What makes the Galapagos strange is not the variety of birds and animals. Most are familiar. Pelicans, cormorants, and other seabirds are in the air, sea lions and iguanas on the beach, turtles in the water. We’ve seen these before, on beaches and in documentaries about the Galapagos. It’s their indifference to us. We ride by sea lions in the zodiacs, and we swim with them. Young sea lions are curious about us and circle as we snorkel, they dive and approach, they hang upside down, even blowing bubbles in the faces of some lucky swimmers. The sea lions flop around in the surf while we stand in the water only a few feet away, they loaf on the rocks as we hike along the beach trails.
In the water with our snorkeling gear, penguins come in for a dip, though they zoom by so fast most people don’t see them. Cormorants and boobies dive for fish just a few feet away. One day we swam in an area where sea turtles were stacked four deep, just hanging in the water. The largest tropical fish I’ve ever seen swim around and below the turtles and sea lions. Some move like flocks of underwater sheep, grazing across the bottom, lazily waving their bright yellow triangular tails. Visitors may not touch any of the animals, but animals may brush against visitors and that’s a bit unnerving. What happens when a turtle wipes their shell on your chest, or kicks you? Do we want to swim along with marine iguanas? The iguanas don’t dog paddle with their tiny claws, but propel themselves along with their tail, like a snake. On shore, they pile up against one another in huge clusters.
The water is breathtakingly cold and an hour is as much as anyone can take. Snorkelers put up a hand to be collected by the boatman. We swim toward the zodiac, the ladder is lowered. We hand in our fins and climb out of the water, get a towel and sit on the black rubber surface, enjoying the heat it has absorbed from the sun. We may sip from our metal water bottle as we wait for the others. When everyone is back on board and our life jackets are on, we head to the ship where we disembark one at a time, wearing our mesh bags of gear so that our hands are free to grab a hand or railing and haul ourselves onto the ship. On a side deck we begin to shed layers of protective gear, rinsing mask, snorkel, fins, wet suit, and then hanging it all up. More flights of stairs to our room to shed the rest of our layers in the hot shower. Once dried and dressed, the wet gear goes back down to the spinner to squeeze out as much water as possible. There may be more snorkeling in the afternoon and we want it to be as dry as possible. Once all the gear is settled, we go for the drinks and snacks set out near our entry point to the ship. The process has taken a while, giving each person time to contemplate what they’ve seen as they transition from sea to land.
For me, snorkeling is a high point, and also the most taxing activity. I wear all the layers I have available: bathing suit, leggings, full body thin wet suit, shorty neoprene wet suit, dive socks, headcover. I wish I had gloves–a complete water ninja. As soon as I get in the water, I make fists and tuck them under my arms to keep my fingers warm as long as possible. I move with my fins and keep my hands tucked in, taking in the view without uncoiling my arms, trying to keep warm as long as I can. Even with all my layers, a wet suit can only keep me warm for about thirty minutes. After that, I either grit my teeth and keep swimming, or I raise my hand and head back. I don’t mind waiting for the others, it is comfortable bobbing with the zodiac, watching for penguins and turtles. I can barely believe I am in the Galapagos Islands, as seen on TV. This week, my life could be narrated by David Attenborough. A segment of his documentary of the islands is shown each evening.
Even on land, this trip is a bit surreal—we are really here in the land of the giant tortoises. We walked by two of them on a hike and they blandly watched us as we stared at them, then turned and crept into the bushes when they’d had enough. At the Charles Darwin Research Center, we saw tortoises born this year, just a few inches across, and groups of larger and larger sizes. Tortoises are not released into the wild until they are around 25 years old. Lonesome George, the last surviving Pinta Island giant tortoise, has a place of honor at the center. Since his death in 2012 at the ripe old age of 100+ he is a taxidermied specimen, posed with his long neck extended as though nibbling at leaves on a bush. He left no offspring, but don’t worry. Another tortoise, SuperDiego, has 1000 offspring and counting. We visited tortoises in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island, where they roam very, very slowly around cattle pastures, or what look like pastures. Some have numbers that were carved into their shells years ago, before the development of RFID tagging used now. They ignore us as they munch methodically on grass, leaves, and branches. We tried not to step on them or trip over them. The land iguanas were not troubled by our group of visitors at all, and sat unmoving in the center of the path. We tiptoed around them and continued on our way, circling the next one, the next one, and the next. The lack of fear in creatures, and the multitudes of them, is what makes the Galapagos remarkable. Birds, iguanas, sea lions, sea turtles, and tortoises permit us in their environment rather than hiding from us or running away. Anywhere else, they would be rare or extinct. In the Galapagos, the animals turn their cold eyes on humans and are unimpressed.