Every time I travel to a new place in the Galapagos, I go with the anticipation of seeing a new animal that I have not yet spotted or getting a better view of one of the unique animals I’ve already had the chance to interact with. Students who have studied abroad in the Galapagos before me always raved about the trip that they took to Punto Moreno on the west side of Isabela so I decided that it was a trip I had to go on. Even though it was a two and a half hour boat ride over to the west side of Isabela, my group and I didn’t mind because we had heard that there was a good chance to see whales and dolphins. We saw lots of dorsal fins on the way over, likely belonging to dolphins, but we never got a good look at anything to figure out what it was. Nonetheless, we took it as a sign that we were in for a great day.
Once we arrived at Punto Moreno, we immediately saw endemic flightless cormorants, which only live on the west side of Isabela. The water was only about 20ºC so it was frigid when I first jumped in to snorkel, but the chance to see the flightless cormorants up close for the first time kept me going. I watched as the flightless cormorants stood on rocks near the water with their disproportionately small wings held out, trying to dry off. Most of the cormorants that we saw in this first spot were juveniles; they were a dark brown color rather than black and did not have piercing blue eyes like the adults. At one point, two of them got into a fight, seemingly because one got too close to the other’s rocks. They waddled towards each other, opened their beaks, and started to thrust their wide-open beak in between their opponent’s. It was absolutely comical to watch because the flightless cormorant is not particularly coordinated on land and it was such a strange way to show aggression. After about two minutes, the intruder admitted defeat and went back to his initial rock, a little bit further from the water.
After the water got too cold for us to handle any longer, we got back into the boats and went to a new bay where we found Galapagos penguins. There was a group of about 25 penguins swimming along, and I was so excited that the cold water didn’t matter anymore – I just jumped back in and joined them. As someone who has worked with penguins in an aquarium before, I was thrilled to get to see them hunting in the wild. I was awestruck as they glided through the water easily hunting the small baitfish that were all schooled together. We soon came across a rock that was separated from the rest of the island and deemed it “the most Galapagos rock there ever was” because there were three endemic species sitting on it: 1 flightless cormorant, 4 Galapagos penguins, and 2 marine iguanas. There were also 3 Galapagos green sea turtles swimming around it.
After lunch, it was time to start heading home and fish along the way. Even though I hadn’t seen any of the really big Galapagos animals I was hoping to, it had still been a wonderful day. On our way back, the boat suddenly stopped and Stallen, our boat hand, ran to the front to look in the water – he had seen a whale shark! I quickly joined him on the front of the boat and got a quick glimpse of her as she dove down and disappeared from sight. I didn’t get to swim with her, but I was satisfied – I had gotten a glimpse of a whale shark and no longer needed to refer to it as “that mythical beast” in order not to jinx myself and decrease my chances of seeing one.
A half hour later while we fished, I was once again hanging out on the front of the boat and saw something appear at the surface. It initially looked like the carapace of a sea turtle, and I pointed it out to Steph who was sitting next to me, but neither of us thought much of it. Suddenly it was back again, but this time it didn’t look like a turtle, it looked more like a fin of a manta ray swimming at an odd angle. Stallen came to see what we were doing and we asked what it was – the whale shark was back! We ran back to the main part of the boat and grabbed our snorkel gear, determined not to miss our chance to swim with the whale shark again. I catapulted my body off of the boat and swam in her direction as quickly as I could. I caught up to her in time to swim together for about 20 seconds and then she dove down again and disappeared from sight. Back on the boat, we were all freaking out because we were so excited – Shannon was hysterically crying, Katie was squealing, and all I could say was “Oh my god”. Once we all finally calmed down and started fishing again, the whale shark was back, but this time she was closer to the boat! We all leaped back into the water and watched as she slowly swam by. She swam right under the boat and we were able to watch all 35 feet of her pass and noticed that she was definitely a female and appeared to be pregnant. Her tail was taller than I am and her gills were about five feet large. I kept up at her pace, swimming alongside her, a little more than 6 feet away, as she fed on the abundant plankton. After staying near our group for five minutes, she once again dove down and we lost sight of her.
After catching six yellowfin tuna, it was time to head home for real, but it turned out our day of excitement still wasn’t over. On our way, we saw spouts of water being hurled into the air, apparently from a blowhole. A couple minutes later, we finally saw the whale – it had a small dorsal fin and even though we were far away, we could tell it was huge. Later we used pictures of its dorsal fin to determine that we had caught a glimpse of a right whale. As I watched the horizon on the lookout for the whale, I watched as three mobula rays breached, one after the other. Soon after, there was a flock of blue-footed boobies dive-bombing the water to feed on a school of fish.
After we got back from Punto Moreno, I realized that my Galapagos animals bucket list has been completed. I’ve swam with or seen all of the Galapagos’ unique flora and fauna including an orca, sea lions, green sea turtles, marine iguanas, scalloped hammerheads, giant manta rays, common dolphins, and dozens of species of fish. My time in the Galapagos is quickly coming to an end, and even though I don’t want to leave Isabela, I still consider myself lucky: lucky to have had the opportunity to spend three months here, lucky to have met so many incredible people, lucky to have seen so many incredible creatures, and most importantly lucky that a place like the Galapagos still exists. I envy the simple way of life that is maintained in Isabela, where people live harmoniously with the incredible natural world around them. Isabela, Puerto Villamil, and IOI have become my second home. From the moment I leave, I know that I will constantly be on the lookout for an opportunity that will take me back to this extraordinary and unique place.