The Galapagos is one of those bucket-list destinations you dream about. At least I did -- for more than 20 years. But the reality of the Galapagos is far more impressive than our dreams. Hammerhead sharks? The schools of these beautiful fish are a sensory overload impossible to capture in words or photographs. And yet what's most inspiring about diving in the Galapagos is the mass of big animals -- the hammerheads, sea lions, whale sharks and mola mola -- that get up close and personal. (In some cases, it seems as if they crave the attention.) Big fish, close encounters -- with all these reasons to go, it's time to turn this electrifying destination into reality.
1. COUSINS ROCK
You could be excused for jumping in at Cousins Rock, and thinking you'd died and gone to heaven. Massive schools of barracuda form tornadoes in the current just off the rock, which can be circumnavigated in two dives (if you're feeling particularly energetic). Moray eels swim between bushes of black coral, and black-blotched stingrays find cover on the sand. More important, Cousins is your introduction to Galapagos sea lions, which dive-bomb past you at reckless speeds. You could be excused for wanting to stay here the entire week. But the best is yet to come.
2. WOLF ISLAND
The Galapagos every diver knows from the glossy magazine photographs (like the ones you see here!) is on full display at Wolf Island, a lonely outpost in the north of the Galapagos National Park. This is your introduction to Galapagos sharks, schools of hammerheads so thick that the sun disappears and eagle rays that fly in formation. Ever see a moray eel free-swimming out of its hole? Your dive guide will soon tire of pointing them out. Never mind the ubiquitous sea lions, desk-size tuna, wahoo and slender silky sharks. The good news is you should get at least four dives at Wolf Island (over two days). The bad news is you get only four dives at Wolf Island.
3. ROCA REDONDA
Some boats spend only one dive at Roca Redonda, but it's a welcome diversion from the previous days' diving with hammerheads and Galapagos sharks. Not that you've grown tired of schooling sharks (or that Redonda doesn't have these predators--it does), but this small island just north of the equator has quirkier highlights too, like a seabed that bubbles effervescently. Those are the fumaroles, vents from which gas escapes, evidence of these islands' volcanic nature. When you get tired of the fumaroles or the gaudy nudibranchs that swarm them, just follow the current to the sharks, turtles and rays.
4. DARWIN ISLAND
Not that you'd need extra motivation to dive what might be the world's most famous site, but when divemasters say a site is their favorite, you sit up and take notice. Live-aboards spend a full day and a half at Darwin's Arch, a site full of boulders and small walls where divers can hook in and watch whale sharks swim past or schooling hammerheads in the blue. When you tire of being motionless, unhook and let the current pull you into a shallow channel where tiger sharks lurk, and pairs of Galapagos sharks and hammerheads speed past you in their rush to meet up with the main school.
5. PUNTA VICENTE ROCA
The chill you get when you first jump in at Punta Vicente Roca is shocking. It's more than 10 degrees colder here than any other dive in the national park, even if the sun is shining down on the steep wall; but it's this cold nutrient-rich water that supports a cast of characters unlike anything you've already seen. Inside the bay you'll be treated to mola mola, penguins, marine iguanas, red-lipped batfish, seahorses, horn sharks and, if by some miracle you hadn't gotten your fill already, the world's friendliest sea lions are guaranteed to ham it up for the cameras.
6. CAPE MARSHALL
On the eastern edge of Isabela, Cape Marshall's topography reminds some divers of Indo-Pacific reefs, with beautiful soft corals bathed in crystal-clear visibility. As with all Galapagos sites, there are sharks--remarkably bold whitetips that swim along the edge of the wall--but it's the giant Pacific manta rays, schools of striped salemas and golden cownose rays that make Cape Marshall so unforgettable, a dive that will persist even as you wash your gear on the top deck, and wait for it all to dry as you cruise back to port.
This 100-foot, 16-passenger boat features four decks, including a magnficent third deck that has four staterooms with massive windows offering panoramic views. galapagossky.com
GALAPAGOS AGGRESSORT I & II
The longest continuous-running operator in the Galapagos (since 1993), Galapagos Aggressor I & II deluxe diving yachts have seven staterooms and room for 14 passengers each. aggressor.com
WOLF BUDDY & DARWIN BUDDY
Buddy Dive has utilized diving expertise from its famous Bonaire resorts and custom-built two identical, luxurious, 120-foot, four-deck yachts. buddydive-galapagos.com