LOVE YOUR UPWELLINGS! Basking in the Underwater Coolness of the Tropics

I’m sure we’ve all experienced it while calmly swimming in warm water: a nippy bit of cool water slides up and over you from below, giving you goosebumps all over as your face shoots up to the surface as you wonder what just happened. In this case, it is a mere change in water temperature that warns your body to avoid exposing itself too long to the cold. But while it might tell our body to keep away, there are other creatures who thrive in such temperatures.

Productivity in the ocean is expressed by the amount of food available. This food can either be microscopic (plankton) or sometimes macroscopic (nekton). Active swimmers – such as squid, fish, rays, sharks, etc – fit in the criteria of nekton, while passive swimmers (those that are carried by the ocean currents) fit into the category of plankton. Diatoms, dinoflagellates, larval stages, and others are generally considered planktonic items. Productivity, therefore, is associated with the density of living creatures. In most cases, the cooler water of our oceans tends to be more productive than warmer locations.  Factors such as salinity and temperature of the water can also have an impact on the productivity levels of the ocean.

Deep Submarine Currents

When very deep submarine currents move in one direction they can travel extensively for thousands of miles. Additionally, the physical and chemical characteristics of these currents can be affected by obstacles that force an abrupt change in direction or by the sudden exposure to sunlight. Very deep in the ocean, hardly any light penetrates the water column, and it is only in the last 100 meters (330 ft) that color gradually begins to appear.  Blues and some greens come first, and then purples, yellows, and reds. This fascinating prism is what allows marine life to unfold. Consequently, when a huge submarine current hits the volcanic base of islands, its rapid surface approach will not only bring cool temperatures to shallow depths, but it will also let deep-water nutrients become part of the areas where both plankton and nekton reside. This is actually how “marine productivity” should be interpreted.

Galapagos Marine Life
The Galapagos Islands Marine Life Is Varied And Holds Different Animals Like Turtles, Fish, And Even Sharks!


Oceanographers have coined a unique term for describing this mechanical movement of water (the onset of productivity) and it is called “upwelling.” What this means is that the deepwater upwells to the surface, chills it, and brings all sorts of nutrients along with it. Tropical places like the Galapagos Islands that are right on the equator are unique because sometimes you come across these “marine deserts” of productivity. That is of course unless upwelling occurs. It’s due to the unique volcanic substrate and underwater landscape of the western region of the Galapagos that a very deep ocean current, known as the Equatorial Countercurrent (aka Cromwell Current), moves in the opposite direction of its higher cousin – the South Equatorial Current (SEC). This cold and nutrient-rich volume of water hits the volcanic base of both Isabela and Fernandina Islands and it crawls up fast and strong, turning a not-so-productive marine area into a blooming haven for the sea of life. This upwelling force has been studied extensively and it provides the tropical Galapagos Islands with a unique set of subtropical conditions that are found at higher or lower latitudes. The tropics can actually physically turn cool on the surface when upwelling takes place.

Orca Near A Panga Ride In Galapagos.
Killer Whales Or Orcas Are Often Seen In Panga Rides In The Galapagos Islands.

Living at 0°0’00” Latitude

It’s thanks to these conditions that penguins, boobies, pelicans, fur seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins, and dozens of cold-water fishes can live right at 0°0’00” Latitude.  This is what makes the islands unique, but also so different from other cooler and warmer places. To thrive here, tropical species need to be capable of withstanding subtropical conditions, and subtropical species need to withstand tropical conditions.  The result: the creation of an ever-changing world.  Any of the Santa Cruz II’s expedition itineraries in the Galapagos can provide you with such experiences, and in order to find any of these tropical extremes, you must try and spend time on any expedition that travels out to the far west of the archipelago.

When snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands, it’s very common to find that strip of cool water that makes us shiver, develop goosebumps, but also gives us the chance to see a penguin in the tropics, a fur seal in warm water, or even a foggy and enigmatic sunrise right on the Equator. You have to love these upwellings, for they keep the uniqueness of Galapagos alive and guarantee the magical wildlife encounters to all that visit!

Snorkeling With Penguins At Tagus Cove In The Galapagos Islands.
Snorkeling With Some Of The Iconic Species Is A Must-Do In Galapagos.

Text Adaptation & Photography by Francisco Dousdebés – Galapagos Expert, Fernandina Island, August 7th, 2017         L&L: 0°26’S / 91°43’W

Updated:May 10, 2023

Published:August 7, 2017


Machu Picchu & Galapagos Islands Tour 2024 Package: 12 days / Quito, Galapagos Islands and Machu Picchu / From USD 9,598 per person



Condé Nast Traveler ONLINE

This small, secret rooftop of the restored Casa Gangotena mansion peers over Plaza San Francisco in the center of Quito’s colonial Old Town, the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. Order a Cedrón Spritz, a refreshing mix of rum, lemon, sparkling wine, and fresh lemon verbena (cedrón) syrup and leaf, then revel in the mesmerizing, real-time montage of daily life in Ecuador’s capital as it parades past.

National Geographic Traveller

A Font of information, Klaus has spent decades in the field, leading tours in the Amazon, Andes and Galapagos Islands. He hung up his guiding boots a few years back and now creates itineraries for the tour operator, Metropolitan Touring. Adrift in the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles from mainland South America, Galapagos is one of the most biodiverse locales on Earth.

Cruise Critic

Santa Cruz II is a replacement for the much-loved Santa Cruz, which plied the waters of the Galapagos for 36 years. It is not a new ship; it was built in 2002 and sailed as Mare Australis under the Australis cruise brand, operating expedition cruises around Cape Horn and to Antarctica. Metropolitan Touring bought the ship in 2015 and completely refurbished it, launching it as Santa Cruz II in October 2015.

Telegraph Ultra Travel: 50 Greatest Hotels in the World

When this modern, minimalist, glass-walled jungle lodge opened in 2012, it changed the accommodation game in South America. Arquitect Alfredo Ribadeneira’s “protective cocoon” would impress in a modern city; in the depths of an Andean cloudforest, it is wild, audacious and beautiful. Though only 70 miles from Quito, Maspi Lodge sits in splendid isolation, perched on a cliff at the end of an unsealed road.

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Itinerario de 5 días / 4 noches: Basado en la tarifa regular (4214 USD + impuestos por persona)
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No reembolsable. Aplica únicamente para residentes ecuatorianos en nuevas reservas directas realizadas, hasta el 30 de junio del 2022, con un ejecutivo de ventas del hotel. Válido para estadías hasta el 31 de agosto de 2022. No puede ser combinada con otros descuentos, promociones u ofertas. El descuento no aplica para otros servicios. El precio no incluye recargo de combustible de $20 por noche de crucero.

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