Islas Galapagos: Dances With Sea Lions

The four of us swam ahead of our group, slowly snorkeling along a reef of coral and volcanic rock, when two of them shot right past us, abruptly stopped and turned around to size us up. Size-wise, we were similar and we all had shiny black skin and fins, but our family probably looked a little odd with bulky glass masks and tubes protruding from our mouths. After checking us out, the smaller one dove down about 20 feet, did a barrel roll, a somersault and came back up and looked directly at us from 6 feet away: the challenging expression said, “Okay, what can you do?” We were snorkeling at Sombrero Chino in the Galapagos and some sea lions had decided that it was time to play.

After a few moments hesitation, I lamely tried the same maneuver and before I was able to finish, the other one impatiently whizzed by us, gliding through a series of seven or eight barrel rolls. The four of us spent the next couple minutes playing with our new friends until we were visited by two 6-foot, white-tipped sharks. My daughter edged closer to me and I heard my son yell “shark!” in a garbled underwater voice through his snorkel. Once the sharks passed by us, and we realized that they weren’t very interested in us, we followed them. Our sea lion friends followed for a moment and then decided it was time to shoo the intruders away. One of the sea lions burst forward and gave chase to the larger shark, close enough to nip his tail. He hounded him for a minute or two until both of the sharks swam away. It was as if the sea lions were saying, “Go find your own friends!”

By this time, the rest of our group – all on an eight-day tour of the Galapagos – had re-joined us, we resumed play with the sea lions. One of the hallmarks of the Galapagos experience is all of the animals’ complete lack of fear of humans. In “The Voyage of the Beagle,” Charles Darwin documented his 1835 visit to the islands, and remarked, “A gun here is almost superfluous; for with the muzzle I pushed a hawk off the branch of a tree.” This phenomenon made such an impression on Darwin that he concluded his 35 page section on the islands with his view that fear of humans, or any predator, is a learned characteristic, “We may infer from these facts, what havoc the introduction of any new beast of prey must cause in a country, before the instincts of the indigenous inhabitants have become adapted to the stranger’s craft or power.” Indeed, none of the animals seemed the least bit afraid of us. Sally Lightfoot crabs didn’t scurry when we walked past, giant sea turtles went about their business as we walked a few feet away or followed them underwater. All of the trails we took were littered with dozing sea lions and iguanas that didn’t budge an inch for us as we tried to walk the trail. Later, we walked through the nesting grounds of frigate birds and blue-footed and Nazca boobies, passing less than two feet from their nests. A few were sitting on eggs and several were feeding or caring for very young chicks, but they did not seem to notice us a bit.

Aside from the lack of natural fear of humans, Darwin was of course very impressed with the uniqueness and variation of life on the islands and the Galapagos’ role in informing Darwin’s ideas on evolution is well documented. In “Voyage of the Beagle,” Darwin sums it up, “The natural history of these islands is eminently curious, and well deserves attention. Most of the organic productions are aboriginal creations, found nowhere else; there is even a difference between the inhabitants of the different islands; yet all show a marked relationship with those of America, though separated from that continent by an open space of ocean, between 500 and 600 miles in width.”

Darwin did a lot of great things, but he really should have snorkeled in the Galapagos. Our group played for about 15-20 minutes with the sea lions -- sea mammals dueling humans in underwater gymnastics. Towards the end of our session I heard my daughter scream underwater “penguins!” Two smaller ones raced by on their way somewhere, not interested in joining our sea lion play-date. It was another perfect day in the Galapagos – day two of eight. We’d already got our money’s worth.

1 comment:

  1. The Galapagos Islands are the most incredible living museum of evolutionary changes. One of the best places on earth to visit.