Fairy tales and movies are places where magic happens. They're the places where you'll hear a character say, "Magic can happen here, tell me your wish and I can make it come true."
It turns out the Galapagos Islands are that way too, for our eight days there were nothing but magical.
There were 14 guests on board the Samba and we ate every meal together around a grand table. Our first few meals together were naturally mostly in silence as everyone struggled to find things to talk about with the stranger seated next to them. But that inevitable shyness waned after a few days and rarely by day three would you even be able to hear the person next to you because of the noise made from everyone talking at once.
Our last dinner together, however, was mostly in silence again. We knew the next morning we'd be getting on a plane to leave the Galapagos Islands behind.
Quietly, Becky and Simon started talking about their favorite memories of their time in the Galapagos. Soon Matt and Nikki had chimed in as well, and it was then that Becky asked if everyone at the table would share their favorite memory. And while we took turns speaking around the table, you could hear it in everyone's voices that magic had happened to them too while we were all in the Galapagos.
One of the most distinct memories I have of our time in the Galapagos Islands happened on our second day. Our guide had taken us into the highlands of Santa Cruz and, after explaining how to approach and behave around the giant tortoises we would find there, had allowed us to walk around the fields and the forest on our own.
Tim and I watched most of our group head to the field on our right: the huge shells of several tortoises were visible in the distance there. But we turned instead to walk into the forest on our left. We were rewarded fairly quickly with a giant tortoise (one that even our guide expressed surprise about its size) walking amongst the undergrowth of the forest. And while seeing these ancient animals moving slowly through a forest was unique enough, cracking branches under their massive weight as they went along, it got even better when Tim and I returned to the field.
In the field, we walked around for several minutes taking pictures of a few tortoises here and there until we spotted one of them off in the distance, far away from any other person. We approached the area slowly, trying our best to crouch down and make little noise, but the tortoise knew better and heard us coming. Gathering his neck and his legs into his shell, we heard him make a low hissing noise that sounds like a tire losing air. Our guide had told us if we were patient when that happens that eventually the tortoise would re-emerge and go about his business as if we weren't even there. And so that's what we did and we were rewarded appropriately as our friend eventually peeked his head back out and began munching away again (rather messily, I might add) on the grass.
It was absolutely silent in that field and nothing was moving, except for our friend who was happily mowing the lawn in front of him. And when the rain started falling you could hear it hitting the blades of grass. But like our friend, we didn't mind the rain and just continued to sit there, silent and in awe. And I remember feeling completely at peace as Tim and I just watched this amazing creature, this creature who once his initial surprise had worn off, didn't mind us just sitting there in the rain with him too.
I had never been snorkeling when we arrived in the Galapagos Islands, but I think I may be permanently spoiled by the 6 times we went snorkeling while there. The conditions, although choppy at times, were wonderful once you put your mask in the water: giant schools of fish, manta ray as big as cars, marine iguanas chomping on kelp along the ocean floor, sea turtles who looked exactly like "Crush" in the movie Finding Nemo…everything and anything was underwater in the Galapagos.
But the one encounter I was most looking forward to was swimming with the sea lions. In almost every brochure and website you look at about the Galapagos Islands you will see a picture showing people snorkeling with sea lions. And I wanted that desperately.
During our second time snorkeling, Tim and I had our first encounter with a sea lion. It turned out we were the only lucky ones in our group that day, and we were so excited after having spent a minute or so with a sea lion swimming in between us. But over the subsequent four more times we snorkeled, everyone would become just as lucky too.
There are two times I remember most distinctly when I think of our time snorkeling with the sea lions. The first time came during our third snorkeling trip. Tim and I were moving along in the water a bit behind the rest of the group because I moved a bit slower as a novice. We had spotted little at this point, when suddenly a beautiful sea lion seemed to appear out of nowhere. I remember the current was fairly strong and I was completely in awe at how she had just stopped at will right next to me. And it seemed like everything in the world faded away during the few minutes she floated with me. She didn't swim in circles or swim under and around me like many of the other sea lions would eventually do. Instead, she just floated facing me, her eyes looking into mine. And I don't know if I have ever felt that at ease, just floating in the ocean with her next to me.
The second very distinct memory I have of snorkeling with sea lions came during our last snorkel. Tim and I were again towards the back of the pack, but we eventually came upon Matt who was pointing to a cove of sorts. We looked to where he was pointing and that's when we saw two sea lion pups playing underwater together not 15 feet away from us. They were somersaulting and chasing one another without a care in the world and presented one of the sweetest pictures. But for me, the most memorable thing about that image was when we noticed their mother floating like an upside down question mark also about 15 feet away from them. The six of us – Matt, Tim, me, the mother, and the two babies – formed a triangle of sorts, and while the babies played in one corner, and the mother floated in another, we just watched in awe. You could see she was aware of us, her gaze alternating between her babies and between us, but you could also see she was fine with us there. And so it was absolutely amazing to see this beautiful mother sea lion silently watching over her babies playing and letting us do the same.
Our guide had told us that every day spent in the Galapagos Islands will be more amazing than the previous one before it. When he first said this it was hard to believe, but he was right: every day there kept getting better and better.
On our last afternoon in the Galapagos, we boarded the Samba after our final trek along an island, and she immediately began to navigate back to San Cristobol, the island where we would catch our plane back to Quito. We had experienced 7 magnificent days at that point, 7 days where not one thing could be changed to make them better, 7 days where a lifetime of memories had been made. None of us expected or needed anything more from the Enchanted Islands and all of us were very content.
We were all lying around the dining room table or lounging on the back deck, reading books, playing poker, looking over all the photos we had taken, when suddenly the engineer ran in and started yelling about dolphins. We had seen dolphins a few days before, in the distance about a mile away from the boat, but we were all excited to get a chance to see them one last time. And so we all jumped from our seats and raced out onto the deck, only to be confronted with the most fabulous image ever: there were hundreds of dolphins not swimming and jumping a mile away, but literally swimming and jumping right next to our boat.
The sight was absolutely overwhelming. It's hard to imagine what it looked like, seeing these creatures swim effortlessly with the boat, narrowly missing it at times, and appearing to play with the Samba as she cruised through the water. You could hear the sound of the wind, and the sound of the dolphins splashing in the water right below you, but more than anything else you could hear all of us laughing at what we were seeing. The air was absolutely filled with our energy as we raced from the sides of the boat to the front and back again, trying to capture them on film and usually failing because they were so quick. We'd all yell every time they jumped right next to us, surprised and completely filled with happiness every time it happened. And we'd stare in awe as they raced right in front of the Samba, guiding us on our way back to port for over twenty wonderful minutes. It was simply stunning.
(If you'd like to see a video of the dolphins sailing with us, just visit our Junior Hedgehog Club page.)
Tim and I had dreamed of visiting the Galapagos from the moment we began planning for our trip. It seemed we had an endless checklist of things we would do and places we would visit around the world: "Machu Picchu? Yup. Angkor Wat? Yup. Iguazu Falls? Yup. Galapagos Islands? Yup…."
For the Galapagos, we dreamed of seeing giant tortoises lumber, watching marine iguanas basking in the sun, and swimming with sea lions as we snorkeled. We dreamed so many things for the Enchanted Islands, so many things that seemed fantastic at the time we thought them up. But like our entire trip, every single one of the dreams we had about the Galapagos Islands (as well as some dreams we didn't even know could exist) came true. And, well, if that isn't magic, then I don't know what is.
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