Print version diving in the northern Galapagos Islands (2 pages)

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Wolf and Darwin

The north of the Galapagos is practically unknown to most visitors to the Galapagos, but Wolf (Wenman) and Darwin (Culpepper), two small and remote islands that can only be reached by liveaboard vessel, are a favorite destination for divers.

The diving is excellent here at all times of the year. This is one of the best places to see hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, mantas and eagle rays. The schools of hammerheads are common here all year long, whale sharks tend to congregate at Darwin from the middle of June until October and occasionally to the middle of December. Since the conditions can be rough for scuba diving and you are far away from any help, this is only for experienced divers.

The most impressive fact about this dive area is the incredible ambundance of fish - really large schools of small, middle and large animals. Specially all the hammerhead sharks gathering here can just take you breath away! There are moments, where the whole water in front of you seems to be full of sharks! The whale sharks, specially when seen in groups are always awe-inspiring. If you don't disturb them you can swim over and about them, while they slowly plow through the water. We also saw large groups of dolphins, some very curious and coming really close to us. A dive site of world class!

Wolf and Darwin, are located 186 km and 229km, respectively northwest of the northern tip of Isabela, so most liveaboard operators only come here on their 7 to 10-day tours and then stay one or two nights. Each island is the eroded top of a volcano, that rises from about 1100m below. Both are part of an elongate volcanic ridge, the Wolf-Darwin Lineament and not of the Galapagos plateau. Wolf's lava was dated at about 400'000 years old, Darwin's lava from 900'000 to 1.6 million years old, so they are younger than the islands in the rest of the archipelago.

Only sea birds live on the two small islets, for example red-footed boobies. Red-footed boobies fish well out at sea, so they are seldom seen while diving. An interesting inhabitant is the sharp-beaked vampire finch (Geospiza difficilis / Deutsch: Spitzschnabel Grundfinken) on Wolf, who has the habit of pecking into the backs of boobies and ingesting blood from them. This feeding habit has probably developed in response to a relative paucity of food and moisture. It feeds on bird lice found in the feathers of the bobbies. They are also known to roll booby eggs out of the nest to break them and then consume the contents. Because of the remoteness it is also interesting, that an species of endemic geckos has been found on Wolf.

The trip to reach the islands is also very interesting. Whales and dolphins can be seen on the way and frigate birds are flying along with the boat. At night swallow tailed gulls (Larus furcatus) accompany you. These gulls are endemic to the Galapagos and the world's only night-feeding gull. It has unusual large eyes and feeds on squids that come to the surface and usually flies out to about about 15-30km distance from the nearest land.

Darwin (Culpepper)

Darwin is the northern most island and about 4 hours or more by boat from Wolf. Darwin is 165m high, with vertical walls and a huge rock arch in the east. There is no possibility to visit the island. This dive area is not very protected, so dive conditions can be rough with waves, surge and changing currents. The currents are normally from the southeast and split right in front of the Rock Arch but also occasionally from the north. Not for beginners! The cold Humboldt current has little effect so far north, so the water is warmer by a few degrees (Dec - April: 24°C - 27°C and May - Nov: 22°C - 25°C ) so there are different corals here, than around other islands, though also not very abundant.

Darwin's Arch (Rock Arch and Underwater Rock): On the east of the island there is an underwater plateau where a prominent rock arch rises. This is the main dive site in Darwin. Depending on the currents you start either from the south and go north or vice versa. Usually part of the dive is spent over the sandy areas where the hammerhead sharks swim over in small groups. They come here to get cleaned by the Kings's angelfish (Holocanthus passer). These angelfishes rise in small groups and start picking at the hammerhead sharks, thus getting rid of their parasites. The angelfishes also clean the eat skin parasites off the jacks that venture close. Large schools of gringos also gather here, mixed with mackerels, snappers, rainbowrunners. Tunas and Jacks are hunting and the fish schools suddenly swerve to the side and form a tighter ball or walls, when these fish appear.

The area southeast of the Arch falls down steeply in steps. Each plateau is covered with large rocks where you can hang on. It can be an advantage to bring a reef hook to this place. If carefully attached on the rock (not the corals!) it is much better than hanging on with your hands. Everywhere are fat morey eels (mostly fine spotted morey eel, Gymnothorax dovii) lying around. They don't even hide like they do in tropical waters. Turtles (green turtle Chelonia mydas and hawksbill turtle Eretmochelys imbricata) swimming by lazily. Mexican hogfish, Moorish idols, coronet fish, trumpetfish, parrotfish, scorpionfishes are found here and in the rubble on the bottom live flounders and octopuses.

On each dive you also should to go out into the blue. Sometimes you have to wait around a bit, but on each of our dives we saw something interesting - dolphins coming down from the surface to take a look at us or play, yellowfined tunas in groups, a whaleshark slowly passing by, large schools of hammerheads consisting of hundreds of animals swimming slowly along and Galapagos sharks coming in fast, swerving and disappearing again. To finish the dive you usually make a safety stop in the blue, but all the time watching out for another interesting animals cruising by!

Here and at the other dive sites called the Tower Rock (small rock in the west if the island) and the Channel (between the Arch and the island), you might also encounter Galapagos sharks, silky sharks, dolphins, yellow fin tuna, big eye jacks, mobula rays, eagle rays, golden cowrays and mantas. From June to October there is a very good chance to see whale sharks. I heard, there are even sometimes tiger sharks, marlins and whales.

Wolf (Wenmen)

Wolf is a small uninhabited island, that rises steeply to 253m. As around Darwin, the water is several degrees warmer here than in the southern islands. Wolf is quite exposed with waves, surge and strong shifting currents, eddies and down currents. Definitely only for experienced divers! Wolf has extremely steep walls, there are some plants growing up on the tops on the flatter surface and birds are everywhere.

Like Darwin this is a very good place to see schooling hammerhead sharks and silky sharks. Because of the warmer water you will also find many warm water fishes found nowhere else. There are green spotted morays, trumpet and coronet fishes, schools of jacks, rainbow runner, barracudas, tuna, big eyed jacks, blue spotted jacks, wahoo, bacalao, salemas, goldrimmed surgeonfish and also marine turtles. Large pelagic fishes like whale sharks, Galapagos sharks, marbled rays, spotted eagle rays have also been seen here and on the island live sea lions.

Landslide (Wall): The rocky cliffs drop steeply to below the ocean's surface, part of the wall has slid down and large boulders form a nice rocky slope that bottoms out around 50m. Tube corals and small sponges and barnacles grow here. In the crevices morey eels live (fine spotted morey eel, Gymnothorax dovii and zebra morey Gymnomureaena zebra), they are really quite large and fat und frequently hunt outside.
This dive site is mostly known for the hammerhead sharks that gather here in large groups. There are also Galapagos sharks to be seen, eagle rays and turtles. On the dive site next to it - Shark Bay - we saw a wall of hammerheads out in the blue, all swimming in the same direction and on the shallower parts smaller groups of seven or twelve were seen swimming over the rocks to get cleaned. Schools of gringos and bluestriped chubs darken the water and tunas, rainbowrunners and mackerels dart between. A great dive site!

At the Pinaculos (pinnacle) you mostly do a drift dive, but there are several swim throughs and a cave and you can make your safety stop at the pinnacle. You can also dive at Hat Island and the Rock, although in the south there usually is a strong surge, which makes it difficult to surface.

You anchor in the sheltered to the west, the Anchorage. This place is known for the redlipped batfish (Ogcocephalus darwini), a strange looking bottom dwelling fish related to frogfishes. It walks and hops about mostly on sand and rubble, seen mostly at night.

In the northeast of the Galapagos lie the three islands of Pinta (Abigdon), Marchena (Bindloe) and Genovesa (Tower). These islands are not visited so often, since they are quite remote.

Genovesa (Tower)

Genovesa is known more often by its English name of Tower and lies north of the equator. Genevosa is the remains of an extinct volcano that is open to the sea on the south side. The caldera of the volcano forms a cove, the Darwin Bay, which is sheltered by high cliffs. The island is very dry and flat and mostly inhabited by birds. There are large colonies of red-footed and Nazca boobies. The water can be warmer than at the central islands, thanks to the Panama current. Darwin Bay: It is possible to either dive along the inner wall or go to the outer wall, which is less protected. An other possibility is to dive from the outside of the volcano through the channel into the caldera. You might see groupers, jacks and barracuda, eagle rays, tunas and schools of smaller fish and sometimes mantas or hammerheads.

Marchena (Bindloe)

Marchena's 343m high shield volcano has been very active with an eruption in 1991, so about three quarters of the island are covered with black lava and there are several fumaroles (steam vents). It is very dry and hot here. Except for diving it is seldom visited, it is not on the main route for liveaboards. You dive at Punta Espejo. Underwater you might see cow-nosed rays, turtles, schooling hammerheads and schools of blue-striped snappers, grunts, surgeonfishes, spotted moray eels and scorpion fishes. In the shallow water you might find red-lipped batfishes. Best time to dive here seems to be the warm season, during the garua-season visibility is not very good.

Pinta (Abigdon)

Pinta is usually not on the itinerary of liveaboard excursions since there are no land tours. It is best known as the original home of Lonesome George, the land tortoise who used to live here.

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