Wednesday, June 20, 2012

life is the bubbles, under the sea:
snorkeling off San Cristobal

Sunday, June 17th
This morning started off with cloudy skies and a steady, light rain, as we left the cover of our hotel’s restaurant. Our only plans for today were typical tourist activities on the Galapagos: snorkeling. Each of us was outfitted with a snorkel and fins by Whitman, our guide upon our arrival to San Cristobal, and those new to snorkeling had learned the basics exploring the beach yesterday. 

Frigate Hill in the rain
The first stop on our boat tour at Frigate Hill was met with a strong downpour of rain. From the boat, we observed birds throughout the high cliffs overlooking the water. At a small bay, there was a rocky outcropping with a simple statue of Charles Darwin. The rain tapered off and the clouds began to clear and blue skies took over as we made for Puerto Grande beach.

We waded to shore from the boat to the beach, a lonely turquoise inlet in view of Kicker Rock. Here, we learned about the impacts of the recent tsunami - a natural disaster the islands had never had to deal with before. Dozens of red mangroves had died, leaving graying skeletons of trees on the pristine, white sand. Whitman showed us the endemic wildlife, and the crabs, puffer fish and mullet that made up the sole inhabitants of the water. As we moved back towards the main inlet to take a swim and relax before lunch, massive pelicans and other birds swooped in and landed on the small, rocky coast line, eying the fish for their snacks. There was not much to see here, and after a quick lunch on the boat, we moved to the most exciting stop of the day: Kicker Rock.

Kicker Rock, as we approached by boat
Tourists around the world know Kicker Rock for the exotic animals that populate both the rock itself and the surrounding waters. As we got closer, we were able to spot sea turtles heads and shells in the waves, and the odd nose of a sea lion or two. We circled the rock, Whitman told us that initially, Kicker Rock had been a volcano. Now extinct, it had gained its flat table top and sides from constant wind and water erosion. 

Having heard about the plethora of sharks and other creatures the other cohort had seen, most of us were excited for the chance to observe these animals in their natural habitats. Ultimately, our hopes were dashed when we saw that the water conditions had been severely impacted by the earlier rain. The water was much colder and deeper than our previous expeditions, and we were unable to see the bottom. A few people turned back, but the majority of us swam on, eyes peeled for shark fins in the murky water. We saw rather large “Dory” fish, held starfish and sea urchins and schools of fish surrounded us. Small crabs latched on to those closest to the base of Kicker Rock. A few of us spied sea turtles in the distance, but we missed any that were feeding in the coral areas. Diving down was a shock for the ears, but I could not believe the things I was seeing. Everything from National Geographic and the Discovery Channel came to life in front of my eyes, in the most amazing of colors. Despite the missing sharks, it was a truly unique experience. But this was not even the best part of the day! 

Our last stop was in a bay sheltered on the coast of San Cristobal. Whitman promised us a treat - younger sea lions were known to swim in these waters, friendly enough to circle around snorkelers and play with us. We were not disappointed at all - as the first of our group reached the rocky shallows, those of us still on the boat heard cries of laughters as the pups swam up to masks and tugged on fins. I got to be face to face with a sea lion and essentially play with it in the wild. It was astounding how almost tame the animals of the Galapagos are, never really hesitating to interact with the human life that surrounds them. 
A group of Global Scholars swimming by our boat

One of the sea lions followed Conor and I as we headed towards the mouth of the bay, darting to and fro in a strange game of tag. The three of us swam into a school of what had to be several thousands of fish, and the sea lion took off trying to catch a quick snack.

The most adorable moment came when he gave up on fishing by himself and grabbed a shell off the ocean floor, repeatedly dropping in back on some rocks to break it open and get a quick snack. Later, as Amaya, Kathy and I swam more towards the middle of the bay, we passed over several small rays, gliding like hovercrafts several inches off the sandy bottom. Angel fish with electric purple and yellow stripes on their black bodies swam in circles, as smooth striped puffer fish looked at us with their beedy red eyes. Life was everywhere, and even diving down to swim at the bottom we were able to see everyone else a hundred feet away.

On our way back, we crashed back in the large school of fish - but this time we had company. To our shock, blue-footed boobies suddenly began to torpedo down in graceful, bubble-filled arcs and shot back up to the surface. Coughing water and freaking out slightly, we could not believe what we had just seen. That was not even the end of it - the largest pelican I have ever seen swooped down as we got our bearings on the surface, snatching a mouthful of water and fish and taking off again for the water. After a few hours of fun in the water with our new sea lion friends, it was time to head back to Casablanca and the relative calm of the harbor. Who knows what the rest of the trip has in store for us - but my time on San Cristobal has already made the Galapagos Islands an unforgettable experience.

Jackie, me and Colleen on the boat at Kicker Rock

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