I recently wrote about my first year of traveling the world and among other things, how difficult it is to answer the question ‘what’s been your favorite experience’. Well without any hesitation I can say I now have an answer. It took 14 months and much more than an average backpackers budget, but I can say that spending a week on a liveaboard dive boat in the Galapagos tops the list.
Almost Picked the Wrong Liveaboard Dive Boat
When I arrived in the Galapagos I had hopes of being able to scuba dive in the Galapagos but wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find a boat or how much I’d have to pay. On my first day in San Cristobal Island I thought I had struck gold. Within hours of landing on the island, I encountered a dive boat, The Penguin, that was leaving that very day and at a price that was a steal, only $2,300 for the week. I quickly rushed to gather my things and board a speed boat to Santa Cruz where the boat was currently do its fist day check in dives and supposedly waiting to meet me at the dock to join the crew. On the speedboat ride over, I was so excited, beside myself really. Unfortunately it was short lived. I arrived on the dock in Santa Cruz to find no one to meet me as promised. After wandering around town I finally located the travel company who owned the boat and was curtly informed they had left without me. I was pissed! I had rushed away from San Cristobal (home to thousands of sea lions) to meet this boat and they just decided to leave. It was a disappointing lesson about getting what you pay for but one that I was later happy to learn. When I posted to my Facebook page what had happened, a kind follower replied that everything happens for a reason. Instead of appreciating the comment at the time I just wanted to jump through the screen and strangle someone. Luckily I held my tongue, especially because this dear fan was more right than she knew.
I later learned that The Penguin was only on its second trip to the far northern Galapagos Islands of Darwin and Wolf and that for some crazy reason the 16 passenger boat set off with only 5. The boat is low class and apparently rocks more than the other boats which could be problematic for sea sickness with the strong Pacific Ocean waves, not to mention the lack of experience of the crew and owners with the dive sites. I think it’s safe to say this boat will be out of business soon.
Searching for the Right Liveaboard Dive Boat in Galapagos
I spent the next day pretty much defeated, walking from shop to shop looking for another boat. It’s not that I couldn’t dive from the island I was on, it’s that from what I had quickly learned, Darwin and Wolf islands offered some of the best diving in the world including the elusive whale shark I had chased through the Bay Islands in Honduras without ever glimpsing. I was convinced no matter how good the diving was from Santa Cruz, I just had to find a way to Darwin and Wolf.
After a number of almost bookings, I finally found space on the Buddy Dive Boats. Buddy Dive is a company out of Bon Air in the Caribbean that had just recently renovated their two luxury 16 person dive boats and while the price tag almost made me gag, I jumped on the $3,950 not wanting to miss another opportunity. Since I didn’t plan ahead, which I almost never do anymore, I had over a week until the boat would set sail which meant even more of my budget would slip through my fingers as Galapagos is every bit as expensive as people tell you. During that week or so I explored Galapagos by land and speedboat enjoying all of the diverse wildlife and the variety between the islands of Isabela, Santa Cruz, and San Cristobal.
Setting Off On an 8 Day Liveaboard Dive Boat for Darwin and Wolf Islands
The night before leaving I could barely sleep. I felt like I was 10 years old and was laying awake the night before Christmas waiting to see what toys Santa had brought me. Finally when morning came I woke up to a gorgeous view of the bay on San Cristobal with two new amazingly beautiful boats gracing its waters. The Wolf Buddy and the Darwin Buddy are twin boats that far exceeded my expectations for space, luxury, and functionality. This would be my first dive liveaboard boat but even those aboard that had many boats with which to compare were extremely impressed.
The Buddy Dive Liveaboard boat
The main floor consisted of an interior with lush cabins at the front, a main living area, and the diving deck. The main living area was a dining area on one side and a lounge with comfortable couches, a big screen tv, and a bar on the other side. My favorite deck was the 4th and top floor which was a full sun deck with cozy lounge chairs and even a hot tub to enjoy the view between dives and as we navigated between the various dive sites and islands. My room had two beds and was surprisingly roomy with a nice and functional bathroom. It even had a wide closet and a large flat screen tv. Again this was more than I ever imagined I’d find. Hell, I was prepared to string a hammock on the deck like I’d done in the Amazon!
Diving in the Northern Islands in Galapagos with Buddy Dive
I was warned that the first few dives leading up to Darwin and Wolf wouldn’t exactly be spectacular, and in some ways that was true looking back. If you’d told me at the time that my first dive for the check of equipment would be an average dive I would have laughed. It was freezing cold, I was in a semi dry wet suit one size too small, but I was surrounded by sea lions. Sea lions! It was magical to see them playing with each other and curiously approaching us, nipping at our fins, circling our heads. In my mind it couldn’t get much better than that….well except for the misery I felt being squished into that suit.
As we progressed through the next couple of dives we started seeing sharks, stingrays, barracuda, and a great array of fish. I had opted for a wet suit instead of a semi dry suit so aside from the cold (as low as 14C or 57F) I was much more comfortable. The first and second days are a slow pace and really gave us time to enjoy the boat and especially the sun deck.
Diving the Galapagos Islands of Wolf and Darwin
On Day 3, the real fun began and it seemed like every dive, as amazing as it was, paled in contrast to the next dive. On Wolf Island we were surrounded by hammerheads, black tip sharks, white tip sharks, and Galapagos sharks everywhere. It was absolutely thrilling and we almost didn’t want to leave and head for Darwin.
Darwin came with the promise (for me really it was only a vague hope) of whale shark sightings. I tried not to focus on it though since my luck with whale sharks had been atrocious in the past. I just wanted to enjoy the dives and if I happened to see one then great but I wouldn’t let it disappoint me if I didn’t. I felt like that was a good way to approach it as at the end of the first day on Darwin Island we had seen hundreds if not thousands of sharks and had excellent dives but had not seen a whale shark. The next day that plan was blown out of the water!
Encountering Whale Sharks at Darwin’s Arch
Getting up the next morning wasn’t exactly easy and more than a few divers didn’t even try. It was the second day in a row of getting up at 5:45am to start a marathon day of 4 dives. Luckily I had just gotten certified to use nitrox as diving only regular air tanks has me passed out after only two dives. I would have never made it through the week. Not long after plunging into the depths in front of Darwin’s Arch we started to hear the noise makers. These are used by the dive guides to signal various sightings but with the fury they were being used we all knew it was a whale shark. I had almost decided I had missed it as I turned back and forth looking all around when I looked just slightly down and to my side and was astonished at the size of the creature swimming right past me. My heart started racing almost as fast as my fins as they tried to carry me closer to the giant. I swam until I thought my lungs would explode enjoying the massive tranquility of the whale shark and then finally sitting back to catch my breath and watch her swim away. Finally!!! I had met a whale shark and it was even more amazing than I had hoped. I barely had a chance to revel in that thought before the noisemakers were going again and divers were scurrying like being chased by the hundreds of sharks filling the waters around Darwin. We did this a total of 5 times on the first dive alone. It was exhilarating and exhausting and I came up from that dive knowing I had just had the best dive of my life and assuming every dive after would never compare. Wrong again!
On the next dive whale sharks again, one that I turned around to find coming straight at me and found myself trying to decide what to do and where to go. I never imagined I would see so many and especially never imagined I would be face to face with one and close enough to reach out and touch her.
Everyone on the boat that day and evening was giddy with the sightings, me probably most of all. It got to a point where if we were only seeing hundreds of sharks we were a little disappointed. That tells you how high the bar was being set dive after dive.
When it was time to leave Darwin we were all a little reluctant and even made a play for a schedule change, but apparently the Galapagos Park Managers are sticklers about sticking to the plan. We were back to Wolf for our last 4 dives on that island and even though there weren’t whale sharks, there was every other kind of shark and my favorite creature of the dives, the spotted eagle ray.
Surrounded by Spotted Eagle Rays at Wolf Island
I had seen some spotted eagle rays before in Little Corn Island, Nicaragua, but they were no where near as big, close, or seemingly friendly. One thing that makes diving the northern Galapagos islands so spectacular is how unafraid the wildlife seem of humans. Since they aren’t hunted and there are relatively few divers most animals will get remarkably close but the spotted eagle rays really took the cake on that note.
For two straight dives I was surrounded by them up to 6 at a time as they glided through the water seeming to fly more than swim. Getting close was easy, sometimes it happened without even trying as they would float right to you. They seemed to dance in groups above and below us. Check out the video for a close up look of the spotted eagle rays.
Marine Iquanas off of Fernandina Island
Our last full day of diving had a couple more surprises in store for us. We started the day off of Fernandina Island, the western most point in Galapagos and where the water seemed the coldest of the entire trip. It was frigid to the point my fingers and toes went numb! Fernandina is yet another way Buddy Dive sets themselves apart from other dive boats. Since they are the fastest of the dive boats in Galapagos, they are the only company that can make it to Fernandina on this 8 day cruise to Darwin and Wolf. So why make the effort if no other boat does? Simple, diving with marine iguanas. It’s the only place in the world you can do it.
I had seen many marine iguanas on land off of Isabela but seeing them lounging on the bottom of the shallows nibbling on the green vegetation oblivious to the divers looking on was something else. They would glide through the water to the surface and then back down again to enjoy their feast at the bottom. In addition to the marine iguanas, we also got to see the flightless cormorant. This is a bird that since it has no predators in the area and eats fish, it has over the years lost the ability to fly but instead dives through the ocean meandering through caves and crevices searching out its food. My first sighting of a cormorant was when I thought another diver was kicking me. I looked back to find the bird nipping my leg. I guess my suit resembled a yummy fish! The other notable creature we were able to encounter was the red lipped bat fish. Yes, it’s as interesting looking as the name.
Loads of Turtles and Almost Mauled by a Sea Lion
The last very memorable dive was unfortunately in extremely murky water. It was difficult to see the diver in front of you let alone the sea life. We did have a shadowy encounter with a sun fish along the way but the end of the dive is what made it a great one for me. After being picked up in the dingy, we floated around into a bay to be greeted by two tiny little penguins sharing a rock with a marine iguana while two sea lions played in the background. Below us in the shallow water was even more of a treat. I’ve long said that sea turtles are my favorite underwater animal and this was a bonanza of sea turtles. I couldn’t have counted them if I’d tried. There were likely 100 or more spread out on the bottom of the bay only a few feet below us. We quickly jumped back in to snorkel with the turtles and even the sea lions as they moved their playful game into the water. At one point the tide picked me up and pushed me towards the sea lions as they rested momentarily on the rocks and for a moment I thought was going to meet my maker or at least see the inside of an Ecuadorian hospital. I got too close for the sea lions’ liking and one of them lunged for me, mouth open, and growling. I was pushed under and luckily when I came back up the sea lions had gone back to frolicking in the water. I guess they felt confident I had taken their warning, and I really had.
Diving Darwin and Wolf in the Galapagos is Worth It!
Even though I had spent the equivalent of months worth of travel on this one week adventure I had and have no doubt it was worth it. I did, and still do, worry that Darwin and Wolf may have ruined diving for me though, not to mention Buddy Dive ruining liveaboards for me. I can’t imagine topping the dives I had there….but of course I’m still going to try. Columbia diving awaits!!!