Galapagos: Nature Gives a Cuddle
Panicked. I screamed and felt my heart begin to race. Frantically I flipped my fins and looked up out of the water. “Hey! Help! Hey, Hey…” I saw my partner, Dan, and eight of our new friends far away with their heads in the water, snorkels straight up. No one was coming to my rescue, and a 300- pound sea lion had her face in mine.
Shaking, I saw more sea lion fins and felt their presence beneath my feet in the sea about 100 feet from San Salvador Island in the Galapagos. I took a deep breath, and another, and another. The sea lions came up for air and loudly yelped around me. Realizing I had no other choice, I submerged my head and began to enjoy. These animals have no fear of humans and love to play. They practically kissed my face, circled around, and dove below me with incredible speed. It was a warm welcome.
On land, there are rules about approaching animals. For their safety you must keep your distance. You can get close but no touching. We found a newborn sea lion, the mother, and fresh placenta on the white San Cristobal beach. I carefully knelt down close. The baby made high-pitched pleas for milk, the mother tried to accommodate, and the male bull loudly voiced his concern. As much as I wanted to pet the pup, one human touch and it will be cast out and left for dead. I turned away and looked at the beautiful view. We were the only humans in sight.
The crew aboard the Evolution prepared an eight-day trip to nine islands. About 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador with no Internet or phone, I completely disconnected during my maiden cruise. I approached our first night with apprehension. Our cabin was on the lowest deck under water, with one small locked portal for a window. Dan believed we had the best bed aboard as waves sloshed outside, “It’s like being in the womb.” I crawled into bed, nervous. When my head reached the pillow I felt myself being rocked back and forth. This was the deepest sleep of my life.
Mornings on the Evolution greet you with delicious coffee, breakfast, and a gorgeous view of a new island to explore. Each day is a new adventure. Pangas transport you to the islands for hiking, snorkeling, and animal-watching. Espanola Island introduced us to the waved albatross. I looked in his eyes and knew he wanted his portrait. Posing like a model, all three feet of him, he stared into my lens and waddled by me. I followed as he introduced me to his family, sitting next to his baby recently hatched in early fall. My new models took this seriously. I laughed to myself in complete disbelief of this extraordinary photo session. I could have sworn they took a bow when I finished.
Island hiking was hot. Snorkel excursions were chilly. Post-snorkeling offered a special treat, a Jacuzzi on the bow of the yacht. “Hammerheads prefer to travel in packs so visibility issues may have prevented us from realizing we were surrounded. I dove as deep as I could and saw the tail of something big disappear. When I reached the surface, a hammerhead appeared beneath me and I froze.” As Dan was explaining his experience, I visualized him in the murky water surrounded by a school of deadly hammerheads and the theme music of “Jaws” playing in the background. “They don’t want to eat humans because the sharks have ample food in the Galapagos.” My first thought was, “What if the shark mistakes you for something tasty? Then, what do you do?” I sat this excursion out.
I have never had a great interest in birds. But during the trip I changed. One of my favorite animals is the flightless cormorant. This large bird lost its ability to fly. To get a good picture of this bird, stand up and imitate a bird flying. With your arms stretched out, start flapping up and down. Now, bring your arms in to your sides, bend at your elbows with your hands out at your shoulders. Flap only your hands. This is a cormorant. Because the bird lived without large predators, and plenty of fish to dine upon, it now hunts in the sea with hefty webbed feet. Their wings are like little hands. Call it a coincidence or a cool connection between human and bird, our last night on board called for charades. Reluctantly, I reached my hand in the hat. I pulled out the slip of paper and it read “the flightless cormorant.” Hah! I got this one!
Prior to the trip I heard of the famous tortoise, Lonesome George, and his “star quality,” but nothing prepared me for his presence. Being the last of his kind, he is cautiously protected as if stalked by paparazzi. He moves in a slow dance. His head sways and his paws swoop. He is “Mac Daddy” cool. While George roams his protected labyrinth, hundreds of other Galapagos tortoises venture freely throughout the Highlands of Santa Cruz Island. We joined them over lunch. They wander slowly through the grass. Eating is meditative. Chomp. Deep breathe. Swallow. Move one foot. Repeat. Every breath is deep and slow, “Life is easy. Simple. Go tell everyone.”
“More sharks! The sharks sleep with sea turtles in a cove!” I heard this as we headed out to Black Turtle Cove. “Will WE be swimming with them?” The answer is no. “Thank you.” The mangrove branches hid this secret place. The motor turned off. We lay down in the bottom of the panga and ducked our way through. Once on the other side, we remained silent and waited for the sharks and tortoises to surface. Our timing was perfect. The sea tortoises slinked by the sharks and the sharks rose from the bottom in droves of 10 to 20. Circling our panga, the sharks moved with grace and we saw distinctive colors, including their white tips. The tortoise swam past a shark without fear of being dinner.
Prior to the trip I didn’t understand the excitement among travelers about tortoises and birds. How much can really be said about iguanas? After experiencing the islands, my life has changed a little. I recognize natural selection. I see it in every plant. Every fish. Every bird. And every animal. I now talk about the tortoises and birds’ extraordinary personalities and habits incessantly. When you visit the Galapagos, please listen to your guides and follow the animal protection boundaries. Book a cruise on The Evolution. Reserve cabin D2 for the best sleep of your life, and let nature give you a cuddle.
Quasar Expeditions: Yachts include the Evolution and the Grace
Headquarters: Quito, Ecuador
Address: Jose Jussieu N41-28 y Alonso de Torres, Quito, Ecuador
Contact Phones / Fax:
Toll free USA: 1-866-481-7790
Toll free UK: 0-800-883-0827
info @ galapagosexpeditions.com
The Charles Darwin Foundation
Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island Galapagos,
Ecuador Tel: -593-5-2526-146/147
Fax: 593-5-2526-146/147 Ext 102
CDF support office in Quito:
Av. 6 de Diciembre N 36-109 y Pasaje California
Post Box 17-01-3891
General inquiries: cdrs @ fcdarwin.org.ec