Introduction: Scuba-Diving in the Galapagos Islands
Scuba-diving in Galapagos is often at the top of every diver’s wish list, and for good reason. The Galapagos Marine Reserve is among the largest in the world, a sanctuary for hundreds of different species, many of them highly endangered. While there is less endemism underwater than on land, there is a huge variety of species from both the tropical and temperate families, making these islands one of the best places in the world to scuba-dive, as well as an excellent year-round diving destination.
In this guide, we look at and compare three types of diving tours in the Galapagos; diving requirements and regulations; private and shared diving tours, safety considerations; equipment recommendations; diving conditions; and more.
Liveaboard diving tours are cruises dedicated to scuba-diving. On an 8-day / 7-night tour, you can expect up to 20 dives in total.
Liveaboard cruises: Things to consider
Except for a basic land tour of Santa Cruz Island, you may not disembark on any of the islands. If you want to see some of the wildlife beyond the Galapagos Marine Reserve, you should consider a Pre- or Post-Cruise Safari extension.
We recommend liveaboard cruises only for experienced divers. This is due to the strong ocean currents at many of the dive sites they visit. Some liveaboards only accept Advanced Open Water Divers, or divers with a minimum of 50 to 100 logged dives (depending on the itinerary).
2) Diving Day Trips (Island-based)
On island-based, or land-based tours, you can join one of the daily scuba-diving trips in and around the central islands. These depart from the main ports on the inhabited islands of the Galapagos, such as Santa Cruz where Galapagos Safari Camp is based. Depending on the travel time to the dive sites, these tours range from half-day to full-day excursions. This is the best option if you enjoy diving, but also want to explore some of the islands and their wildlife. They are also a good option for intermediate divers who do not have the required number of logged dives for a liveaboard cruise, and/or if you are visiting the Galapagos with a non-diver.
Diving Day Trips (Island-based): Things to consider
These day trips can either serve as a Safari extension (i.e. by adding more days) or as a substitute for any of the tours/activities offered in our signature Safaris.
3) Diving Day Trips (Cruise-based)
Some cruise ships in the Galapagos Islands offer ‘rendezvous’ scuba-diving excursions. A dive boat meets the cruise ship in a specific location and takes a group of divers out for a one or two-tank dive.
Diving Day Trips (Cruise-based): Things to consider
Due to a cruise’s fixed dates and itinerary, it is not possible to add extra dive days to a Galapagos cruise. Instead, divers may choose a dive excursion instead of whatever tour the cruise ship had scheduled for that day.
If your cruise doesn’t offer diving, you can consider a tailormade Pre- or Post-Cruise Safari extension to add a couple of dives to your vacation.
Galapagos Scuba-Diving Itineraries
As with all tours in the Galapagos National Park, whether on land, sea or underwater, scuba diving tour operators are allocated fixed itineraries and timetables by the Galapagos National Park. These determine in advance which days and times their boats can visit each of the dive sites. The boat itineraries and timetables are revised on an annual basis (from 1 March each year).
Popular itineraries, offered by both liveaboards and day tours, include many of the dive sites around the central islands.
Liveaboard tours can also include sites around Fernandina Island in the west, San Cristobal in the east, and/or some of the outermost, and otherwise inaccessible islands of the archipelago, such as Darwin and Wolf in the north. Home to thousands of sharks and rays, these remote locations are where filmmakers get much of their footage.
The Galapagos Marine Reserve is one of the largest and most biologically diverse Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the world, and is home to a dazzling array of species, both large and small.
However, as with any wildlife tour, there is no guarantee of what creatures, if any, will be at the dive sites at any given time. It is also worth remembering that wildlife documentary crews, such as David Attenborough’s team, often spend months at sea, logging hours of dives, before capturing the dramatic footage we get to see in their final edits. They also have access to areas of the National Park not available to regular visitors.
We suggest that you approach your dive experience with an open mind, rather than with a checklist of what you want to see. The species listed in our Dive Safaris are based on the sightings of official Dive Guides who regularly visit these sites, and are to be used as a guide only.
Diving Requirements and Regulations
Galapagos National Park Rules for Scuba-Diving
The Galapagos National Park stipulates that all visitors must be accompanied by an official, certified naturalist at all times. This also applies to the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Your Dive Guide will advise you on what is, and isn’t, permitted. Please follow their instructions carefully. While some may seem excessive compared to other National Parks you have visited, please keep in mind that these rules are the only way to sustain this extremely fragile archipelago for years to come.
Dive Guides have been certified by the Galapagos National Park and approved to lead diving tours in the Galapagos Marine Reserve. In addition to the Park’s own certification, Dive Guides are also certified PADI Divemasters (many are also certified PADI Instructors).
What is the diver-to-Dive Guide ratio in the Galapagos?
The National Park stipulates a maximum of 8 divers per Dive Guide. However, on our Dive Safaris the ratio is much lower.
Groups of 1-6 divers will have 1 Dive Guide (a certified GNP guide & certified PADI Divemaster) and 1 Divemaster (a certified PADI Divemaster)
Groups of 7-11 divers will have 2 Dive Guides, and depending on the level of divers, 1 Divemaster as well.
In addition to the above, guests of Galapagos Safari Camp are assigned a private Divemaster. This allows for a higher level of customer service and safety (see Private Divemasters and Special Assistance below).
How many logged dives do you need to dive in the Galapagos?
With the exception of Gordon Rocks, a dive site that requires a minimum of 25 logged dives in the last 18 months prior to the dive day, and some liveaboard cruises that require a minimum number of logged dives as part of their booking conditions, you do not need a minimum number of logged dives to scuba-dive in the Galapagos.
However, for your own safety, comfort and enjoyment we highly recommend gaining enough open water experience so that you feel comfortable in most conditions, especially with drift dives, which are very common in the Galapagos. Do bear in mind that ocean currents can be strong in the Galapagos, and more unpredictable than you may be used to, especially in the cooler season (July-December).
Can you scuba-dive in the Galapagos if you aren’t certified?
It is mandatory for our guests to hold an Open Water Scuba-Diving Certification from a reputable organization such as PADI, NAUI and CMAS.
A medical certificate is also required if declaring any medical condition, and/or for guests over 60 years old who have not been diving for the last 8 months.
How to get a PADI Certification in the Galapagos Islands
PADI Open Water Certification
Although it is possible to get your Open Water Certification in the Galapagos, we don’t generally recommend this. Given that the currents can be strong, we suggest gaining experience first in a more controlled environment, such as the Caribbean, where ocean currents are less of an issue. This way, you will spend less time worrying about the technicalities of diving, and more time enjoying the archipelago’s remarkable marine life.
PADI Advanced Open Water Certification
Once you feel confident as an Open Water scuba diver, you may want to get your PADI Advanced Open Water Certification. The Galapagos is an ideal destination for advanced divers, and even PADI ranks it among the world’s top 5 Destinations Where You Need The Advanced Open Water.
In addition to fine-tuning your buoyancy and navigation skills, it can also add meaning and purpose to your diving vacation. The course requires 5 specialized dives, 3 of which you can choose from options including (but not limited to) a Fish Identification Dive and a Night Dive.
In addition to sharing a Dive Guide, Galapagos Safari Camp guests have a private Divemaster. We deem this an important safety precaution as the Dive Guide’s attention to divers and their safety can sometimes be compromised when looking out for wildlife and/or if taking photos for other divers in the group.
A Dive Guide is both a certified Galapagos National Park (GNP) Dive Guide and a certified PADI Divemaster.
A Divemaster is a certified PADI Divemaster, but not necessarily a certified GNP Dive Guide. This means that, with the exception of an emergency or early ascent, the Divemaster is not permitted to separate from the Dive Guide and take our guests on a private tour. His/her role is to personally assist our guests and to provide an extra net of safety.
Can non-diving partners / family members join a scuba diving tour?
I’m afraid we do not accept non-divers joining the tour. However, we can organize an alternative excursion or activity for them, to accommodate their needs and interests.
Our Galapagos Scuba-Diving Partner
We work with a scuba diving company that has been operating in the Galapagos Islands for more than 20 years. What we believe makes them stand out from the crowd is their high level of service and, perhaps more crucially, their long-standing commitment to safety.
Safety and Health Considerations
Safety Considerations when Scuba-Diving in the Galapagos
Your Dive Guide is responsible for leading the group underwater. In the safety interests of all our divers, we must keep our dive groups together at all times during the dive. This is often difficult as each group is made up of divers with different skill levels, experience and expectations.
As safety is our top priority guests of Galapagos Safari Camp are assigned a private divemaster. In the unlikely event of an emergency, this individual can provide direct assistance. This also allows our guests to surface before the rest of the group, and finish their dive earlier if they wish.
Our safety regulations will otherwise not allow unaccompanied ascents or permit solo divers. The group descends and ascends together (to include the safety stop), regardless of how much air is left in individual tanks (i.e. if someone in the group uses up their air before you, you must still ascend with the group).
Communicating scuba-diving concerns or limitations
We understand that divers would rather not sacrifice their precious underwater time for a stranger’s personal conditions. If you have any limitations, concerns or special requirements that may affect the safety, length and success of the dive, please let us know as early as possible so that we can make arrangements to manage these.
Activities to avoid immediately after Scuba-Diving
Flying after scuba-diving
To avoid Decompression Sickness (DCS), PADI guidelines recommend waiting 12 hours after a single dive or 18 hours after multiple dives. There may be always be divers whose physiological makeups or special diving circumstances result in decompression sickness, even when following the recommendations. For these reasons, a surface interval of 24 hours is recommended to cover all types of dives. It is the diver’s responsibility to check and approve the surface intervals within their itineraries.
High-altitude after scuba-diving
It’s also worth noting that hiking, or any activities at high altitudes (3000+ meters) can also put you at the same risk for DCS as flying in a plane. Mountain climbing should also be avoided in the first 24 hours after a dive. It is, however, safe to go climbing before diving.
Deep Tissue Massage after scuba-diving
Experts caution against deep tissue massage as the increased blood flow may lead to bubble formation or a misdiagnosis of DCS. It’s recommended to avoid deep tissue massages for at least 12 hours after diving. A gentle massage is thought to be fine.
Diving with Special Groups:
Can Children Scuba-Dive in the Galapagos Islands?
Our scuba diving tours accept children of 10 years and above who hold an Open Water Scuba Diving Certification. For their enjoyment and peace of mind, we also recommend they have several logged open water dives under their belt. Children aged between 10 and 14 years are required to have a private guide (in addition to the group’s guide / dive instructor).
The minimum age to participate in night dives is 15 years.
The fiberglass dive boats are 10m long by 3m wide, and take a maximum of 10 passengers, 2 guides, 1 captain and 1 assistant to captain.
Each boat is equipped with a small bathroom and standard security equipment (Radio HF, Epirb, GPS, O2)
Divers must enter the water by rolling backwaters off the side of the boat.
For night dives, a slightly smaller boat is used (7m long by 2m wide), with a capacity of 6 passengers, 1 guide and 1 captain.
Scuba-Diving Kit and Equipment in the Galapagos Islands
We can provide all the dive gear, including long wetsuits (5mm and 7mm). In the cooler season we also have accessories such as shorties for extra warmth, booties, hoodies and gloves (the Galapagos National Park permits divers to hold onto rocks in strong currents). If you bring your own regulator please keep in mind that we use the YOKE system, and that you may require an adapter.
Best Time and Conditions for diving in the Galapagos Islands
Best time to dive in the Galapagos Islands
Scuba-diving in the Galapagos Islands is great all year round. However, there are two main seasons to be aware of:
Scuba-Diving in the the Warm and Wet Season
Jan-June – warmer sea temperatures (70–80°F / 20-26°C) and good visibility. Southeast trade winds become weaker and water coming from the Panama Basin makes for warmer, calmer seas. Sailing to any island is smoother during this season.
Scuba-Diving in the Cold and Dry Season
June – Nov – cooler sea temperatures (65–75°F / 18-23°C), reduced visibility and abundant marine life. The Humboldt Current typically brings choppy seas, and strong surges makes sailing times longer. If you suffer from sea sickness, we recommend bringing medication. These ocean currents bring nutrients to the surface, making marine life abundant, and larger animals easier to find.
Visibility in the Galapagos is, on average, 8–10m / 25ft to 35ft. It can increase to 18m / 60ft on sunny, calm days. This is often less than in other top diving destinations such as the Caribbean, but the payoff is that the wildlife is abundant in the Galapagos, and on most dives, there is still a lot to see, even within a 10m range.
Additional Resources and Community Contribution
Recommended Books for Scuba-Diving in the Galapagos Islands
Using the app, ‘Shark Count’, divers become “citizen scientists” and can make important contributions to our understanding of Galapagos marine ecosystems by recording the sharks, sea turtles, rays and ocean sunfish they encounter during their dives.
The study is supported by the University of San Francisco in Quito, Galapagos Conservancy and the National Park, and uses individual reports within the Shark Count App, contributed from divers at the top 20 dive sites around the archipelago. Charts and maps show the number of species observed during each dive and the best sites and times to see each species.
All data is shared with the Galapagos National Park Directorate and will benefit research and management decisions focused on protecting the Reserve’s incredible marine life.
The app can be used at both diving and snorkeling sites.