The first thing I become aware of here in the Galapagos is that there are quite a lot of rules restricting my usual behaviour.
We are used to exploring by yacht, dinghy, paddleboard and windsurfers. Finding deserted anchorages, freediving with the fauna, spearing the odd fish for supper, swimming ashore and generally doing exactly as we please. Here of course the whole place is rightly protected from the likes of me. A national park to ensure the future of a globally important natural wonder. This does mean that if I want to go and see much beyond the three anchorages we are permitted to be in, I have to sign up to a tourist trip and be processed with the herd, which I’m just not good at. But I’m trying.
The Sea Lions
The first day I went for a swim at the town beach and was joined by a frolicking young sea lion darting around me. A lifeguard in a tower blew his whistle and said I was too close to the pup. Well really. These young sea lions are just ridiculously playful and friendly, more about them later. First a word about their biggest fan, my daughter Jemima.
She does like a pinniped, her face lights up at the honk of a nearby pup. She spent a summer teaching sailing and hanging out with the sea lions in California, which became the subject of the final dissertation for her marine biology degree. Then there was an orphan fur seal pup she nursed in South Africa, the Kiwi fur seals she found to play with in the wilds of South Island and most recently some sea lion spotting in the Falkland Islands on a yacht delivery stopover.
So the Galapagos Archipelego could be described as ‘right up her street’.
The sea lions here really steal the show. They are everywhere, living all over town, swimming round every boat and hauling out for a nap on any flat surface available. 15,000 individuals live here, and sometimes it sounds like they are all within honking range of the boat. Hundreds of them on every beach, all around the rocks, lounging on any moored boat or pontoon they can climb on to. Most sailing boats have rigged a defence system of fenders to prevent mass boardings, the sea lions would love to be lounging on our cockpit cushions given half a chance.
They think they own the place here, sprawled out sleeping on the public seating along the harbour front. They will tolerate humans nearby as long as we don’t disturb their lazy nap in the sun.
They are so entertaining. The young pups bleating for their mothers, grumpy old bulls barking, snorting and harrumphing around the colony. Families curled up together, lying in the sun until one of them changes position, disturbing everyone’s sleep so they all have to wriggle around to get comfortable again. Adolescents romping through the sleeping mass and jumping on everyone. The very comical way they move on land and seem to be continually exhausted and only capable of lying in a heap. We find we can watch and enjoy all this behaviour every day.
But then you see them in the water. We have been joined by excited pups on several snorkelling trips now. At times they swim straight for us at high speed, porpoising with excitement to come and play with human swimmers. Then they will cavort around us, coming closer on each pass, gaining in confidence, jumping over us. Lithe, sleek, twisting bodies, changing direction so fast and gliding around us for the sheer joy of it. It does put a big smile on your face.
We had a long encounter with one individual. We anchored our dinghy in about 8 metres of clear water over white sand, pulled our fins on and slipped in to snorkel.
The young sea lion saw us, launched off the nearby cardinal mark he had been lounging on and came leaping over, spinning around us. Then we started diving with him, I was wearing some weights and could easily go down to the bottom to watch him swimming above. He seemed to enjoy this and then would repeatedly swim from us straight to the bottom and wait for us to join him. I would dive down, we both lie on the seabed for a while, looking at each other, then he would zip off and we spiral round each other back to the surface where we both take a breath before he goes back to the seabed to wait for me. “Again! again!”. A playful, freediving puppy.
This seems like a pretty intense interaction with a wild sea creature and we were all buzzing from it. Between us we have swum with dolphins and whales in a few different scenarios, but this contact seems different, much more personal. The sea lions are actively engaging with us. Friendly, unafraid, inquisitive and playful.
It’s easy to (mis?)interpret some of the behaviour as cheeky humour. We were all resting between dives on the glassy, sunny surface. The sea lion approaches Jemima horizontally, almost motionless, putting his whiskers right up to her mask, they lie there for a moment eye to eye, then the pup blows a huge bubble in Jemima’s face and cavorts off. I’m sure he was laughing as much as we were.
After a few days the pups in the local ‘nursery’ area of the anchorage have become so accustomed to Jemima’s regular visits on the paddle board, they are now coming for rides on it!
I’m tired tonight after a full day in the Galapagos. Paddleboarding, a boat trip, two scuba dives and a surf session.
Surfing arrived here relatively recently, and it arrived on sailing boats like ours, bound for Polynesia. A few decades ago those surfing sailors would have been anchored where I am now, and could not have failed to notice the quality of rights and lefts wrapping around the points on both sides of this natural harbour. The surfboards came out of the yacht lockers and the locals took note. The new generation of San Cristobal kids are now charging the waves in their backyard and loving it.
There is a great Galapagos flavour to the surfing here. A water taxi will pick me up from Escapade, drop me at the peak and come back for me at sunset. Black volcanic boulders everywhere, marine iguanas patrolling the rocks, huge turtles in the water, the ever-present sea lions riding inside the waves at high speed.
As we sat at an empty break one Saturday morning, a visitor from mainland Ecuador told me the locals are complacent, or surfed-out, having too much fun. There is no shortage of waves, look at where this archipelago sits on the equator. Swells from the North and South Pacific arrive year round.
But it’s also in the doldrums, I haven’t rigged my windsurf gear since Panama. Even if there was wind, I’m sure it’s not allowed, might disturb the sea lions. (But they would love it!)
There is a limited road system on San Cristobal, well one road really, across the southern part. The whole of the rest of the island is wild national Park with no access. We took a taxi down ‘the road’ to visit the breeding centre for the Galapagos Giant Tortoise. They are to be found foraging in the hot, dry vegetation, plodding heavily through the bush. Magnificent creatures, the eldest of which may have been plodding here since the late 1800s!
We dived the cold waters around the walls of Kicker Rock, 7mm wetsuits and plenty of lead, with lots of fish, sharks and turtles. Many of these fish are new to us, as is the endemic Galapagos Shark, streamlined silhouettes circling above us. We tried to pick a low-swell day for our dive trip, but visibility was not great in the churning waters around the rock. We have a few more dive sites on our Galapagos to-do list.
After nine days at anchor here it’s time to move on. We are leaving for the next stop on our Galapagos tour. Isla Santa Cruz, 45 miles to the west.