A Mysterious World: Scuba Diving in the Galapagos

by Brenna Holeman

Galapagos Scuba Diving 2

One hand is over my face, sprawled across my mouth and nose to hold my mask and regulator in their places. The other hand is at my waist, gripping my weight belt. I feel that familiar sensation in my stomach, the ambiguous churning that could be excitement or fear. My breathing is already rhythmic, meditative, the heavy rasps of the regulator audible over the waves lapping against the boat.

“Go when I say go, and have a wonderful dive,” the divemaster singsongs. “One, two, three, go!”


Kerri and I arrived on the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador with the same expectations as everyone else; we wanted to see nature in its most untouched state, to share land and sea with creatures that don’t know how or why to fear us. But before we started planning trips to different islands and tours to spot baby sea lions and blue-footed boobies, we knew we wanted to dive.

Diving in the Galapagos is not for the novice; having at least a few dives under your belt is expected, and, in the safest shops, required. I’d already dived in Asia and Central America, and had recently received my Rescue Diver certification in Taganga, Colombia. With nearly 40 dives to my name, I felt ready to take on the infamous waters of the Galapagos. We had heard whispers of schools of hammer head sharks in the hundreds, of sea lions that swim alongside you and play in your wake.

Galapagos Scuba Diving 1

The first day on the island of Santa Cruz, in the town of Puerto Ayora, we walked from dive shop to dive shop, comparing prices. Walking all the way through town and toward the Charles Darwin Research Station, we arrived upon Scuba Iguana. It came highly recommended; in fact, it was one of the only dive shops on the island that was recommended at all. Horror stories of faulty equipment, under-qualified guides, and even deaths seemed to haunt many of the other dive shops.

At $175 USD for two dives, we both hesitated before handing over our credit cards. In Honduras or Indonesia, for example, I hadn’t paid over $30 a dive. But we know those moments, the ones that are worth going over budget. We all have them when we travel. Payments approved, we were fitted for our equipment and then bid farewell, ready to return the next day.


Galapagos Scuba Diving 4

The next morning we meet the rest of the divers and our guide for the day, Quike. We head to North Seymour and Mosquera to dive. The boat ride out to the dive sites is, as always, a quiet one; people lose themselves in thought in the early morning hours, transfixed by the horizon as the boat bumps over waves. We all stare out at the ocean before us, its black waters seemingly impenetrable. It’s hard to imagine all the life that teems below.

We anchor, bob along as wetsuits are zipped, flippers donned, all the necessary checks done. Bruce Willis Ruins All Films, we chant. BCD (vest),Weight belt, Releases, Air, Final okay. We check our own gear and our dive buddy’s gear. Each of us holds up an ‘okay’ sign with our hands as we teeter on the edge of the boat, our tanks facing the water, ready to roll in.

“One, two, three, go!” Quike calls out, and we throw ourselves backwards. It’s a game of trust; we let go, and the ocean catches us. Only in this game, the ocean keeps us. If we’re not careful, it can keep us forever.

The moment you make contact with water is always a blur: the enveloping cold, the rush of bubbles, the scramble to resurface. Our vests are inflated with a push of a button. Another ‘okay’ symbol; everyone is accounted for, and is ready. It’s time to go down. Another push of the button and the vest deflates. We exhale, collapsing the air out of our lungs. We sink.

Galapagos Scuba Diving 5


People often ask me if scuba diving is really that different from snorkelling. I have had incredible experiences snorkelling; days later, in fact, I’d snorkel beside a turtle for nearly an hour as it found its lunch in some rocks. It was so blasé about my existence that, even when trying to keep a reasonable distance from it, it would swim over to me, knock into me, or graze my hand with its flipper. “Sorry,” I wanted to mumble through the snorkel, stunned by the surreal experience.

Nothing, however, beats scuba diving.

When you dive, a transformation occurs. You are no longer looking at the sea life from above, you are living and breathing and moving amongst it. I have never felt so awed or so calm as when I’m underwater.

I wasn’t always this way – for most of my childhood and my teenage years, I wouldn’t even go in the ocean. Its vastness and its deepness overwhelmed me. It wasn’t until I sunk into its depths, faced my fears head on, that I learned to love its beauty and its power.


Galapagos Scuba Diving 3

We are at at depth of about 15 metres, and I’ve nearly landed on top of a resting shark. I’d reach out to show my dive buddy but she’s focused on another shark, a few metres away. We’re surrounded by them, at least a dozen; white-tipped reef sharks ranging in size swim around us, or simply stare at us with unmoving eyes, gulping water through their gills as they relax in repose. We stare back, mesmerised.

Over the next hour we weave through the coral and caves, coming face to face with more sharks, sea lions, barracuda, Galapagos eels, puffers, grunts, groupers, rays, and all the fish I could name: angels, surgeons, damsels, hogs, butterflies. Even as I’m in the middle of it I know it is the best dive of my life. The murky water holds more than I could have ever hoped.

Galapagos Scuba Diving 7

A pair of divers start to get low on air, so they surface. Soon after, my dive buddy also surfaces. It is just Quike and I left, trying to spot what we can as we practice our buoyancy, flip and float upside down, surrounded by all that blue. And then: the best moment of my life to date.

The water goes black, as if the sun has been blotted out from above. I look up: above us, so close I could touch it, is a five-metre manta ray. It flies, flapping its wings with such grace that I forget to breathe. Quike catches this all on camera, including my best attempt at an underwater victory dance, overwhelmed by what I’ve just seen.

Our tanks nearly empty, we make our way to the surface, reborn into air. The boat comes to pick us up, hauls us in. My face stings from the salt water; it will soon dry and cake in the sun. My fingers will grow plump, return from their pruned state.  We will all fall into contemplation again as the boat bounces over the water, quieted by what we saw. Our hair will whip in the wind and we will dream of diving once more, of sinking into that mysterious world that lies beneath.

Galapagos Scuba Diving 6

Have you ever been scuba diving or would you like to go? Does diving in the Galapagos appeal to you?

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Kaelene @Unlocking Kiki February 21, 2014 - 8:43 am

These are beautiful shots underwater, I would defiantly go scuba dicing in Galapagos! I went scuba diving once in Australia and it was terrifying at first but then I loved it.

Brenna Holeman February 24, 2014 - 1:34 am

I’d love to dive in Australia, it’s definitely on my list of things to do…

Katie @ Domestiphobia February 22, 2014 - 3:39 pm

This just brought tears to my eyes. I went once, on our honeymoon in St. Lucia, and fell in love. I swore up and down I’d take more classes. That was almost 8 years ago. I might have to look into it now that I actually live on a coast. Thanks for the inspiration!

Brenna Holeman February 24, 2014 - 1:34 am

Wonderful – I hope that you pursue that! Glad to have inspired you just a little bit…

Laura Bronner February 22, 2014 - 7:04 pm

Sounds amazing! I I am holding out to learn in South east Asia next year,I cannot wait.

Brenna Holeman February 24, 2014 - 1:32 am

Oh, I’m sure you’ll love it. I went diving in both Thailand and Indonesia…

Danielle @ The-Lifestyle-Project February 23, 2014 - 9:42 pm

What an amazing experience! I’ve recently started diving myself (last month in Utila) and I completely relate to what you’re saying about living, breathing, and moving amongst the sealife. I always thought snorkelling would be easier but oddly enough I feel much calmer when I’m completely submerged underwater. I feel more like an insider, I guess, instead of an observer from above. I’d love to go to the Galapagos Islands but will have to make that a trip on its own because of the price tag!

Brenna Holeman February 24, 2014 - 1:33 am

Oh yay – I love Utila! I spent two weeks there in 2012 doing some fun dives with UDC. I also feel calmer when I’m underwater, MUCH calmer, in fact. I hope you get to visit the Galapagos soon…

Rebecca February 24, 2014 - 3:22 am

wow! thats all I can say! thanks so much for sharing those videos – what an AMAZING experience! I have taken a huge interest in the galapagos islands lately so I’m loving these posts!

You have totally inspired me to give scuber diving a try

Brenna Holeman February 24, 2014 - 4:14 am

Thanks, Rebecca! I’m glad that you got some inspiration out of the post. I hope you get to try diving soon – as you said, it’s truly an amazing experience.

Patricia February 24, 2014 - 3:14 pm

I love your story! I came back from Galapagos this friday and I had my OW certificate there and it was amazing! the first dive I did I saw hammer head sharks, white-tipped sharks, black-tipped, golden rays, eagle rays, and tons of fishes!! I haven’t dived anywhere else but Galapagos sure has a lot of underwater wild life, and diving is very addicted, I don’t want to stop.

Brenna Holeman February 24, 2014 - 5:50 pm

Oh wow, that’s so cool, thanks for letting me know! I hate to say it but you may be spoiled for future dive sites, ha ha. I’m really glad that you love diving as much as I do, it’s always nice to hear from someone with a shared passion.

Sarah February 25, 2014 - 5:54 am

I felt like I was actually scuba diving while reading your story! The main reason I want to go to the Galapagos is to dive. Although I’m afraid that after that every other dive spot will seem rather ‘boring’. Are you ever unimpressed after so many dives?

Brenna Holeman February 25, 2014 - 11:25 am

Aw, thanks Sarah, I’m glad you liked the story! I think that having amazing dives has the potential to spoil me, but I try to look at each dive on its own and find beauty in each one. The only dives I haven’t enjoyed much are drift dives, dives with terrible visibility, or (and only one dive in Panama really comes to mind for this one) dive sites that have almost no wildlife. I can’t expect every dive to have a five-metre manta ray, but as long as the visibility is fairly good, there isn’t a strong current, and I get to see a few fish, I’m generally quite happy.

Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) February 25, 2014 - 8:33 am

Learning to dive is both the best and worst thing I decided to do on my long-term trip through Asia—I absolutely LOVE it and it’s opened up a whole new world for me, but it has also caused my husband & I to burn through our travel savings a heck of a lot faster than we would have otherwise done! I don’t regret it for one minute and I now have a whole new list of places I want to visit so that I can dive. The Galapagos is right up there (I would probably die if I got to dive with a sea lion… but I would die happy!), so this was such a great teaser of what I can look forward to one day! Wish the vis were a little bit better, but I guess those churning plankton-rich waters are what attract so much of the sea life!

Brenna Holeman February 25, 2014 - 11:21 am

Yes, it can definitely cost a lot to be a frequent diver. It’s one of the reasons I’ve thought about becoming a dive master somewhere; I can just stay in one place and dive every day.

I think the photos don’t do the visibility any justice – while it wasn’t great, it was still a good 10 to 15 metres most of the time. There was so much wildlife around us that it didn’t really matter, though. I’d prefer better visibility, of course, but the experience was just so cool that it’s still one of my favourite dives!

Zalie February 25, 2014 - 3:11 pm

You looked so cute when you saw the ray above you! I would have loved to dive while I was there, but I feel blessed to have even been to the Galapagos! I guess I will have to go back one day 😉

Brenna Holeman February 25, 2014 - 10:24 pm

Yes, with or without diving the Galapagos Islands are incredible. Let’s go there again when you are certified!

Zalie February 26, 2014 - 9:06 pm

Sounds like a great plan!

Expatkerri February 25, 2014 - 6:39 pm

I always think of diving as a dream, and surfacing as the end of the dream. I like how you describe the descent and the collapse of the lungs… so amazing. Galapagos was some of the best diving I’ve ever done, and I was so glad to have you by my side! Scuba buddies 4 life! Hehe.

Brenna Holeman February 25, 2014 - 10:25 pm

It is totally a dream. Thank you for being the best dive buddy out there!

Expatkerri February 27, 2014 - 4:20 am

Back at you! Thanks for always making me laugh underwater leading to mask floods… 😉

Brenna Holeman February 27, 2014 - 1:43 pm

I am actually laughing out loud right now thinking of all the things that have happened to us underwater. Remember how many times I took my regulator out of my mouth to word something to you? And when I swam up overtop of you and then put my face right in yours?? And the eel almost biting my face off????? I want to dive with you again…

Marwa H. February 26, 2014 - 4:06 am

I’ve never been scuba diving, but your photos and those videos are amazing, and I definitely need to try it out now! Thank you so much for sharing this experience!

Brenna Holeman February 26, 2014 - 12:40 pm

Oh great, I really hope you give it a shot – diving is amazing!

Chinye February 26, 2014 - 4:25 pm

Brenna, this has made me even more excited to get my open water certification while in Panama. Any tips or recommendations for a new gal to the open waters. I’m not afraid of the unknown (I lifegaurded during my teenage years), but would love any recs on gear/clothing.

Brenna Holeman February 27, 2014 - 1:44 pm

Oh wow, that’s so exciting! I’m sure you’ll love it. I don’t really have any recommendations on gear or clothing as I don’t own any… I find it easier to just rent from the shop. When I start doing dive-specific trips I will probably buy more stuff. Where are you diving in Panama?

Chinye February 28, 2014 - 11:42 pm

I’ll be diving in Bocas, and have an appointment with Starfleet Scuba to just get a feel of the shop. I’ll actually be staying on Bastimentos, so if you have any diving shop recommendations on Bocas or Bastimentos, I’d love to know!

Brenna Holeman February 28, 2014 - 11:57 pm

Oh cool – I actually didn’t have the best diving experience in Bocas just because the guide was quite nonchalant and we had bad equipment. I’m sure you’ll have much better luck with Starfleet, though!

Monica February 27, 2014 - 2:09 pm

This sounds both terrifying and incredible at exactly the same time. I want to go to the Galapagos Islands so badly. I hadn’t really thought about scuba diving there this just looks amazing.

Brenna Holeman February 27, 2014 - 7:51 pm

Oh, you’d love the islands so much, Monica. They’re simply stunning. Diving there is some of the best diving I’ve ever done!

February on The Travel Hack | The Travel Hack February 28, 2014 - 12:57 pm

[…] A Mysterious World: Scuba Diving in the Galapagos, This Battered Suitcase […]

Heather March 4, 2014 - 2:19 am

Your photos are beautiful, but they have given me a mild panic attack. I would have completely flipped out to find myself surrounded by sharks! I’ll only go in very clear water where I can see my feet and feel confident that I won’t be ambushed. I’ve only snorkeled, and it will likely stay that way!

Brenna Holeman March 4, 2014 - 4:55 pm

I’m sorry for the panic attack, Heather! I promise you that, while underwater, things seem very peaceful and calm. Besides, most sharks are scared/indifferent of divers (a lot of sea creatures are scared of the bubbles we produce). I used to be very frightened of water, but scuba diving helped me overcome that. Snorkelling is really fun, too, though!

Karen Collier May 9, 2014 - 11:34 pm

Galapagos is one of my favorite diving spots. There is just something about it that captivates you and make you come back again and again to dive and explore its beauty and mysteries. In fact, me and my husband are going back to the place again this year.

Brenna Holeman May 10, 2014 - 1:05 am

I agree – I’d love to go diving there again! Have an amazing time.

On Being Happy With Being Content - This Battered Suitcase January 9, 2015 - 12:46 am

[…] I have had many, many moments of extreme happiness in my life, and I am grateful for them all: scuba diving with great beasts in the Galapagos, riding on the back of a motorbike with Cambodia’s pink skies as my backdrop, hearing the […]

2014: A Year in Review - This Battered Suitcase January 24, 2015 - 1:28 pm

[…] A Mysterious World: Scuba Diving in the Galapagos […]

My 2016 Travel Goals - This Battered Suitcase October 30, 2015 - 1:18 pm

[…] for years: India, Guatemala, Southern Africa to see wild elephants, the Trans-Siberian railway, scuba diving in the Galapagos, and many others. Upon settling in London for a while in 2013, I thought that my travels would die […]

Sam King March 1, 2016 - 11:46 am

Hey, we are planning for a Scuba Diving in the Galapagos. Me and my friend were discussing about the best camera to take good pictures and videos U/W, You photos and videos turned out really good. Could you recommend me some good U/W camera. How about GoPro?

Brenna Holeman March 1, 2016 - 12:01 pm

This wasn’t my camera… I think the instructor was using a Canon Powershot in an underwater casing!

Brenna Holeman March 1, 2016 - 12:02 pm

But GoPro is great, too!

Dana Ionescu November 10, 2017 - 10:46 pm

Fascinating! Good articel!


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