“Tiburones! Tiburones abajo!”
My heart sank. Only an hour before, I’d learnt that this was the Spanish word for sharks. Plural. And now I was about to swim over a whole school of them.
“Los tiburones están aquí!!”
I got the distinct impression our snorkelling guide was about to have a heart attack if I didn’t get my masked face into the water that very instant. Despite my imagination playing out a Jaws-esque scenario that could very easily happen, I hastily obliged.
And fifteen metres below my frantically kicking toes, I saw this.
I don’t know if I’ve ever been so simultaneously scared and excited before. Certainly not in a situation where death was an actual – albeit pretty unlikely – possibility.
“¿Estás seguro que no es peligroso?” (IS THIS DANGEROUS?!)
The nervous side of me kept questioning our poor guide (although in Spanish, proudly enough!) but he continually assured me it wasn’t dangerous; that these little beasties have more than enough fish to eat and aren’t hungry enough to take a cheeky bite of tourists’ toes. And to be perfectly honest, my questions didn’t have much emphasis behind them; because despite not quite believing it was possible, I was having an absolute whale of a time.
Now, before you look at the itineraries for day trips in the Galapagos, you’re probably already assuming that things can’t be quite as good as they are on a fancy cruise. I mean, how could they be? If you’re not blowing a grand on eight days of boat-living like the other Galapagos visitors, there’s got to be a downside. Surely it’s impossible to get the same experience?
But this is where you’re wrong, my sceptical friends. The Galapagos is a supremely giving place, and it gives to everyone equally, regardless of how much money they’re spending.
In my case at least, ‘giving’ meant the opportunity to snorkel with sharks, giant turtles and baby sea lions in the space of six hours. Simply put, a day trip to San Cristóbal was the best $80 I’ve probably ever spent.
Initial worries of a Galapagos day tripper
When we were waiting for our day trip to start at 7am, though, I wasn’t quite as positive. The skies over Puerto Ayora were cloudy, and my over-confident-in-the-sun self had dressed only in shorts, vest and bikini.
Shivering on the harbour front as our bags were checked by security for fruit and nuts (no transporting of agricultural products between islands in case it creates any ecological imbalances), I caught myself wondering if this whole “Galapagos on the cheap” plan was really going to be worth it.
The two hour boat ride to San Cristóbal didn’t do itself any favours, either. I hadn’t bargained on quite so much fresh sea breeze consistently billowing into my face; a refreshing feeling that, when combined with zero sunshine and a very fast moving boat, actually proved to make us rather chilly.
Luckily by the time we arrived at the island, me and Sherri were so damp from the salt spray that we found the whole situation amusing. And as soon as our eager guide hurried us down towards the beach at La Loberia, excitedly pointing out the huge black iguanas lounging on the sand, I started to understand what was so magical about these islands.
Feeling a little outnumbered by wildlife
Animals are literally everywhere in the Galapagos. Not just that; they’re completely unafraid of humans. It’s because of the unique isolation of the islands (over 500 miles from the South American coast) that only smaller species managed to arrive and then thrive, hundreds of years ago; birds, lizards and the smallest of mammals.
The predators that would normally terrify said species would never have survived a crossing to the islands without external help, so there’s a distinct lack of fear, as these guys never developed the flight instinct so prevalent in other animals.
Simply put, Charles Darwin really got his stuff right when he visited the Galapagos and came up with the Theory of Evolution.
But we weren’t on this beach to just look at sea lions, however adorably arrogant they were. And regardless of how much they preened for our willing cameras.
La Loberia’s shallow bay waters are where a number of sea turtles can be found hanging out – just chatting, chilling, catching the current, and doing their turtle thing.
Ok, so at that point I had no idea what turtles did down there. I caught an unexpected glimpse of two rather amorous turtles in the Charles Darwin breeding centre on Santa Cruz, and their movements had been so slow and laboured – which fit perfectly with my preconceived giant turtle stereotype.
But from the moment I put my snorkelled head under the water and saw my first glimpse of a sea turtle in its natural, marine environment, I suddenly understood what makes the Galapagos so incredibly special.
Being in a David Attenborough documentary
I’ve always thought of turtles as slow, cumbersome creatures. But that’s because I’ve only ever seen them on land, when their huge protective shells take an absolute age to lug along the ground.
Watching them swim effortlessly along with the current and chew on algae growing on the rocks gave me a whole new perspective on how these guys actually live: sometimes slow and lumbering on land, sure, but underwater they’re completely different.
And being able to swim alongside them? It was utterly incredible, and an experience I’m unlikely to ever forget.
It was so tempting to get ridiculously near to a creature almost the entire length of me. To watch as they grabbed onto algae with their teeth in a vague attempt to fight the current; to unconcernedly allow a number of tiny fishes to swim between their flippers. But then suddenly I was too close, and overly aware that if this particular turtle decided to swim in my direction I was going to have a hard time not bumping into him.
The protection of a fragile ecosystem
Something you have to be aware of when visiting the Galapagos is just how delicate a balance needs to be maintained. The way things have evolved is primarily because there’s been so little interference from outside sources – and tourists could so easily and inadvertently upset the balance.
There’s a real temptation for people to get inappropriately close to these animals for the sake of a perfect photo, but because the animals are so unconcerned with us being there, it’s up to us to know our limits. A resolve that some tourists find it very hard to keep to.
Despite the ability to see such incredible wildlife in their natural habitats, it’s of the utmost importance to not affect their natural behaviour. The best rule is that if they notice your presence, you’re too close.
Although I got the feeling that the only creature who doesn’t recognise this rule is a baby sealion. Because after an hour of snorkelling with them, I have no doubt about how much they like to play with humans.
Playtime in the water
We took our boat across to Islas Lobos after keeping our respectful distance from the turtles – and while eating a boxed lunch of fish, rice and salad which I was ravenously grateful for, after a combination of snorkelling and intense animal-watching excitement.
Our first underwater exploration of the little area didn’t yield much, and I was starting to think that the promised sealions were going to prove rather elusive. Until a sleek, grey shape passed swiftly underneath me, and suddenly the water was filled with lithe, speeding bodies, that turned and twisted in clear enjoyment of their new playmates’ presence.
With these guys, I felt perfectly happy to let them know I was there. In fact, I was more nervous that they were going to barrel straight into me! Sealions have an uncanny knack of knowing which snorkellers are concerned about their behaviour; which is when they’ll dive down to the sandy bottom, twist as they swim and suddenly shoot straight up at your face – only narrowly avoiding impact.
Or maybe they’ll swim upside down and scream noiselessly, just to freak you out.
To be honest, these shots don’t even do it justice. Feeling the sun on my back as I kept my head submerged and watched them play with us and each other was simply incredible.
And I spent a good ten minutes following one sea lion as he played with a perfect circle of coral, attempting to balance it on his nose, losing it amongst the rocks on the sea bed, and then nudging it back into a playable position again.
Why should you take a day trip?
Words simply don’t do justice to my day trip in San Cristóbal. It surpassed even my wildest expectations: swimming alongside the biggest turtles I’ve ever seen; snorkelling through a fissure between two giant rocks and staring down fifteen metres to see at least ten different schools of sharks (including two hammerheads!) go lazily past; and discovering just how much baby sea lions like to flirt, chase and play with visitors.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that you’ll score as good an experience as I did. But the great thing about booking a day trip is that you can pick when you go, and can be more specific about what exactly you want to do. The idea of snorkelling with three different animals was perfect for me, but if you were more keen to explore the land instead, there are tons of options.
And chances are you’ll probably experience some of the best parts of a Galapagos cruise, just slightly quicker and a lot cheaper. A somewhat bitter guy on our San Cristóbal trip said he’d never once swum with turtles throughout his entire five day cruise!
But I still can’t forget those moments at Leon Dormido, as we jumped from our boat into the fifteen metre depths, knowing that there could be sharks beneath us. We were in a setting dramatic enough for such an excurstion; dwarfed by the spectacularly craggy rocks, surrounded by squawking birds, and worried by the chill of the ocean water.
And ultimately, I knew that I was sharing the water with creatures that could, in theory, be rather keen on biting me – but I was still brave enough to do it regardless. And that made the entire day of snorkelling around San Cristobal more than worth it.
Have you ever snorkelled or dived with a dangerous animal? Would you be brave enough to try it?
Much as I wish I could take credit for these photography skills, all underwater shots in this article were taken by my day tour guide with a GoPro camera. (I did, however, have a wonderful time editing them!)