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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 is dominated by Cerro Cowan (907m), a large volcano in the northwestern side of the island. There is much evidence of volcanic activity such as lava flows, boulders and black volcanic sand on the beaches. I was specially impressed with the large lava field in the Sullivan Bay and Bartolome, where a very liquid type of lava has covered large stretches and forms interesting whirls, waves and bubbles (hornitos - small ovens).
Albany Rock lies in the northwest of Santiago a short distance south of the well known Buccaneer's Cove (mainland Santiago with saltwater lagoons where flamingos live). Albany Rock is a small crescent shaped island. 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 bat fishes have been found. Piedra Blanca is also a dive site, though I don't have any information about it.
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.
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 favorite 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 a 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, sea horses 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 not always not be possible to swim around it. Just go back and cross over through the small channel.
Bartolomé island lies close to Santiago island, only separated by the shallow Sullivan Bay. Bartolome is famous for its landmark, the jutting Pinnacle Rock and the really beautiful view you have over two beaches and the bay, when you climb up to the hilltop (114m). This place is really good to see different volcanic formations and lava fields. You can dive or snorkel around the pinnacle 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 snorkeling in the northern bay. While diving you will find morays and schools of the Panamic sergeant major (Abudefduf troschelii) and the Bullseye puffer (Sphoeroides annulatus) on the walls, slopes, overhangs and around the caverns and crevices.
Further south there is a group of rocks and small islands with several dive sites, such as the Bainbridge Rocks and Sombrero Chino with the Beagle Rocks even further south towards Rabida island.
Sombrero Chino(Chinese hat) is a small island formed by a single extinct cone. It is quite a well known dive site with nice rock formations underwater, volcanic rubble and sharp outcroppings.
The Beagle Rocksare two large and a small rock, the remains of a tuff cone. A nice dive site with really a lot of fish, schools of grunts, snappers, surgeonfishes and salema.
Rabida is a small island to the southwest of Santiago with interesting redish 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.
On Baltra is the main airport of the Galapagos, where flights from Ecuador mainland land. In the vicinity are several small islands and rocks which make for very good diving.
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 bluestriped 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 endemic garden 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 sand bank 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 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.
Daphne Minor: You can dive around the smaller of the two islands in one dive, specially 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.
The main settlement on the Galapagos is in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz. You can easily spend some extra days before or after a liveaboard trip here, walk to Tortuga Bay, see the lava tunnels and visit the Darwin station to observe the different species of endemic giant turtles or visit the highlands. Puerto Ayora lies at the Academy Bay which offers several dive sites within easy reach (10-20 min by boat). The dive operators here also offer day trips to the dive sites up the coast, for example Gordon Rocks or Plazas islands. Some trips also go even further north to Baltra (North Seymour, Mosquera, Daphne islets) and even to Santiago (Bartolome, Cousins) and south to Santa Fe. There is also the possibility to make a two-day tour to Floreana.
Caleta Tortuga Negra or black turtle cove lagoon (not the same as Tortuga Bay close to Puerto Ayora) is not a dive site, but still interesting for people who like marine animals. The cove lies to the north of Santa Cruz, close to Baltra. The boat ride through the small labyrinthine channels of mangroves is incredible. In the shallow water we saw golden cownose ray (Phinoptera steindachneri) and eagle rays (Aetobatus narinari) that glide through the shallow water and small white tipped sharks between the mangroves. In December to February the green marine turtles are mating here.
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 (specially
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 cardinal fishes (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 jut 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 cowrays, marlins and green turtles. This is also a good place to observe fur seals underwater.
The two islets, North and South Plaza are only divided by a narrow channel, the bottom is fine sand and silt. Currents can be strong here. There is a large colony of sea lions here and you meet them underwater, where they come close to you, make sharp turns underwater and play with you. Watch out for the male - he doesn't like it, if the females come too close to you. Along the south shore of South Plaza there are patches of coral reef. Here you can see butterflyfishes, damselfishes, wrasses, moorish idols as well as juvenile barracudas and sharks. The water around the northern shore of North Plaza is calmer and there are numerous crevices and caves.
I recommend, that you 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.
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 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 surge. 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.
The Guy Fawkes island are 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, beacuse 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).
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 surgeon fishes (Prionurus laticlavius). There are also small nudibranchs (Tambja mullineri) and hawkfishes and small colorful gobies are found between the rocks.