Seals, sharks and boobies: a day in the Galapagos

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A visit to the Galapagos is a dream for many travellers, but the experience of actually visiting these islands is kind of like seeing a nature documentary come to life. Here’s a look at a day in the Galapagos — in fact, the first full day of my Galapagos tour.

There are three main ways of seeing the Galapagos. The first is on a ship-based tour, on a small boat with about 15 passengers or a large one with about 100. The second is a land-based tour, where you stay in hotels each night and take day trips, either by land or sea, each day. The third is to just fly into one of the island’s main towns and book the tours yourself. (For a detailed look at these options, go here.)

I chose the second option. My tour started on San Cristobal, one of the more populated islands in the Galapagos. I stayed in the main town, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, and on the day after my arrival, I found myself on a small cruise boat with about a dozen other people, heading toward a place called Kicker Rock.

cruising in the Galapagos

After 40 minutes or so, it hove into view, and at first it was hard to imagine why someone had given it such a crazy name. What caught the eye was a flat, dramatic-looking stone wall jutting 140 metres (about 450 feet) out of the sea. But as we cruised a little closer, it became apparent that this was three pieces of rock with passages between them.

Kicker Rock, Galapagos

The name comes from the fact that from some angles, the rock formation looks like a boot — in Spanish, it’s called the Sleeping Lion. And if you were wondering, that amazing flat wall isn’t the result of the rock shearing in half like an iceberg, but rather by a piece of the ocean floor being tilted up vertically by a powerful eruption beneath the earth’s crust. This is the Galapagos, the land that volcanoes built.

We weren’t going to visit Kicker Rock quite yet, though. Our boat veered off toward a distant white spot on the coast, a beach called Cerro Brujo. And after jumping ashore through some driving surf, we found ourselves on a white sand beach, with a greenish tint here and there due to the minerals in the sand.

Cerro Brujo Beach Galapagos

But we weren’t alone. The sand was littered with dark shapes, and as we came closer they revealed themselves as sea lions enjoying their day at the beach. And when sea lions relax, they do it in style, lolling in the sand without a care in the world and occasionally slipping into the water to refresh themselves.

sea lions Galapagos

The seals weren’t all just relaxing. There were mothers with babies, some only a couple of months old (although the pups stay with their mothers for a full two years). I came close enough to photograph this pup feeding from its mother, who slept on, oblivious to the whole scene.

DSCN0994 (2)

When I say “close enough,” I mean within a metre or two: like most of the seals in the Galapagos, these ones were so unafraid that they mostly ignored the visitors passing by, or sticking cameras in their faces. Only the grown males reacted with a growl if you got too close.

Blue-footed boobies, the emblem of the Galapagos, whizzed over our heads, scanning the waves for small fish and diving like darts into the surf to make their catch. A few shorebirds searched the scrub grass behind the beach, and red crabs scuttled between the black volcanic rocks.

The wild waves made swimming a chancy business this morning, so only a few tried it. And they made getting back into the Zodiac an adventure, as well. But it wasn’t too long before we were getting a look at Kicker Rock, up close.

It was an impressive sight, reaching high into the sky, and more complex than it looked at a distance. Every side was marked with many facets, providing nesting spots for boobies and other birds. Meanwhile, magnificent frigate birds patrolled the heights, looking like pterodactyls with their sharply hooked wings.

Kicker Rock, Galapagos

The purpose of the visit was snorkelling, and most of the passengers hopped into the Zodiac with Gustavo, our guide, many wearing wet suits. And off they went, to swim the passage between the rocks, looking for turtles and sharks and other sea creatures.

snorkeling at Kicker Rock

For the Travelling Birder, however, this was a great opportunity to get some photographs of seabirds I’d never even seen before. The shearwaters and storm petrels that whizzed across the waves were too fast – especially shooting from a boat that rolled just as you prepared to press the shutter. But I did manage to get some shots of a beautiful red-billed tropicbird as it came in to land at its nest on the cliffs (see photo at the top of this post).

And with enough perseverance and a lot of misses, I finally managed some shots of the Nazca boobies that nested in numbers on the rocks. I find these lesser-known birds with their black masks more attractive than the blue-footed boobies that appear on t-shirts in every tourist shop. And you can’t say the setting isn’t dramatic.

nazca booby (2)

My mission was complete, and so was the snorkellers’. They returned delighted to have seen two hammerhead sharks, as well as some sea turtles and sea lions. It was time for lunch, and once our bellies were full, we were headed back to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.

Like a lot of day tours, this one left in early morning and returned mid-afternoon. However, there are afternoon tours as well, since some sites are open to tours only at certain times of the day, in order to reduce the stress on the animals and their habitats.

So a day in the Galapagos was over. Back to the hotel, to watch cable TV and check my e-mail – things really are primitive here in the islands time forgot. And in the morning, a flight to Isla Isabela, the next island on the tour, and a look at some giant tortoises. Stay tuned.a day in the Galapagos was over.

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

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