As I floated in a little bay and felt a sea lion playfully nibble at my toes, I knew we had made the right decision to visit Darwin’s famed, Galapagos Islands.
A few weeks prior, while we were visiting Quito, Ecuador, we decided to book a last-minute deal for an 8-day Galapagos cruise on a small "economy class" yacht.
It was a bit of a budget-buster, but worth every penny. While traveling on a budget, our goal is not always to spend as little as possible; our goal is to get the biggest bang for our buck...and Galapagos packed quite a punch.
Located about 600 miles off the West coast of Ecuador, these volcanic islands boast pristine, uninhabited beaches and unique species of wildlife found nowhere else in the world.
And even the ones that can be found elsewhere, such as sea lions, behave quite differently at the Galapagos. I was blown away at the tameness of all the animals. Had I wanted to, I am sure I could have caught a bird with my own bare hands.
Quirky Birds Making Funky Foreplay
I had always thought of birds back home as being universally skittish creatures, taking off as soon as you even flinch in their direction. But here on the Galapagos, they just sit and look back at you, slightly tilting their head to one side as if to ask, "and you are?"
One albatross even built her nest right on the trail and sat contentedly as our group of 12 stampeded by on our way to see the rest of her nesting friends.
And although we humans tend to prefer privacy when we engage in hanky-panky, the Galapagos' endemic blue-footed boobies continued their curious mating rituals with 12 cameras zoomed in on them from just two feet back. They pranced around wiggling their bright, Sweet Tart blue-colored feet in the air to show-off and attract a mate. The female appeared highly disinterested, but our group was captivated and hoped for an encore.
Note: We also saw the (sort of) monogamous albatross birds in mating season. Check out their quirky foreplay here: http://youtu.be/H_7FqzKAuBg
Chilled Out Reptiles
But it wasn't just the sea birds that didn't bother to run from us. Other animals exhibited same nonchalant behavior. In the Galapagos, there are a plethora of iguanas, both land and sea. On each island, they are slightly different, having adapted to their various environments.
The sea iguanas are black (sometimes with a little red mixed in). They blend in seamlessly with the lava rocks sprinkled along the shores. Tom had a keen eye for spotting these lazy fellows, but I, on the other had, nearly stepped on them every time I turned around.
All day long, they sat on the rocks warming themselves and spitting salt out of their noses. Occasionally, we saw one of them swimming through the shallow water in search of food, their paddle-like tale helping to propel them along.
The land iguanas were not much different. They were more colorful, with hints of green and yellow, but they also blended into their surroundings so well that I almost stepped on them too, despite the fact that most of them are more than a meter long!
There were definitely not in any hurry to get out of our way.
Thankfully, the giant tortoises were much too large to step on, weighing in at up to 300 kilos!
Under The Sea: "Darling it's better, Down where it's wetter"
When we jumped off the dingy into the water around Kicker Rock to snorkel, I couldn't help but hear the Little Mermaid's Sebastian singing..."Darling it's better, down where its wetter. Take it from me..."
We found we could get just as close to the sea creatures as we could the land animals, and we found ourselves in the underwater equivalent of a highway.
Kicker Rock is split in two with a large crevice between the two halves of the rock. This crevice acts as a sort of funnel, and all kinds of sea-life pass through it, concentrating themselves in one spot for our viewing pleasure. Reef sharks swam by just a few feet below us, so close that I could look them right in their eerie eyes. Even our guide, who does this sort of thing every day, seemed mesmerized.
Then a little further below, beneath the sea turtles, Eagle rays and loads of tropical fish, we saw a hammerhead shark!
And all of this just while snorkeling! Imagine what else we might have seen if Tom and I had our dive certifications. By the way, I have now added, "get dive certification" to my bucket list.
Note: Unfortunately, I don't have pics of everything we saw at Kicker Rock, but here is a little taste. Visibility was much better in person.
Getting Schooled in Playfulness By Sea Lions
And then there were the sea lions, my personal favorite. They bridged our daily walks on land and our snorkel excursions in the water.
They inquisitively approached us, waddling awkwardly across the beach to greet us when we landed on their shore. And when we entered the water they hopped right in after us.
The moment their big awkward bodies hit the water, they transformed into graceful swimmers, circling us, and then twisting and twirling around each other like a dance. They even nibbled at our toes.
One sea lion, finding itself at the center of attention with 12 goggles and 3 underwater cameras pointing directly at it, picked up a rock off the bottom of the bay. It pushed it to the surface and then let it fall back down into the water, rolling off its back as it flipped around and down to catch it and push it back up again. What a show!
I have been to Sea World enough to know that sea lions are capable of learning tricks, but I had never thought of them as being so naturally playful. For some reason, in my mind, I had reserved playfulness to be a human quality.
But on the islands that inspired Darwin's theory of natural selection, the characteristic of playfulness somehow made the cut. Perhaps, it has some sort of value for survival, or maybe it is part of the reason for survival. Either way, it is obviously an essential part of life for these sea lions, and I think for us too.
Shamefully, I realized how little value I often place on playfulness. Coming from the US where efficiency, productivity, and achievement are so highly valued, it can be easy to feel guilty for piddling away an afternoon by relaxing, playing games, or laughing with friends. Such an afternoon can make me feel like I'm falling behind on the "important things."
I'm reminded of a quote from Peter Fleming in a book that I recently read:
"Throughout all our personality we are God's, and since God has made our whole selves, there is great joy in realizing who is our Creator. This realization is to permeate every area and level of life. In appreciation of beauty, mountains, music, poetry, knowledge, people, science--even in the tang of an apple--God is there, to reflect the joy of His presence in the believer who will realize God's purposes in all things."
Even in playfulness we can fully realize and celebrate our Creator and His creation.
Although this year of travel may cause us to fall a little behind in life or in our careers, I'm confident that it will have been well worth it. Life is so much more than a job. And while hard work is also important (and something that I actually love), I see nothing wrong with taking a year to play, to taste an apple, to climb a mountain, to swim with sea lions, and to reflect the joy of creation and its Creator.
Galapagos, I hope to return to you again some day...but next time with a tank and regulator!
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I'm Jaime. My husband is Tom. Suburbanites, backpackers, and expats...we've been them all!