A No Brainer in the Galapagos

One day in the Galapagos we were given a choice: do we want to spend the day snorkeling or would we rather putt-putt around in a glass bottom boat? I saw a feature story in the Boston Globe Magazine recently. The editor described the story as offering readers “6 great places to snorkel.” An oxymoron if ever I saw one, like offering someone “6 great places to sub your toe.” The last time I snorkeled—the only time, in fact—I was in Lake Malawi, a lake infested with schistosomiasis. Don’t ask me why. Long story. I got so panicky I swallowed several gulps of the lake water. Later, my primary care provider—someone I used to call my doctor—told me that swallowing the parasitic schistosomiasis worm was not a problem. Stomach acids were enough to kill it. It was when the worms got under your skin, literally, that trouble arose. I managed to deal with the worms by swathing myself in alcohol and then by vowing never, ever to snorkel again.

That’s why choosing the glass bottom boat was a no brainer. It was also very pleasant. A pair of blue awnings protected me from the sun. A handrail down the spine of the boat provided support while I leaned over to peer through the green glass window at my feet. The first thing I saw was an avenue of starfish clinging to the submerged side of a rocky ledge transforming it into a watery version of Hollywood’s Boulevard of Stars.

Galapagos Sea Lion
The boatman was unhurried, guiding the craft lazily through the water. At one point a sea turtle came into view. The boatman reversed the engine and shadowed the turtle’s graceful path twenty feet below the surface of the water. It was as if we were a kite the turtle was flying.

Galapagos Brown Pelican and Sea Lion
We came to a grotto, nosed all the way into its black interior. The waves lapped against the sides of the cave. A sea lion, watching our arrival, did a perfect swan dive into the ocean. A pelican took off after him and the two of them moved in tandem in their separate mediums for about a minute before they parted company.

Most animal movement is graceful, a natural grace that dancers take years, if ever, to acquire. Perhaps this is what the bible meant when it spoke of our fall from grace. All of us are really quite plodding. We are stiff, awkward, overweight, clumsy. None of those adjectives apply to the fauna of the Galapagos, not even the 120 year old turtles of the Darwin Station. It is true that the swaying lumber of a sea lion as it crabs its way from the beach to the water is comical in its gracelessness. But once in the water it becomes a veritable Nijinsky. Even the tiptoeing crabs on the rocks are icons of delicate motion. Their name, the Sally Lightfoot Crab, acknowledges their grace.
Sally Lightfoot Crab in the Galapagos

Despite the charms of the aquatic ballet, I couldnn’t shake an unsettling feeling about the undersea world I was passing over. When I looked up, I saw the red cliffs of the island glistening in the late afternoon sunlight. When I looked down, I was transported into a parallel universe, busy, bustling, and thoroughly alien. I felt like the little boy in the movie who, although he was full of life, could see the dead.