Welcome to the Most Magnificent Snorkel Spot on the Planet
Updated: Jan 22, 2019
Isabella Island, Galapagos
As an exercise in imagination, I implore you to put yourselves in our position for a few minutes. You are kitted out in your snorkel gear and wetsuit, sitting on the side of a panga (a small motorboat). It's around 10:00 AM, it is 24 degrees Celsius, and it is a beautiful sunny day. A stunning morning to be drifting somewhere among the Galapagos islands. You spit into your mask, rub it onto the lens to make sure your mask will remain free of fog for your snorkel trip and take in the stunning geological display of hotspot volcanics. Your panga is approaching a sheer rock face that rises above the ocean thirty meters or so, and is a magnificent visual contrast of dark basalt and light earthy brown volcanic tuff. The ocean is a deep aquamarine, with a gradual fade to turquoise as your eye shifts toward the mouth of the cave a few hundred meters in front of you. The panga stops at the cliff face, you strap on your mask, hold your snorkel and mask to your face, look up to the bright blue sky and catch a glimpse of the soaring frigate birds as you plunge backwards into the water. Immediately you are brought to attention as the cold water soaks over your head and fills your wetsuit. Colder than any other spot you have snorkeled in the Galapagos, you remind yourself that this is the price you have to pay to snorkel with some of the most remarkable creatures of the sea. The reason for the cold temperature: the upwelling of cool nutrient-rich water, in what is called the Cromwell Current. A momentary lapse in appreciation and you find yourself cursing the guide for bringing you too this spot as all you can see is an abyss of deep blue water. You come to the surface, purge the water from your snorkel, and begin to make your way over the rock wall. Your eyes drawn to the rock face in front of you that is covered in brilliant marine life made up of neon greens, oranges, purples, blues, and pinks. The life reaches out from the wall, flowing in the current in an attempt to snag any plankton that may drift near. The thought of being cold has fled your mind as you absorb the spectacular marine flora and fauna. An assortment of large brightly colored Parrot fish lazily glide below you. Carefully observing you as you clumsily attempt to navigate the foreign marine environment. As you observe the beautiful life you can’t help but dwell on the fact that humans are incredibly poorly equipped for swimming and diving. As you lose yourself in thought, your mammal brethren of the sea, the Sea Lion, appears beside you, as if out of nowhere. Swimming well within arms reach you can't help but engage with it. It playfully chides you as it spins and dives around you. In an attempt to communicate through movement you dive down and swim with it. Your lungs pang with each movement under the water. A constant reminder of your need for air. The Sea Lion swims around you as you dive deeper and you try to mimic its movements, but as your lungs begin to scream for air you rise back to the surface. A couple more dives and the Sea Lion becomes impatient with your ineptitude to exist underwater for any reasonable length of time. You watch as it swims away, onto the next person to interact. A wondrous aquatic dance between two species.
You continue your swim along the cliff face and reflect on the beauty of natures wonders. Again you become absorbed in the diversity of marine life clinging to the rock face. An outstanding representation of the diversity of life on our planet. Crabs delicately navigate through fields of anemones and urchins, in search of any scraps of food which might be caught in the cliff face. Tentacles wave back and forth with each surge: a result of the friction between the wind and the surface of the ocean over thousands of kilometers. The waves are a product of the mixing of warm and cold currents, heating and cooling the air above the water, and ultimately resulting in the wind - a neat and tidy circular representation of the importance of all of Earth’s systems, which are the driving forces for life on Earth.
Again lost in the brilliance of our planet you are brought to attention by the screeches of someone yelling, “Mola-mola”! You turn around to realize that there is a three hundred kilogram fish gently gliding behind you. A meter from you, a prehistoric monster of the sea paddles by. This fish is unlike any you've seen. A very rare sighting. A once-in-a-lifetime thing. The sun glimmers around the enormous fish and illuminates the outline of the fish in a pure blue background. In awe, you don't move. You float motionless as to not alarm the Mola-mola. It glides by and retreats back into the depths, only to be lost in the deep blue below you. A tangible representation of prehistoric life - life which existed long before humankind. One of a handful of examples of life which has survived the tribulations of mass extinctions which has culled all but the most adaptable. The thought that prehistoric marine life such as turtles, sharks, and the Mola-mola evolved hundreds of millions of years before Homosapiens, enters your mind. You realize the magnitude of time that separates us from so many other species and an appreciation for the incredible set of circumstances which had to occur for hominids to scale down from the trees, stand up on two feet, interact with wolves, and capture the power of fire… All necessary progressions to allow us to grow our brains, and ultimately allow us to reach this point - to be staring at a Mola-mola, with a tube in your mouth so you can breath ten centimeters under the water. You wave bye to the Mola-mola and turn back to the wall.
You begin to approach the mouth of the cave and small Galapagos Penguins are darting around you. They pass by you without a care. Like torpedoes, they whizz around leaving trails of bubbles. From the perspective of the casual observer, they appear to be playing. You wish they would slow down for you to catch a better glimpse of their movement underwater. You wonder how they are able to propel themselves so quickly? On the surface, they bumble around clumsily but are perfectly adapted for speed and maneuverability in the water. Snorkeling with penguins - a first for you! You are sharing the tropical waters of the Galapagos islands with a creature you associate with Antartica. That's when it really hits you, you are in the Galapagos! An unbelievably unique part of the world. The place where Darwin, not so long ago, collected thousands of species from the islands; only for him to obsess over their subtle differences for decades, and layed everything on the line with his theory of evolution. A theory which is ubiquitous with modern biology, but barely a hundred years ago was ridiculed for its divergence from divine creation. Another penguin darts past and in a futile attempt, you try to keep up. No chance. No matter the biomechanical adaptations that we strap to our bodies, we are no match for creatures who have evolved for hundreds of thousands of years to thrive in this environment.
You reach the mouth of the cave and dive down to the sandy bottom, equalizing your ears and mask as you go. You are looking for White Tip Reef Sharks that might be resting on the bottom, but don't see any. However, you do see big unusually shaped rocks on the bottom - peculiar in an otherwise sandy area. Your curiosity is peaked and you dive down again, and on second observation you realize the rocks are in fact sea turtles tucked into the wall, resting. You continue across the mouth of the cave to where a steep pebble beach begins. Shadows lurk in front of you. Your limited visibility plays tricks on your imagination until the shadows begin to take shape. It can't be...it is. Hundreds of sea turtles are scattered throughout the water column, along the beach. These are not small turtles, they are easily the size of you, and many are larger. They are mostly Green Sea Turtles with a few Hawks Bill Turtles. They are barely moving as you approach, completely timid - they have not evolved in the presence of human beings, and as a result are not skittish around us. You slowly glide through the sea of sea turtles. Their fins are mere centimeters from you as you pass by. One after another, you observe the shape of their fins, their armored skin, and patterned shell, you observe that some have rounded belly plates and others are concave, you observe that some have long tails and others have short tails, and you observe that some have only a little algae on their backs and others are covered. These observations are indications as to whether the turtle is male or female. As the turtles float in the water column you are able to dive down and observe them from the bottom looking upward; they look like stars scattered throughout a magnificent aqua sky as the sunlight beams shoot past them and their dark silhouettes float around the surface of the ocean. Peacefully you glide by the turtles while using the subtlest of movements to steer. You've reached a state of nirvana as you begin to process the connection you have shared with the planet over the last forty-five minutes. The experience, something which you will draw back to throughout your life. Less than an hour, but the memory will last a lifetime.
Alas, it is time to retreat back to the terrestrial world. You reach the panga a changed person. Climbing up the ladder you realize that you had become so chilled that you are shivering and have lost nearly all your dexterity - another indication of how ill-adapted we are to the marine world. As you strip out of the wetsuit and remove your fins and mask, you reflect on the astonishing beauty that lies below the seemingly desolate surface of the ocean. You realize that although we have risen from the ocean, to become terrestrial beings, we have not lost the connection that we once intimately shared with the marine world. Long before our earliest primate ancestors, we were creatures of the ocean. You wonder is it possible that some aspect of our being, still earns to be apart of the marine environment? If there is nothing greater out there to worship you can be at peace with worshiping the divine beauty of the planet and all of the incredible forms of life that nurture at the bosom of mother Gia.