Oceanic “Puppy Dogs”
I am floating facedown in the water looking at white-tip reef sharks below me, when out of the corner of my eye I spy a small freight train coming straight at me. Just before it crashes into my face, it veers away. I’m relieved, but a rush of excitement comes over me. What was that?
My first encounter with a sea lion was while snorkeling in Gardner Bay off the island of Española (also called Hood Island), in the Galápagos Islands. Once the initial shock of the near miss wears off, swimming with several of these oceanic puppy dogs becomes a delight. They’ll sneak up on you from behind or put their face right in your mask. At one point I decided to tumble in the water and a nearby mother and youngster copied me. It was a delight akin to scuba diving with playful dolphins.
The waters of the Galápagos are teeming with sea life, and approximately 17% of the species present are specific to this region off the coast of Ecuador. Both diving and snorkeling are fantastic, and most tours give you the opportunity to snorkel right from shore. Sea lions can usually be found at Champion Inlet off Floreana (Charles Island), the Pinnacle off Bartolome, at Puerto Egas off Santiago (James Island), as well as Gardner Bay. When snorkeling in the Galápagos you’re also likely to encounter rays, white-tip reef sharks, eels, turtles, penguins, dolphins, marine iguanas, and huge numbers of reef fish and invertebrates. If you’re really lucky you may even see a Hammerhead shark. On land, you’ll see sea birds, giant tortoises, reptiles, and land mammals.
The majority of visitors who come here take a multi-day boat tour, which allows them to visit several of the islands in the Galápagos Marine Park. There is also lodging on a few of the larger islands, but most people prefer the all-inclusive week-long boat-trip packages, where on-board guides give guest lectures and lead excursions.
If you plan to spend time in the water bring a wet skin for the hot and wet season (Dec–June) and a 3mm wet suit for the dry season (June–Nov), when temperatures hover around 66°F (19°C). These can be purchased from your local dive shop, are not very expensive, and will make your time in the water more comfortable and enjoyable. I also suggest bringing your own fins, mask, snorkel, a mesh bag for your gear, and an underwater camera or a soft housing that will protect your small digital down to at least 15 feet. Your tour company should provide a recommended packing list and luggage weight restrictions.
For most visitors, a trip to the Galápagos is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so do what you can to see as much marine and land life as possible. And don’t forget your sunscreen! —LF
Tours: Ecoventura, 6404 Blue Lagoon Dr., Miami ( 800/644-7972; www.ecoventura.com). KLEIN Tours, Av. Eloy Alfaro and Caralina Aldaz, Quito, Ecuador ( 888/50 KLEIN [505-5346] in the U.S.; www.kleintours.com).
When to Go: June–Nov.
San Cristobal or Baltra (near Santa Cruz Island).
$$$ Royal Palm Hotel, Via Baltra Km 18, Isla Santa Cruz ( 800/528-6069 in the U.S. or 593/5/5527-409; www.royalpalmhotel.net). $$ Finch Bay Hotel, Pinta Estrada, Island Santa Cruz ( 593/5/5526-297; www.finchbayhotel.com).