Wednesday, February 16, 2011

January 27th, Swimming in the Shark Den

Marine Iguana, Isabela Island, Galapagos

After an early breakfast, we hopped into our small fishing boats again and headed off on a day of snorkeling adventures. The water was smooth as glass for much of the trip, although there was a sturdy South swell hitting the islands.

Our first stop was a small islet about a mile out to sea. The rock was covered in guano and we saw some Blue-footed Boobies and Brown Noddies on the rocks, and a couple of inquisitive penguins in the water. We also spotted a few manta rays swimming near the rock, as well as some large Green Sea Turtles, which seem to be very abundant on this part of the island. Apparently, it is breeding season for the turtles, and they are congregating near the shore to breed and lay their eggs.

After another short trip up the coast, we finally arrived at our snorkeling destination. As we approached the shoreline, huge swells were breaking on either sides of us. The boat captains timed it right, waiting for a break in the surf, and gunned it towards shore, half surfing these giant waves. Once at the shore, they navigated a series of tight channels between lava cliffs and arches and showed us an inland spot among the mangroves where the turtles were congregating to breed.

We actually saw a couple of turtles breeding, and it honestly felt a little too intrusive to be back there disturbing them in their sensitive and important time of their lives. I feel that sometimes guides think that they are doing tourists a favor by taking them beyond the bounds, but in this case we could have easily done without this intrusive excursion. Once we navigated back out of the channels to a nice calm exterior location, we finally got into the water for some snorkeling and it was fantastic!

There were tons of turtles eating algae and swimming through the channels, as well as stingrays on the sandy bottom, huge schools of surgeon fish and striped bass, and I even saw a Whitetip Reef Shark swimming along the bottom. Students were also visited by a curious sea lion, which cruised the channels where we were swimming. Blue-footed Boobies and penguins perched on the rocky outcrops, and they seemed content to let us snorkel right up to them.

Blue-footed Booby

The water in this area had some colder currents than the last snorkeling spot, which may have accounted for the increase in fish and other wildlife.

After about an hour and a half of snorkeling, we hopped back into the boat to warm up and eat some lunch. Our next stop along the coast was an area known for sharks. Sure enough, our guide led us to a series of underwater arches and caves. In one cave, there must have been 15 Whitetip Reef Sharks resting on the bottom and a few others swimming loops through the cave.

Whitetip Reef Shark

It was a sight to behold! At first, with the glare of the sun, the sharks weren't visible. By heading into the cave and into the shade, and allowing your eyes to adjust to the darkness, the sharks slowly took shape and were illuminated by a green glow from a connecting channel on the other side of the cave. It had to be one of the coolest things I have ever seen while snorkeling.

After a long boat ride back, we spent the rest of the afternoon at a local tortoise hatchery. Unfortunately, on Isabela Island, the giant tortoises have been severely impacted by invasive ants, rats, goats, cats, etc, as well as a cultural practice of eating one tortoise per month. As a result, the tortoises aren't able to breed on their own in the wild. The hatchery breeds and raises tortoises from the island, including a flat-shelled type, and releases them back into the wild.

Giant Tortoise, flat shelled type


Newborn with egg

We were shown a demonstration of the incubating eggs, young tortoises of different ages, and the challenges the tortoises face on the island. Their recovery seems to be a tough task, however, as even those surviving in the wild are unable to repopulate on their own because of all the invasive species that target their eggs. This brings up a sad reality of these islands, in that our human presence, along with our favorite invasives in tow, are going to ultimately prove a difficult challenge for these sensitive island species. Even with the current immigration caps in place, they should never have allowed the human population in the Galapagos to reach 30,000. Unless something drastically changes, the local families, with 6 kids apiece, will eventually overrun these delicate islands.
I spent my last evening on the island walking the beach, snapping some last photos of the iguanas and shore birds, and reflecting on the wonder and magic of the Galapagos, as well as the challenges faced by it's unique wildlife.

Sanderling footprints

Marine Iguana, territorial display


Greater Flamingo


The islands offer incredible opportunities for viewing wildlife, and I have never been so up close and personal with such a wide variety of land and sea creatures. The lessons on evolution and speciation are all around and it is a neat opportunity to experience firsthand, the subjects of Darwin's revolutionary ideas. Unfortunately, examples also abound on the impacts of human colonization and habitation of wild places. With a rapidly increasing human population, transformed invasive plant communities, and many species already imperiled by natural pressures like El NiƱo events, I wonder how things will look when I visit next with my family. I truly hope we can rally to protect one of earth's greatest historical and natural treasures for generations to come.

Last minute fun in the sand


  1. Such a wonderful place! It is good that you saw some animals there and the very important is that you enjoy your staying there. c:

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