I was fortunate enough to travel to the Galápagos Islands in 2015, after taking students to Ecuador with the Global Glimpse program, which provides travel and leadership opportunities for high school students. Today as I was watching a travel video of a cute couple living on a boat down in the Bahamas, I started to reminisce about a particular snorkeling spot in the Galápagos (in addition to my quiet longing to live on a boat, but that’s for another day and another post).
The Galápagos Islands archipelago consists of nineteen islands in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ecuador. With three ocean currents converging and ongoing seismic and volcanic activity, these islands are a hotspot for biodiversity, and, as any high school biology student can tell you, a living showcase of evolution. These enchanted islands inspired Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection during his visit in 1835 and remain a laboratory for investigating evolution and natural selection in action, as noted by one of my favorite scientists, Rosemary Grant, and her husband/partner scientist, Peter Grant. The Galápagos conjure images of iguanas and birds, especially those adorable little finches. But one of the greatest highlights of this magical place lays beneath the water’s surface and can easily be accessed by snorkeling.
Now, I love snorkeling. That’s an understatement, I love the water. I’m most at home in the water. I swam competitively during my formative years, coached swimming as a teen and again as a teacher, lifeguarded from fifteen to thirty (off and on, not straight through), completed my SCUBA certification in college, and learned to surf about ten years ago. I live for the beach. I aspire to live on the beach. Or better, on the water itself. I was thrilled to learn that my trip in the Galápagos would include daily, if not twice daily, snorkeling adventures. This was great as diving requires equipment and time and safety, and since most of the wildlife was in shallow water, low maintenance snorkel was perfect for sightseeing.
Our trip was aboard the Fragata Yacht, a sixteen-person, seventy-five-foot motor yacht, so small enough to get around and few people on board (we only had eleven people). We would either jump off the back of the boat or board the “pangas” to snorkel from the shore. Wetsuits were a must, water was cold (hello, Pacific Ocean and Humboldt Current bringing that nutrient rich, cold water from June to November). The currents could be strong at times, the volcanic rock sharp, and the animals got close with no fear of natural predators, so being a strong swimmer was a beneficial to enjoying the experiences. I loved all our “underwater hikes!” I immediately fell in love with the playful, young sea lion pups who wanted to play and tumble underwater with me. They were incredibly curious and came close, one “bopped” my mask with his snout. A few others would pull at my fins with their mouths when I swam away or stopped “playing”. (Disclaimer: they are wild animals with sharp teeth, no fingers or hands near them and do not chase them). As much as I loved playing with my new “sea puppy” friends, my favorite snorkel was Kicker Rock, also known as León Dormido, the sleeping lion.
This giant lava rock is the remains of a volcanic cone sticking out of the Pacific Ocean and is split into two, forming a small channel between the rocks. The rock towers over five hundred feet above the ocean and is home to many aquatic birds, including the frigate bird, red-billed tropic bird, and blue-footed booby. The real attraction is underwater, with Galápagos white-tipped sharks, hammerhead sharks, different types of rays, sea turtles, marine iguanas, sea lions, and fish on fish on fish. We visited in August, when the seas were cooler and the diversity higher due to the nutrient rich waters. Also, the currents were at their strongest, but our guide made sure we felt comfortable navigating in the water.
Our snorkel was very early in the morning, we were the only boat. After a small briefing, we got into the water with our guide and another crew member, another two manned the pangas. The current was strong, and a bit overwhelming at first. But my god, the water. Between the rocks, there seemed to be an endless canyon below us, teeming with wildlife. And layers upon layers of animals. Large schools of sharks swimming deep. A giant school of huge tuna, glittering in the bit of sunshine that managed down to shallow depths. So many sea turtles and different rays, schools of rays. And tropical fish. The entire scene was magic, like an enchanted underwater rainforest. I felt as though I was swimming along in a giant aquarium exhibit, but instead, just quietly visiting a natural habitat, barely disturbing their joyful morning. We did not see the elusive hammerhead that morning, but I did not care. I had never so many different species and in such great numbers before in my life. I loved every second in that cold, fast moving water.
Back on the boat, we enjoyed breakfast and I started to drink my way through a gallon of strong, hot coffee and craved a warm shower. I wish I had underwater photos to share, but I almost had no camera at all, as my camera broke in Riobamba by a student (just an accident). But another student lent me his camera for the Galápagos, as long as I promised to give him a copy of all my photos.
The Galápagos Islands are an UNESCO site and highly protected and regulated, limiting numbers of visitors and locations accessible. Let’s face it, these islands are hard to get to (flight required) and expensive to tour around. I used to love teaching about this special place in my classroom, even before I was fortunate enough to experience them on my own. There is still a great need to protect this fragile ecosystem, but I’m hopeful increased work in ecotourism and investment in the local tourist community will continue that work. The Galápagos Islands are open again to visitors! COVID is considered under control and it seems with proof of a negative test, visitors can visit. Good news for my buddies, the sea lions. Bet they were lonely.