Experiencing the Unreal in the Galapagos
My boyfriend, Ron, sat across from a puking teenage boy on the boat’s lower deck. Ron was trying to figure out how to politely react to the situation. He pulled plastic bags out from our packs and placed them beside the boy. A look of calm understanding accompanied his nod.
The Galápagos winter season is cool and dry, whereas the summer is warm with downpours. However, anyone who has visited during the winter would agree that it can alternatively be defined as the season of hurling tourists. The Humboldt Current brings up cold and nutrient-rich water from the tip of Chile, resulting in choppy waves. Speed boat rides involve being continuously tossed in the air and slammed on the ocean surface. At the end of every ride, the boat staff tend to the cracks in the windows.
Ron and I suffered through a three-hour boat ride to the low-key island of Isabela. As soon as we found our hostel, Ron, who walked down corridors high-fiving everyone like Ferris Bueller, had already met and befriended a tour guide. This Galápagos local had bright blue eyes, which was rare enough in South America, but his striking resemblance to John Travolta shocked me even more.
Ron and I took part in his expedition to a snorkel site called Los Tuneles, which required a one-hour boat ride south of Puerto Villamil.
Fighting the urge to vomit was only one challenge during our journey. When approaching our destination, a second hurdle awaited us: in order to maintain some semblance of control while approaching the shore, the boat needed to surf on the crest of a big wave. John Travolta examined the incoming waves. Rapid Spanish fired between him and the captain. They turned to us and yelled, “This is it! Hold on!”
I was so confused and frightened, but all I could do was squeeze my eyes shut and tighten my grip on the steel bar behind me. The boat’s engine roared.
When I opened my eyes, I saw what looked like a Dali painting stretched in front of me. Cacti hovered over the ocean on rock arches, and as we floated closer, animals came into focus. I yanked Ron’s sleeve to point out a sea lion that lay snoozing around the base of a five-foot tall cactus. Penguins appeared, hobbling back and forth over the rocky edges. I couldn’t believe I was seeing this bizarre combination of desert, sea, and a hint of tundra.
Everyone hopped out of the boat and into a web of partially emerged tunnels. There was a peeping noise behind me and Ron. We turned and saw the back of a booby with its signature sky-blue feet. Its head was eerily twisted around to scope us out with a vacant expression. Just below the bird sat another booby with a tiny, fuzzy white chick. The chick’s beak looked too large and heavy to hold up.
As is common with many animals in the Galápagos, the parents weren’t frightened by us. We were able to get close for a family portrait.
The ocean surrounding this island cluster was shallow, and clear enough to see coral. As I stood peering into the water, a small sea turtle floated to the surface to take a breath of air. I jumped up and down and yelled at Ron to come see. Our guide laughed at me and said we’d see much bigger sea turtles while snorkeling. After seeing ancient, giant tortoises on land, I was very excited to see their speedy marine counterparts.
I wasted no time getting my mask, fins and wet suit on. Two sea lions slipped into the water to follow our group. Sea lions are very playful, and their advanced hunting skills give them a substantial amount of leisure time. When I was nearly submerged in the cold water, one approached, and I dropped my head under the surface to make eye contact with my new friend. His nostrils opened up and he wiggled his thick whiskers. Then he popped back up, and we maintained eye contact above the water.
All the worries regarding expenses and sea sickness involved in getting to Galápagos vanished the moment I connected with this little fellow over a game of “Sea Lion Says”.
The sea lion followed along as Ron and I swam out. The water became a bit murkier as we went deeper. There was another sea turtle, and an eagle ray with a small, speckled wingspan that floated majestically underwater. Its spindle tail was the only rigid part of its soft, flowing body.
As I watched the ray, something bigger appeared in my peripheral vision. A torpedo-shaped silhouette hovered about one foot over the sandy bottom. The edges of its fins looked bleached. It was a white-tipped reef shark.
My legs ceased kicking, and my body froze as I watched this death machine glide about me. I always wondered what I would do if I encountered a shark while scuba diving, but to be honest, there really isn’t anything to do. The earth’s centre shifts away from you as you relinquish control.
Typically, sharks aren’t interested in scuba divers, and fortunately this was the case with my encounter. But slowly, more and more reef sharks showed up to investigate what had interrupted their slumber. It was time to leave this quarter.
John Travolta signaled the group over to a cave. Ron and I approached, along with an American tourist named Craig — an aged man with wild red hair, who wore John Lennon glasses and never went anywhere without his hula hoop. While we were all on shore, Ron reluctantly agreed to take photos of Craig in various poses with his beloved hoop. John Travolta was explaining that reef sharks don’t need to be constantly moving in order to breathe, and that the cave down below us was a popular rest stop for them.
Leave it to Craig to ask if he could touch the sharks. At least I finally understood why coffee cup warnings like “drink with caution – hot” were necessary.
On our way back to the boat, we had to swim over a dozen white-tipped sharks sleeping on the sandy bottom. I was the last in line. The tourists in front of me must have been nervous, because their shallow and controlled kicks sped up, and limbs began jerking unpredictably.
By the time I hovered a few feet over the sharks, they began waking up and launching in every direction. My pounding heart echoed through my chest. I forced my feet to kick me clear of the chaos. I may have peed in my wetsuit.
When I climbed up onto the boat, Craig was posing with his hula hoop, and John Travolta was starting the engine as the salt water lapped against ocean cacti. The sound of penguin squeaks faded beneath the engine’s rumble as we departed from this otherworldly biome.
As published by Vagabundo Magazine.