In the Galapagos, heading back to the boat at sunset.
ONBOARD THE NATURAL PARADISE, PACIFIC OCEAN (Sept. 11, 2016) – It was only noon, and it had already been one of my best days ever. One where you try to soak up every visual, every sound and every smell because you want to be sure you remember it correctly for the rest of your life. We were riding on a dinghy back to our boat, the Natural Paradise, which was anchored a half-mile off the shore of Fernandina, one of the Galapagos Islands. I began to wonder how any other part of our one-year retirement would be able to stack up to what I had just experienced. Had we peaked too soon, just two weeks in? Would this make the rest of the trip a let-down? Also, why am I worrying about something as ridiculous as having too good of a time?
We had been snorkeling along the northern coast of the island. It being September, our guide informed us that during this time of year snorkeling was particularly good because the Humbolt current was bringing a “soup” of nutrients into the water, which made the marine life particularly active. Although it also tended to make the water murkier, he said that today, in this location, we would be able to see for at least 60 feet. One by one, my half-dozen fellow dinghy riders and I flipped backward off the raft into the chilly water below. As instructed by our guide, we started paddling in the same direction – like a clumsy school of fish – slowly moving parallel to the the jagged volcanic rocks that made up the cliffs of the island about 30 feet away.
I looked down as I swam, and curtains of equatorial sunlight from above revealed that these volcanic walls continued down for several stories below me. I was on the side of an undersea cliff. Within a few seconds I saw below me a Galapagos sea turtle – about the size of a restaurant serving tray – gracefully swimming about 10 feet below. He turned right, and I followed him, trying to keep up while not scaring him away. I didn’t bother to check and see where the rest of my group was headed. I was afraid if I took my eyes off him for a second he’d be gone. But he had decided to let me trail him, and within 20 seconds I spotted a second, third, and fourth turtle, all of them traveling together about 10 feet below me.
At this point I was afraid to blink. But a flash of darkness directly in front of me gave me enough reason to look up. The turtles had directed me into a school of several thousand fish, each about a foot long. I had wandered into a three-dimensional nature program. I couldn’t believe my luck. So much was happening at once, with so much to look at in every direction, that I lost track of time. I realized I was not, in fact, the Okie version of Jacques Cousteau and instead very much a landlubber on an organized tour. Oh, yes, the tour! I popped my head out of the water and spotted my group a couple city blocks away (Being the aforementioned landlubber I have no idea how to measure this in nautical terms – would that be nautical miles? Or perhaps leagues?)
Being a below-average swimmer, I’d think the prospect of being left in the ocean 3,000 miles from home would create a sense of panic for me, or at least concern. But instead I briefly entertained rejoining my new underwater friends. Logic eventually won out and I reluctantly broke away to rejoin the tour group, assuming my adventure was over. It wasn’t. I arrived at the best possible moment, as a sea lion had happened upon our group and decided to investigate us further. He darted and danced between us as we clumsily tried to stay afloat and keep watching his acrobatics. He dipped, curved, turned and made several upside down 360-degree twists between us. With one hairpin turn, he missed running right into me, only inches away from my mask. He quickly became bored with us and darted off into the green darkness below. It was a spectacular display of underwater acrobatics at arm's-length.
Back on the dinghy, as we headed back to the boat for lunch, the seven of us excitedly shared stories on what we saw, each of us realizing how fortunate we had been to see so much life and activity underwater. For our underwater friends, it was another day, but for us, it was a memory we would each retell a thousand times. Those are days that don’t come very often; days that unfold with the realization that they will be special forever. Asking to get even one more experience like that in our year of world travel seems greedy. Did we peak early? If so, I can live with that.