When I prepared for my trip to the Galapagos Islands, I read about the unique wildlife of these isolated islands and other travelers describe it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The access of tourists is limited and strictly controlled, making it one of the more difficult to visit places, but it certainly is worth the extra effort to see wildlife you won’t be able to see anywhere else!
My departure point for the islands is Quito, Ecuador, a large, capital city, similar to others in South and Central America, and hardly a sign of the unique experience to come. Yet the flight through the coastal city of Guayaquil, for two and a half hours straight East over the ocean is my first preparation for the remoteness of these islands. On arrival, a disinfection carpet is greeting me, the first of many measures to protect the natural park. The second, awaits me out side the gate, our “Naturalista”, the mandatory guide for anybody who wants to step into the Natural Park itself. We are very lucky – he has guided National Geographic photographers before! We leave the airport and the few signs of civilization quickly behind us and board our ship to start the journey to the outlying islands. There are no daytrips or half-day passes to this natural wonder…
No matter what I had read about or heard about the Galapagos Islands before my trip, I am overwhelmed by what I see on my land trips. A welcome committee of sea lions is awaiting us…but they don’t show any of the expected reactions of wild animals. They don’t flee, they don’t even seem to care about those funny mammals in the funky colors, as we carefully make our way across the island. Emboldened by the reaction – or lack their of – we get closer to the sea lions for photos and now, do get a prompt response: The dominant male of the group is putting the “challenger” on notice not to get any closer, ready to charge. A female with a young one is starting to make noises, ready to protect her young. Yet we are treated like any other large animal entering their turf and we learn to fit into this world. We learn the lower tolerance of the birds, mothers with young or males. We see the larger tolerance of the Iguanas who don’t seem to mind even close encounters. And we are subject to the curiosity of the very young, checking out the big two-legged animals for the first time. They sniff and nudge and prod, playing and learning and figuring out how far they can go. We obey the “don’t touch, don’t take anything rules” and are part of the baby sea lions learning experience.
Other times, we are observers of a strange world, watching the rituals of unique birds, iguanas or giant tortoises, long lost in other parts of the world.
If the world of the Galapagos land animals is unique, so is the under water world. I am ready for a dive adventure and the preparations begin. The Galapagos are considered a difficult diving destination, with cold waters, strong currents and deep drops. Yet they also offer an abundance of life. After an introductory dive that is more preparation for the environment than exploration, I experience the best dive of my life near Florentina island. Our guide has promised sea lions and we will not be disappointed. Plenty of sea lions are in the water. On land they are cute, but also a little clumsy in the way they waddle over the beach. The water is clearly their true element. They glide gracefully through the water, just to propel themselves forward at the next moment, at speeds completely unexpected. I feel stationary, no matter how hard I work my large fins.
Already deeply in awe, the real surprise is yet again presented by the young sea lions who are checking out those funny fish with colored feet and big eyes. One swims right up to me, facing me. The eye slits I saw on land have become huge, round, brown eyes, starring right into my eyes. Like a puppy, he seems to say “Play with me” and I’m happy to oblige! I start to roll and summersault under water…and he follows suite. He rolls around me, loops around me and swims belly-to-belly with me, always one-upping me, whatever I do. He disappears and I look around to find out what happened, but he is already back to play some more. We continue our escapades and I’m not quite sure, who is having more fun. I almost lose track of time playing around, yet a look at my pressure gauge reminds me that I’m not meant to be down here – I’m low on air and have to say good-bye to my new play pal. He takes off, looking for somebody else to play with, leaving me with the best dive experience of my life. My heart is pumping, I’m looking down from the surface, vowing to grow gills, some day, to return better equipped…
Check out more photos below: