One of the highlights of any trip to Galapagos Islands is getting up close and personal with the region’s unique wildlife. One of the best ways to do this is by snorkeling. Many cruises and day trips have itineraries that include snorkeling excursions. For us, almost every day of our cruise included snorkeling and I’m so glad we brought an underwater camera!
When we visited in late October, the water was still pretty cold, and we needed wetsuits in order to stay down very long. From December to April, the currents in the islands are warm, which means wetsuits aren’t needed, but the cold water from May to November means the islands teem with life, so on our trip we were definitely rewarded for toughing out the cold.
Since the cold currents bring a lot of algae, plankton, and other microscopic life that attracts the larger animals, the underwater visibility at this time of year isn’t great. On more than one occasion, I nearly swam right into a sea turtle that I couldn’t see 3 feet in front of me! I had to get very close up to make sure the pictures weren’t just a murky mess. It was also difficult to tell right away if any of the pictures I was taking were any good. My best trick was simply to take a ton of pictures of everything and hope one or two would come out alright. Some times were easier than others, and since sea turtles move at a leisurely pace, I was able to swim alongside and take lots of shots. Some of the faster animals underwater, like penguins, were more than I could handle (not pictured: blurry penguin).
The fish weren’t as colorful as some places I’ve visited, but each species still seemed to have something interesting about it, like electric blue eyes that stared back at me as I swam above. Unlike the animals on land, everything underwater (with one notable exception), seemed very skittish. Anything that swam faster than me (read: most things) was difficult to get close enough to photograph.
For some of the bottom dwellers, the challenge was diving deep enough in order to get close. For this sunflower sea star, I had to dive down about 15 feet and avoid passing out.
Marine iguanas swim out and dive down to eat the green algae that grows on the rocks below. The bigger males can dive deeper and longer before their bodies cool down too much and they have to return to shore to warm up again on the rocks. On land, the larger iguanas have no predators and no fear of people, but underwater, they need to avoid sharks and are much more careful. This guy wasn’t eager to hang around when I dove down to get a closer look at him. Marine iguanas are not found anywhere else in the world besides the Galapagos, so this was a pretty special sight for me.
Another really fun thing about snorkeling is that you get to see some of the animals in a much different setting than when they are just sitting on a rock on land. Penguins and sea lions look goofy and awkward on land, but underwater, they are graceful and lightning quick. The marine iguanas shimmy through the water and let their tail propel them since their feet aren’t webbed.
One of the most magical encounters you can have is with a curious sea lion who will dart in and around your group. At first, I found it a little scary because they can move so quickly and I couldn’t, and when I was swimming along the surface, I got startled a few times by sea lions dashing toward me only to peel off to the side at the last minute (Cassie captured this crazy encounter on video). It was as if they were playing some kind of game with me. They wanted to see me just as much as I wanted to see them. It was sometimes difficult to remember that these were wild animals, and I wasn’t at the zoo. It was simply unforgettable.
Your turn: Share your favorite place to snorkel or scuba dive?