Prep Time: Up to one year
Time Off Work: Eight days
When to Go: June–November
The waters surrounding Darwin and Wolf Islands, in the remote northern tip of the Galápagos chain, are as alive as the land they surround. "You've got whale sharks, schools of hammerheads, mantas, and booby birds swimming by you 60 feet underwater," says Wayne Hasson, president of the charter dive fleet Aggressor. "Currents are strong [up to three knots], but you don't have to be Superman to dive here," adds photographer Jonathan Bird, a six-time Darwin/Wolf vet. "You're on rock, not reef, so you roll out of the Zodiac, haul ass to the bottom, and hold on." Still, this is no place for beginners; many outfitters require clients to have several dives under their weight belts to qualify for bottom time.
Start Today: Log as many dives in pushy current as you can. If you've dived in other unruly waters – such as off California or the Atlantic seaboard – you've got a good idea of what to expect. Get on the wait list. Register your interest with an outfitter immediately for a high-season trip, your only real chance of swimming with a whale shark. The Ecuadoran government now limits dive permits, and trips sell out well in advance. But wait-list slots open up frequently.
Don't Leave Home Without: Two wetsuits. Screw the "pack light" ethos and bring a 5mm or 7mm for the south and another 3mm for the north. You'll also want a thick hood, and Kevlar gloves for holding on to barnacled rocks.
More Info: Plan to spend about $4,500 for a week, including dives, live-aboard lodging, meals, and local booze. You can't book flights to the Galápagos on your own; have your dive charter book them for you, from Guayaquil or Quito.
MJ Insider: Fly in a day early. "Airlines always lose luggage," Bird says. "Give it a day to catch up." Pack plenty of warm technical clothing for nighttime air temps in the 60s.