Worldwide with Wee-Cheng #17: We Swam with Sharks, Sea Lions, Penguins & Iguanas in the Galapagos – Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

#16: We Swam with Sharks, Sea Lions, Penguins & Iguanas in the Galapagos

Wee-Cheng kicks back with the male sea lions in the Galapagos Islands.

20 Mar 2002
Imagine this: You get up after sun rise and find the boat off a green island topped by volcanoes. Pelicans with prehistoric-looking wings dive into the sea for that day’s catches while frigatebirds patrol the skies for weaker birds. A few white-tipped sharks glide by, plainly uninterested in your human presence. Penguins stand watch on dark rocks, together with the dinosaur-alike marine iguanas who are so well camouflaged that they appeared no different from the rocks. Sea lions splash about in the shallow waters while occasionally diving deeper to tease stingrays on the bottom sand. Nearby, Pacific green sea turtles surface with their gigantic shells.

Where can you be?

Only on the Galapagos Islands, 1000 km (621 miles) west of the Ecuadorian Mainland in the Pacific Ocean.

Formed as huge volcanoes rising from the deep oceans millions of years ago, the isolated Galapagos have become the home of creatures who got there by accident. Isolated from the rest of the world, they adapt to the individual islands and evolve in ways that not only differentiate them from similar species elsewhere but also from those on neighbouring islands in the Galapagos group. Here, tortoises grew to gigantic proportions, penguins (the northernmost species and only one on the Equator) became smaller, sea lions grew ears, sharks became docile (nicknamed locally as “vegetarian sharks” because they don’t attack humans) and iguanas swim in the sea. The islands became famous after the 1835 visit by Charles Darwin, whose observations here contributed enormously to his masterpiece on evolution theories, The Origins of Species, which discarded dodgy fairy tales on creation from the old religions.

Due to the isolation – which kept out large-scale human immigration as well as efforts by the Ecuador Government to protect the islands and their wildlife – the unusual ecosystem here remains largely intact, rather ending up in our stomachs, as in many parts of the world. However, many species remain at threat, in particular the giant tortoises. Passing sailors used to capture them in large numbers as fresh meat, as tortoises can survive for as long as a year without food and cramped together upside-down in dark boxes.

With limited human interaction, the creatures of Galapagos have little of the instinctive fear of humans animals elsewhere often have. Here, sea lions swim with the visitor, sometimes giving one a gentle yet powerful nudge. Huge seabirds fly towards the traveller, rather than away. Even the sharks are benign, as mentioned earlier, although I do feel a slight shiver as these two-meter long creatures swim under and past me near the offshore rocks known as the Devil’s Crown off Floreana Island. One never knows what would happen if a non-resident shark which is not aware of local customs of hospitality swims past.

I spent 8 days on the boat Amigo, with a group of international nomads from Israel, Netherlands, USA, Germany and Norway. We spoke about our adventures in places including Algeria, Niger and Zanzibar. In this heaven of ecotourism, I enjoyed being politically incorrect by telling about my gastronomical adventures with Greenland seals, Amazon jungle turtles and whales.

The crew of Amigo simply refused to believe in my tall (so they thought) tales and chose instead to call me “Fujimori” or “El Presidente”, as my scholarly looks and thin glasses (and perhaps potential corruptibility) resemble the former ethnic Japanese president of Peru.

Salsa rhythms greeted us on the boat whenever we returned from our daily frolicking with sea lions, turtles, iguanas and assorted seabirds. Despite the friendliness of native species, we tried our best not to provoke the adult male sea lions, which get agitated if you (in its opinion) try to get fresh with the playful female sea lions; or get mistaken for a female great sea turtle by their male counterparts at the height of the mating season (they’ll get on top of anything…).

We also visited the Post Office Bay on Florena Island, where visitors leave unstamped postcards there by tradition, and hope that another visitor will pick them up and deliver them by hand (or via respective national post offices in the home countries) if the latter are travelling that way. I have left a postcard for Singapore and asked my mother to buy a lottery ticket if the postcard ever reaches her!

Do they make Viagra for tortoises?

On our last day there, we visited the Charles Darwin Research Station where the top attraction is Lonesome George, a 90-year-old giant tortoise which is the last of its species from Pinta Volcano. (They live well into the late 100s) Scientists captured George in 1971 and have been trying to get it to mate with two female tortoises of a neighbouring species, so as to save George’s nearly extinct tribe. However, George hasn’t shown any interest in carnal activities. In fact he has been biting the two female tortoises rather than getting on top of them. Well, perhaps George is gay. If that is so, it must be really cruel to force a 90-year-old queer to have group sex with two females.

The Galapagos Islands are simply magical. Few places in the world come anywhere near. Even then, 8 days are somewhat long for one who is sometimes prone to seasickness. I had enjoyed myself tremendously, but was also glad when the trip ended.