THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE - Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson

Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)


by Jack Jackson

THE DIVER’S GOLDEN TRIANGLE IS MADE UP of Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands and the live-aboard-only destinations of Costa Rica’s Cocos Island and Colombia’s Malpelo Island off the west coast of Central America. Although close to the equator, deep, cold currents hit these volcanic seamounts, the surface waters are relatively warm, but the currents below various thermoclines are remarkably cold. When they hit the seamount they well up, carrying rich nutrients from deep water. These nutrients attract smaller species, which in turn attract the larger species that prey on them and these attract a vast array of pelagic life. Cocos and Malpelo have small amounts of coral that must be avoided, but hanging on to volcanic boulders to avoid being swept away is allowed.


The Galápagos consists of 13 major islands, six smaller islands and 70 islets and rocks spread over a wide area in the Humboldt (Peru) Current, where water temperatures can be as low as 10°C (50°F). This current mixes with several warmer currents here to produce a mixture of temperate and warm water species. The islands are famous for having many endemic species of fauna and flora. The government of Ecuador designated some of the Galápagos Islands a wildlife sanctuary in 1935. The Galápagos Marine Resources Reserve was created in 1986 to protect the surrounding waters and designated a United Nations world heritage site in 1998.

Cocos and Malpelo islands are in the Equatorial Countercurrent. Cocos Island is 8km (5 miles) long, has two natural harbours on its north coast and is surrounded by outlying pinnacles. In 1982 the island was designated Cocos Island National Park and is another important repository of indigenous species. Malpelo is not much more than a huge rock pinnacle, where the difficult landing requires gymnastic abilities. It is surrounded by smaller outlying pinnacles. Large swells are common at both destinations.

At all three destinations the diving is for relatively experienced divers who are used to rough surface conditions and strong currents, which can change at any time. When planning a trip it is also important to note that different boats often have different names or translations for dive sites.


The Galápagos Islands are located 1000km (600 miles) west of the mainland of Ecuador. An all-round diving destination, they also have shoaling hammerheads, which are most prolific around the islands of Wolf and Darwin. A mixture of cold and warm currents gives the waters of the Galápagos islands species that are endemic to cold and warm water, with exciting sightings of hammerhead sharks, Galápagos Sharks, Manta Rays, Whale Sharks and interactions with sea lions. Some of the diving is on isolated rocks rising straight out of the sea. Some journeys between sites are quite long and most islands have several names.

For the Golden Triangle, the most important sites are the remote islands of Darwin and Wolf as they have warmer water and the most hammerhead sharks. These islands are the least affected by the cold Humboldt Current and there is even some plate coral off Darwin, an unusual sight in the region. Galápagos Sea Lions, Galápagos sharks, Sperm Whales and Ocean Sunfish are also encountered. Currents are sometimes unpredictable and strong downwellings are common. Roca Redonda is known for strong currents and downwellings. Targus Cove on Isabela Island has a 1.2m (4ft) sea star (Luidia superba), Bartolomé has Galápagos Penguins. Cousin’s Rock has, among others, Black Coral.

The most northerly island, Darwin 1, is north-northwest of Wolf Island. Teeming with bird life, the Arch is a splendid sight from the surface, but even better underwater. Sitting on a plateau below the surface, the wall drops off into the depths - a focal point for the fish. Dolphins and the occasional Whale Shark swim at the surface. Countless Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks shoal underwater. There is a natural viewing platform at 18m (60ft) on the ocean side of the Arch. More of the warmer water fish, such as Moorish Idols, are found here than off the islands further south, where the water is colder. Other animals found here are Galápagos Sharks, Eagle Rays and Green and Hawksbill Turtles. The area around Darwin Island has no protection, anchorage is poor, the surface can be rough and the strong currents change quickly.

Wolf Island consists of one main island with two smaller ones at each end. The main dive site is on the island’s South Side 2 where fallen boulders create a slope of rocks leading to sand at 45m (150ft) with an abundance of marine life. Shoaling Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks pass across the reef from the shallower area over the rocks towards deeper water. There are also many surgeonfish, butterflyfish and pufferfish, Galápagos Sharks, Manta Rays, Eagle Rays, turtles and sea lions. The currents are unpredictable and change quickly. Visibility can change from 9m (30ft) to 30m (100ft) between dives.


The strange-looking Red-lipped Batfish, with leg-like appendages and unicorn-like nose, crawls and hops like a frog.


Like other gobies, the Galápagos Bluebanded Goby spends most of its time resting on the bottom near a crack in the reef where it can retreat.

Off the northwest of Isabela Island, Roca Redonda 3 thrusts through the surface, while underwater shoals of barracuda, sea lions and reef fish swirl around the divers. With strong currents and downdrafts, hammerheads and Galápagos Sharks are found from 6m (20ft) to 15m (50ft). Fumaroles vent from the sand on the island’s south side. Northwest of Santiago Island, Albany Rock’s 4 west and east sides gradually slope down to sand at 45m (150ft) with similar fish life. East of Santiago Island, the uninhabited island of Bartolomé is popular as it is the northern limit of endemic Galápagos Penguins that dive to 12m (40ft). North of Bartolomé is Cousin’s Rock 5, a small rock 9m (30ft) high and a few hundred feet long. It is an exciting dive with sea lions, reef sharks, hammerheads, Eagle and Manta Rays.


North of Santa Cruz Island is North Seymour Island 6, which has garden eels and, when the currents are strong, it teems with fish. Northeast of Santa Cruz Island, Gordon Rocks 7 has a 90m (300ft) volcanic crater. Currents vary and are often only for experienced divers, but the prolific marine life includes sleeping turtles, Black Coral and stingrays. South of Gordon Rocks, Plaza Island 8 has an easy, shallow dive with sea lions. Operators on Santa Cruz Island have several dive sites around Academy Bay 9.

Leon Dormido (Kicker Rock) 10, west of San Cristóbal Island, has many moray eels among the rocks. Floreana Island has several dive sites with Devil’s Crown 11 and Champion Island 12 to the east having spectacular marine life. Off Española Island, Gardner Bay 13 has sea lions and prolific fish life.


The Guineafowl Pufferfish (Arothron meleagris) are poor swimmers with movement produced by the sculling action of the fins and, to a lesser extent, the tail.


The diving at Cocos and Malpelo islands provides fish action off sheer granite cliffs that plunge into deep water. These regions teem with big fish, but the main interest is the shoals of hundreds of female hammerheads that line up in the strong currents by day and leave to feed at night. Even without the hammerheads, there will be big-animal action, with Whale Sharks, Manta and Mobula Rays and also packs of Eagle and Marbled Rays. Juvenile Whitetip Reef Sharks are everywhere. Divers descend rapidly to around 15-25m (50-80ft), find a crevice in the rocks, wedge in and wait for the fish to approach.

Cocos Island is 600km (375 miles) off the mainland. Strong currents are present at many sites, particularly those with exciting action such as Alcyone, Dirty Rock or Manuelita Island. All species here grow large. Whitetip Reef Sharks are everywhere, but most divers come to see the large shoals of Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks. Sometimes these sharks are encountered near the surface, but mostly they are found below the thermoclines. The majority of the diving is between 18 and 30m (60 and 100ft), occasionally 40m (130ft). Squadrons of Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks appear out of the blue, swim by majestically and recede into the distance to be replaced by further shoals of ten, twenty, fifty, even hundreds at a time. Hammerheads tend to be spooked by the noise of exhaust bubbles. For that reason live-aboard boats offer training in rebreathers so that divers can get closer to them. Exhaust bubbles do not worry the other inhabitants here, such as Yellowfin Tuna, snappers, groupers, moray eels, trumpetfish, frogfish, Red-lip Batfish, Whale Sharks, Humpback Whales, Sailfish, Manta Rays, shoaling Mobula Rays and Eagle Rays, Silky Sharks, Galápagos Sharks, and dolphins. Mobula Rays often approach divers, wanting to have their bodies rubbed as if by cleaner fish. All crevices in the reef are packed with fish hiding from the current and predators.

Bait-balls, dense shoals of jacks and other species that are attacked by sharks, dolphins and tuna are often found. Divers should be very careful, as sharks will snatch at anything when involved in feeding frenzies.

Northeast of Cocos, north-northwest of Chatham Bay, Manuelita Island 14 has a sheer wall and deep boulders on the west side and shallow plate corals on the east. Whitetip Reef sharks and Marbled Rays are stacked atop each other on the rocks and Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks come in close for cleaning at depths of 14-45m (45-150ft). Off Cocos’s northwest corner, Dirty Rock 15 has massive boulders sloping down the south side. A channel 100m (330ft) wide separates the main rock from a collection of pinnacles with prolific fish life including Eagle, Manta and Marbled Rays and large shoals of jacks.

Southwest of Cocos, off Punta Rodriguez, Big Dos Amigos 16 has an arch 14m (45ft) high and an 18m (60ft) pinnacle off the southeast side. Rainbow Runners, snappers and jacks shoal through the arch and hundreds of hammerheads swim between the islet and the pinnacle at depths of 20-35m (65-115ft). Southeast of Big Dos Amigos, Lone Stone 17 also has abundant fish life, including shoals of Mobula Rays and lone Marbled Rays down to 30m (100ft).

Southeast of Cocos, Bajo Alcyone 18, a seamount with its top 25m (80ft) from the surface, is one of the best sites for shoaling hammerheads and most other large fish.


Declared a national park in 1980, Malpelo Island, 500km (310 miles) off the western coast of Colombia, is a collection of jagged pinnacles protruding from the ocean. One pinnacle, 3km (2 miles) by 0.4km (0.25 miles), is much larger than the others, but doesn’t have a good sheltered anchorage. There are Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks shoaling at the surface as well as deeper down. Shoals of Silky Sharks are also seen. A previously unidentified shark is found here. It is similar in appearance to a Sand Tiger/Grey Nurse/Raggedtooth Shark, but is larger and has bigger eyes. Females of up to 6m (20ft) have been found. It is thought to be a version of the Smalltooth Sandtiger Shark (Odontaspis ferox).

Currents are variable, so that one charter can have a quiet time and on the next outing divers are rammed against the rocks in ‘washing machine’ turbulence.

Dive sites at Malpelo are similar to those at Cocos but the seas can be wilder. Hundreds of moray eels swim around with large snappers, groupers and Manta Rays. The Three Musketeers 20, a group of pinnacles off the northern end of Malpelo, have a series of tunnels and caverns. The largest of these, The Cathedral 19, is full of fish including baitfish and Whitetip Reef Sharks. The water temperature below the thermoclines is reflected in the names of sites on the island’s north side, such as The Freezer 21, The Fridge 22 and Freezer Wall 23. La Gringa 24 is another site where female Scalloped Hammerheads line up in strong currents off the wall during the day.


Hermit crabs often encourage Calliactis anemones to settle on their shell. When it changes shells, the crab coaxes the anemones to change shells with it.


Tubastrea and Dendrophyllia corals are not light-dependent.



A Trumpetfish (Aulostomus maculatus) and a shoal of Blue Tangs (Acanthurus coeruleus) over the coral reef. Trumpetfish can change colour to match the background.