Marine life galore in the Galápagos

Seals in the Galápagos – Photo courtesy of Cheyenne Thorpe

The captivating, transparent water between La Baltra Island and Santa Cruz Island was the most turquoise ocean water I had ever seen. The water was so clear I could vividly examine the reefs below and so blue I had to blink twice to make sure that what I was looking at was real. About 1,000 kilometers west of Ecuador are the historical and breathtaking islands of the Galápagos, which consist of 18 main islands and three smaller ones.

Our tour of Isla Santa Cruz began with a bus ride through the highlands. On our way to the small city of Puerto Ayora, we stopped to examine the massive, volcanic sinkholes referred to as Los Gemelos that formed as a result of the volcanic land collapsing rather than exploding.

Junior Nikki Barden was one of many Toreros who had the opportunity to observe the sinkholes.

“The sinkhole was the first thing we saw, and it was absolutely mind blowing,” Barden said. “It almost seemed like a smaller Grand Canyon that we just stumbled upon because the rest of the surrounding area was flat land.”

After visiting the sinkholes, we explored the real heart of these islands: the wildlife. We began at Rancho El Manzanillo, where we found several giant tortoises and various finches before walking through a lava tunnel. The tunnel had a staircase that led us underground to inspect thick rock walls that used to be outer parts of lava flows. Upon our arrival to Puerto Ayora, we were greeted by sea lions swimming in and out of the water nearby the fishing docks. And our exposure and interaction with the marine life did not stop there.

The Semester at Sea itinerary we participated in included a catamaran boat ride to Isla Bartolomé to witness the iconic scenery of the younger Galápagos Islands. It was here where we hiked and examined the lava fields, craters, and volcanic cones of the island. We snorkeled in the clear, blue ocean waters off the popular Pinnacle Rock and swam with stingrays, sea turtles, and schools of colorful fish.

Junior Julie Courtney also went kayaking, snorkeling, and hiking. Courtney said she was amazed by the unique wildlife that the Galápagos Islands are well known for.

“When we went snorkeling off one of the islands, I swam through a school of fish, which was the coolest thing I have experienced because I have never been to a place that was so untouched by humanity,” Courtney said. “They did not seem scared and swam with us as if we were another aquatic creature. The islands were uninhabited, and the preservation of the wildlife was solid. I especially loved seeing the giant tortoises and blue-footed boobies.”

Meanwhile, Barden witnessed a more spine-chilling sight in the water.

“I kayaked in a cove off Santa Cruz Island where 20 white-tipped sharks swam below us,” Barden said. “It was so scary thinking about us falling in, since the sharks were four- to six-feet large. It was nuts.”

Barden also snorkeled with sea turtles and, at one point, was face-to-face with a massive turtle.

“They were so giant and so close; it was incredible!” Barden said.

Courtney also shared that she appreciated the historical and academic significance of the islands.

“It was cool to apply what I have learned in my biology and science courses with what I experienced in the Galápagos,” Courtney said. “Our tour guides did a great job of demonstrating how these species have evolved overtime, and we got to witness that firsthand. I was so excited to visit after learning about it all throughout high school and college. To finally set foot and take it all in, it exceeded all my expectations. I’ve never been able to apply something more directly or visualize something so well based off of the info I learned in class.”

Barden explained that she had the opportunity to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island. The research station is a conservation center designated as a safe environment for the preservation of 100-year-old tortoises on the Galápagos Islands. In order to preserve the environment and wildlife on the islands, the Galapagos National Park Rules states that visitors can only travel with tour operators and/or boats authorized to work in the protected areas, along with several other regulations.

“The tour guides were strict about what we brought and took away from the islands,” Barden said. “We had to stay six feet away from the animals at all times. They had a lot of turtles that they kept under watch to make sure that they stayed safe and healthy.”

The fascinating marine life of the Galápagos Islands was almost as much of a pleasant and welcoming aspect as the friendly people who inhabit these islands. The tour guides who worked for El Parque Nacional Galápagos were extremely knowledgeable when explaining the facts and historical significance of the islands.

Courtney shared her gratitude for having the chance to visit the mesmerizing islands of Ecuador.

“Everyone was so friendly and proud to be from the Galápagos and share their island with us,” Courtney said. “Whether it was our waiters, tour guides, or someone we met in the streets of Puerto Ayora, people were genuinely interested in how our stay was and gave us insight into the island lifestyle. The Galápagos Islands were the perfect combination of adventure, history, and relaxation.”

It’s not an everyday occurrence to be able swim with schools of fish and sea turtles or to see massive sting rays lying on the ocean floor in the Pacific Ocean. Often, the water isn’t even clear enough to see your own toes. But being able to swim with the Galápagos sea animals and witness the alluring, oceanic life below the surface was one of the more unforgettable experiences of this trip.

Written by Tayler RV, Staff Writer