Today started a little earlier than the previous five days, on this 8-day cruise retracing some of the footsteps of Darwin in the Galapagos. We were anchored in Tagus Cove, on the west side of Isabela Island, one of the youngest islands in the archipelago at less than half a million years old. At 6h30, we were already on shore, climbing to a viewpoint that took in Darwin Lake and a black lava field that cut a lifeless swath across the landscape. As much as life on land is quirky and unique in the Galapagos, it’s the life aquatic that is the highlight today.
Our first snorkeling jaunt is on the southern shore of Tagus Cove. We jump in and gasp as the cold water rushes into our thin wetsuits, but the sight below the surface is equally breathtaking. A flightless cormorant is hunting. It probes with its long bill into crevices, quickly, efficiently, and in a veil of bubbles heads for the surface. Then, in short order, two Galapagos penguins swim by like little torpedoes, just under the surface. I’m dizzy with elation. A Galapagos sea lion appears out of nowhere, does a couple of cartwheels, and disappears just as quickly. The water is clear as gin – it’s like swimming in an aquarium. The rocky bottom is dotted with colourful sea stars and clumps of large barnacles, orange sponges, pink anemones, and bright green urchins wearing all manners of hats, and in between tangles of blue-black brittle stars shimmer. After an hour, we’re called back to the boat. Quick, quick. Warm up for 40 minutes while the boat crosses Bolivar Channel to Fernandina Island, the westernmost of the main Galapagos Islands.
The water at Punto Espinoza is just as cold. The disappointment of the poorer visibility fades quickly as a Galapagos sea lion circles me playfully and a large diamond ray glides by like a magic carpet. An enormous green turtle – the largest I’ve ever seen – flaps powerfully and indifferently alongside me, but my attention is sharply focused on the incongruous sight just below me. A marine iguana! The miniature dinosaur is munching away on a patch of lush green algae, oblivious that it is actually under water. After a little while, it looks up and pushes off, sculling gently with its tail to reach the surface. A David Attenborough moment if there ever was one!
The third snorkelling opportunity of the day is near the northern tip of Isabela Island, at Punto Vincente Roca. I roll in. The water is colder still, but the sight below is immediately arresting. I count no fewer than 23 huge green turtles right around me, but there must be more than 100 in this bay. Some are swimming slowly but most are just swaying in the gentle waves, a metre or so below the surface. Blue-footed boobies are diving, and two little Galapagos penguins stand guard on a rock, but the attraction of the turtles is too strong. I stop finning and join the trance-like rhythm of to-and-fro rocking, until once again, I’m told that it’s time to get back on the boat.
I start writing this account on the foredeck as our boat chugs along northward towards the Equator. Suddenly, a fin breaks the surface. A shark? No! It’s an ocean sunfish! Mola mola – my most-want-to-see fish. And there’s another, and another. In total, at least seven ocean sunfishes come and salute us with their oversized dorsal fins, as if they know the imminence of something momentous. And then it happens. The engine stops. I rush to the wheelhouse as the captain points to the GPS. The digital display reads 00.00.022 S, with the numbers slowly decreasing as the momentum of the boat pushes us forward. I count down to zero, and there’s cheering and hilarity. I’m a shellback: I’ve crossed the equator on a boat, finally. The crew distributes little certificates attesting to the event. Mine is made to Isabel Marie Codette Cute. Close enough. I know it’s for me.