frolic around the boat’s anchor chain. It’s the perfect opportunity for an inter-dive snorkel: I follow the trail of bubbles as a pair of female sea lions trade time between diving deep and coming to tug on my fins.
The sea lions continue on for the better part of a half hour, before retreating back to Fernandina, perhaps to warm up on the rocks. It is at this point that I see hundreds of black heads popping at the surface. The marine iguana is found only in the Galápagos, and is the only lizard with the ability to forage for food in the sea. It appears the sun has warmed the iguanas up enough to dive into the chilly waters for an algae snack.
In-between dives, sea lions come up to the Master Liveaboard, and I jump in to grab some snaps
The water in the shallows of Fernandina is far too rough to approach at the surface, so we grab scuba tanks. At just 10 feet deep, the swell is strong as waves break overhead. The iguanas slither adroitly at the surface before diving down to claw onto a rock. The lizards cling to the rock in the rough conditions, chowing down to munch on the algae. But they aren’t the only ones having a good time: Sea lions have joined in the fray, and some have taken to bothering the marine iguanas during their lunchtime, tugging them off of the rocks.
A marine iguana swims at the surface, catching its breath before diving back ducking back down to munch on some algae
The sea lions of the Galápagos are as playful as any. Amongst their favorite toys: starfish, iguanas, and the occasional red-lipped batfish. But it’s not all play. When it’s time to eat, the sea lions at Isabela Island abandon the sheer cliffs dotted with iguanas and gannets in search of a buffet.
They find it at Punta Vincente Roca, a dive site at the tip of a large bay at Isabela. Here, lucky divers also encounter the endemic Galápagos penguin, Galápagos horn shark, and mola molas. But on our dive, this is drowned out by millions upon millions of black-striped salemas, which undulate along the rocky wall.
Their form shape-shifts as friendly divers pass through and less-friendly sea lions dive in to eat. Their school is so thick that not even the powerful video lights of a dive buddy can penetrate. It’s the kind of zero visibility underwater photographers like on our dives.
Millions of black-stripped salemas swarm around a diver off of Isabela Island
Galápagos Photography Land Tours
Charles Darwin spent only a few short weeks at the Galápagos—and it was enough for the research of a lifetime. Needless to say, the rich ecology of the Galápagos extends from the water onto land. On days of transit when a final fourth dive isn’t possible, the Galápagos Master offers land tours.
A hike along the rocky coast of North Seymour Island provides the opportunity to photograph the iconic blue-footed booby, along with other aviary sights such as the islands’ largest colony of frigatebirds, swallow-tailed gulls and common noddies.
North Seymour is a great spot to photograph iconic and rare birds of the Galápagos, like this blue-footed booby, which was found resting on rocks by the shore
Lonesome George may have passed on, but the remaining 11 giant tortoise species still remain for fantastic photo opportunities. Make sure not to venture too close—it is against park rules to come within six feet, and the animals will let you know with a “hiss.” Including a human in the frame shows just how large these animals are.
The Galápagos giant tortoise is the planet’s largest living species of its kind
The All-in-One Destination
The duality of marine biodiversity and endemic uniqueness of the Galápagos may have been promised in that first dive briefing, but it wasn’t until one of the final dives that it really hit me.
Rocked back and forth in the swelling shadows off of Fernandina Island, I gripped a rock to take a portrait of a marine iguana feeding. But a couple of playful sea lions kept clogging up the background. And then, on top of that, a cormorant zipped right overhead, causing me to turn and miss the shot. Talk about #GalapagosProblems.
Schooling hammerheads are just the tip of what the Galápagos has to offer. You can capture more on one dive here than an entire week at some destinations
Planning Your Trip to the Galápagos
When to Go: The Galápagos is primarily divided into two separate seasons. The cool, dry season takes place from June through December. This brings increased sightings of whale sharks. January through May is considered the warm, wet season, when schooling hammerheads are more common.
What You'll See: Schooling hammerhead sharks, silky sharks, Galápagos sharks, whale sharks, eagle rays, manta rays, mola molas, golden rays, schooling fish, Galápagos penguins, marine iguanas, sea lions, and much, much more.
Who to Dive With: The Galápagos Master offers both 7-day and 10-day itineraries that cover a variety of diving environments, from Darwin and Wolf, to the southern islands of Fernandina and Isabela. The dive guides are experienced, and much of the crew is native to Ecuador, and even the Galápagos itself.
A trio of eagle rays cruises by in the waters of Darwin Island