The giant curious eyes studied me with a disarming warmth and total lack of fear. They surveyed my snorkel mask and flippers with wide-eyed wonder and an engaging playfulness that instantly became a language of its own between us.
First there was one set of eyes, and then another, and finally a third.
Together we floated back and forth on the warm current, this trio of inquisitive baby sea lions and myself, just a few feet away from each other near the shoreline of a tiny Galapagos island.
The sea lions darted as close to me as their bold courage allowed, taking in this strange creature in front of them. And then just as quickly, dashed away to the safety of a nearby crop of rocks at shore’s edge, peaking furtively from around a corner.
Moments later, they were back again, tumbling through a series of exuberant underwater acrobatics as they approached, twisting and turning effortlessly around each other’s sleek gray-brown bodies in harmony like a trio of boisterous children tumbling across a rug until they were no more than a foot in front of me once again.
This playful game continued for 20 minutes punctuated every so often by the trio of sea lions swimming even closer to me so that we could stare directly into each other’s eyes and bask in the glow of our mutual curiosity.
The snorkeling outing was one of many unforgettable highlights from my journey earlier this year through the Galapagos Islands with Exodus Travels, an experience that was as pure an encounter with nature as I’ve ever had during many years as a travel writer.
The trip seems a distant dream now that life around the world has been upended by the struggle to contain the coronavirus. And as I reflect on the vibrant, soul-enriching days of my visit, made up of hiking, sailing and snorkeling, I’m suddenly even more aware of how special the trip was and immensely grateful to have had the experience when I did, mere weeks before the global travel industry would come grinding to a halt.
I traveled to the Galapagos curious about the impacts of overtourism and the plastic waste problem plaguing so much of the Earth and many of the destinations I’ve written about in recent years.
My visit left me awed and humbled by the efforts of the Ecuadorian government to protect this incredibly special corner of the world. Not once during seven days of sailing from island to island in the Galapagos did I observe a wayward piece of trash or plastic, either on land or in the ocean. What’s more, only on rare occasions did we even encounter other groups of tourists as we explored land and sea.
Perhaps more importantly, I won’t ever forget the incredibly rich interactions I had with all manner of wildlife in a place where so many animals exist free and in the wild, largely unharmed by human beings and more vibrant thanks to the ability to live unhindered. During a week of explorations, I experienced nature in ways I never would have expected and that will remain with me for a lifetime.
The Journey Begins
It is said that Charles Darwin’s initial impressions of the Galapagos, which he visited in 1835 on the HMS Beagle, were not exactly favorable. But it wasn’t long before the famed naturalist and biologist’s opinion of this stunning archipelago changed and its importance to his theories about evolution became abundantly clear, ultimately making history.
My own exploration of this bucket-list destination began with a commercial flight from mainland Ecuador to San Cristobal, one of the oldest of the Galapagos islands. The plane landed on a tarmac alongside San Cristobal’s small, single-story airport, a building surrounded by flat, mostly colorless and largely unremarkable landscape.
From the airport, there was a brief bus ride to the docks of San Cristobal where a small panga (boat) waited to take about two dozen passengers out into the turquoise-colored bay where we would board the M/V Evolution. A 192-foot, 16-cabin luxury yacht built to accommodate up to 32 passengers, the Evolution would be our home base for the journey ahead.
During the course of the coming week, we were to navigate some 400 miles, exploring the northern and central islands of the Galapagos, crisscrossing back and forth across the equator as we sailed.
Visionary Island Management
During our first afternoon on the M/V Evolution, we’re briefed about appropriate behavior for the week ahead. It was a talk I’d been eager to hear in order to learn more about the measures currently in place to protect this fragile environment and ecosystem.
The rules we were given included remaining on marked trails and being careful not to step on vegetation; as well as not touching, handling, or petting anything, and leaving everything exactly as we found it.
It was also comforting to learn that Ecuadorian officials have established a strict limit of only 100 tourist boats in the Galapagos park at any one time in order to minimize crowds and the impact of human visitation on wildlife and the environment. In addition, each tourist boat plying the waters here must follow a slightly different itinerary, visiting islands in a different order than the other vessels. This is another measure designed to minimize human disruption of the environment, ensuring that any single island is not burdened by too many tourists at one time.
“The environmental laws here are serious and many people are willing to enforce the laws,” 51-year-old, Bolo Sanchez, our group leader and naturalist, informed us.
Sanchez, who has been working in the Galapagos for 25 years and first began visiting the region as a child with his father, later explained to me that there’s a very strict management plan in place that was developed long ago by government officials. The plan dictates how many tourists can visit each site within the Galapagos archipelago and those limits are based on environmental factors, topography, wildlife and more.
“This is what made a difference, the management plan,” says Sanchez. “It’s an old plan, but it has been improving. And it was visionary for a small, poor country with an unstable democracy to develop such a plan.”
A Week of Island Hopping: Life in All Shapes and Sizes
The tortoises, iguanas, snakes and lizards that are native to the Galapagos arrived millions of years ago thanks to their ability to survive for long periods of time without water and make sea crossings. After arriving in the Galapagos, such creatures were able to persevere in the often unwelcoming, stark, lava-covered landscapes that dominate so many of the islands, where little more than cactus and scrub brush grows.
Now, iguanas are among the most commonly sighted creatures on these desolate islands, perhaps second only to the ubiquitous sea lions we encountered day after day or the dazzlingly colored Sally Lightfoot crabs.
Darwin once described the marine iguanas of the Galapagos as “a hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black color, stupid and sluggish in its movements.”
It’s an entirely unfair and undeserved description really. Both the marine and land iguanas that inhabit the Galapagos are fascinating not only for their sheer variety of colors and sizes, but they ooze character as well.
We became acquainted with these quirky ambassadors of the Galapagos during one of our first outings, a walk on South Plaza Island. As we stepped from a panga onto the shore, we were surrounded by at least half-dozen iguanas sunbathing languidly or sitting practically motionless on rocks like the subjects of a still life painting.
The marine iguanas are distinct thanks to their darker skin, which is often decorated with flecks of color that allow them to blend in with the plants and rocks along an island’s shoreline. They’re also the only iguanas in the world that have learned to feed exclusively from the ocean, hardly the characteristic of a stupid animal.
Land iguanas meanwhile, typically can be found sitting majestically on a well-placed rock further inland. They exude the air of regal kings surveying their kingdoms. And their scaly skin, a canvas of varying shades of yellows, browns and oranges, provides a vibrant splash of color in what is often an otherwise dull, dry landscape.
On still other islands, we spent time watching the famed and beloved blue-footed booby engaged in mating rituals. And on Santiago Island we came across tiny, comical finches that boldly landed on our camera lenses and cell phone screens to stare at their yellow and brown feathered bodies in the reflection.
Halfway through the week we sailed six hours during the night as we slept, crossing the equator to awake anchored off of Genovesa Island. As the sun rose, the sounds of a cacophony of birds floated across the bay into the cabins of our boat.
Often referred to as bird island thanks to the vast number of seabirds that come to nest on its shores (as many as 10,000), remote Genovesa remains one of the most pristine patches of land in all of the Galapagos.
We spent a remarkable few hours here spying baby boobies in their nests, adolescent boobies and all manner of adult boobies. Many of the birds were nesting on the ground among the large white rocks, while others were perched in nests at eye level, making them easy to spy.
During one afternoon stroll along the beach on another island, as I walked along peacefully taking in the sounds of the crashing waves, I suddenly heard an angry chirping growing louder and more insistent. It seemed to say “Heyyyy. You!! Do you see us down here?” rousting me from my thoughts.
I look down and just a few feet ahead were two adult Oystercatchers fiercely guarding a cluster of fuzzy, newborn babies that were ambling right toward me. As I took in the scene, I found myself stunned once again by the variety of life here at every turn. Every phase of life is on full display.
Indeed, on multiple occasions I walked back toward our waiting pangas after a hike marveling at just how remarkable this place is where animals live and roam peacefully, yet boldly, fully confident in the knowledge that this is at least one corner of the world where they remain largely in charge. The Galapagos continues to be very much their home, and humans are merely visitors passing through.
The Colors Beneath the Sea
The color that the lava covered Earth lacks above ground in the Galapagos can all be found beneath the sea.
Our daily snorkeling excursions exposed us to such a diversity of life that all else seem suddenly and especially barren by comparison. We swam past great shimmering schools of sardines and alongside groups of dazzling angelfish that range in color from blue to brown, with splashes of bright yellow and peach on their fins.
On the seafloor beneath us there were often clusters of chocolate chip starfish that looked very much like their name implies with giant brown dots.
The parade of marine life also included Moorish idols (which are believed to be a harbinger of happiness), blue tangs, sergeant majors, yellow surgeonfish and cardinal fish that looked like small red flames passing through the water.
From the blue murky depths fish of all shapes and colors emerged one by one or in clusters, coming into focus like shimmering orbs of light, each a magnificently different array of luminous colors.
On one memorable afternoon we snorkeled above a half dozen hammerhead sharks. On other days we spied white-tipped reef sharks tucked into dark alcoves resting. Moray eels poked their heads from underneath coral as we passed above and we observed Panamanian sea stars that look as if they’d been crocheted from orange yarn.
Streams of fish often swam below us, two by two, as if on some sort of fish highway. And on rare occasions, we even came across the magnificent Spotted Eagle Ray.
“The Galapagos is all about marine life,” Sanchez tells me one afternoon as we head back to the Evolution on the panga.
Yes indeed, I thought. During our daily snorkeling outings, I enjoyed a profound sense of peace swimming among this vibrant display of life and color, mesmerized by the panoply of turquoise, lavender, silver, yellow, orange and the deepest of blue.
One Final Swim
On one of our last days in the Galapagos we did a brief snorkel from the beaches of Floreana Island. With the trip nearly over, I had one more item on my Galapagos bucket list—swimming with a sea turtle.
Within minutes of entering the water my wish was granted. Our group came upon a large sea turtle right near the shore that was foraging. I spent a few minutes observing this brilliant creature and then turned and headed back toward land satisfied with my swim, as the rest of the group snorkeled on.
After a few minutes of swimming alone, I came upon an even larger and more magnificent turtle. The current moved me right toward him, less than a foot away. If I reached out my arm I could have touched him. I remained gliding along quietly beside him for about 10 minutes, enjoying this peaceful moment with just the two of us, letting the current carry me along instead of continuing to paddle my fins.
I watched as the turtle poked his head under rocks taking bites of seaweed here and there while clusters of colorful fish hovered above him and beside him. He seemed totally oblivious to my presence, though I was entirely fascinated by his.
At one point an incoming wave pushed me to within just a few inches of him, making me feel as if I was invading his space far too much and I decided it was time to leave and let him glide on in peace.
The Land Where Time Marches On
At the beginning of my journey in the Galapagos I sat in my cabin reading a book that describes this place as “the land time forgot.” Each day as we explored, that description was never far from mind. I was continually mulling over what the author meant.
During the days I spent here, I witnessed a place where life very much marches on despite the forces of climate change plaguing our modern era and the many other challenges facing the planet including pollution and countless threats from the human race.
I saw a place that in many ways remains pristine and where it’s still possible to truly escape and immerse yourself in the beauty of nature, forgetting for a brief time that so many places on Earth have not fared nearly as well, or remained quite as well preserved.
That’s not to say the Galapagos doesn’t face its own pressures and threats. There are indeed plenty of them.
Still, time does not seem to have caught up with the Galapagos in the same devastating way that it has other destinations around the globe. The Galapagos I will hold in my mind’s eye remains a shining example of a time when the Earth was a much purer place.
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