Snorkeling with Sharks in the Galápagos Islands

View of Paltra Sur Island (©photocoen).

View of Paltra Sur Island (©photocoen).


I was facedown in the water, following a schools of surgeonfish weaving their way among the rocks, yet the word registered loud and clear. I looked up and saw my partner Coen waving frantically, pointing to something underneath his body. I swam towards him, careful not to make any sudden movements that might scare the fish away.

Seconds later the shark’s snout was right in front of me. For a moment I held my breath. Should I flee or stay calm? This was something quite different from spotting peaceful-looking sea lions and swallow-tailed sea gulls as we had earlier that day. I focused on my breathing and relaxed my muscles.

When the shark turned away, I didn’t give the matter a second thought and turned to follow it. After my initial fright I was captivated by the sight of it. It was a reef shark and our guide had assured me that this was not a shark to fear. It feeds on, among other things, crustaceans, mollusks, small fish and octopus.

Swallow-tailed sea gulls (©photocoen).

Swallow-tailed sea gulls (©photocoen).

This was what Coen had been hoping for. With his wide experience as a diver his expectations were different from mine. I had never learned to dive and had snorkeled only a handful of times. Every single underwater creature still filled me with wonder and truth be said, swimming alongside a shark had not exactly been on my bucket list.

For some visitors, I learned, snorkeling or diving with reef sharks or hammerhead sharks was the primary reason to participate in day-trips such as ours today.

In Your Bucket Because….

  • You want to snorkel with sharks, penguins, sea turtles, sea lions, and manta rays, or view other wildlife on the Galápagos Islands.
  • You’d rather participate in day-trips to specific places of interest than go on a cruise.
  • The Galápagos are a UNESCO World Heritage Site (1978) and Biosphere Reserve (1984).
  • Good for anybody who loves wildlife. Note that in order to watch wildlife up close, you have to be patient and quiet. The Galápagos may therefore not be the best place to go with babies and toddles when joining group tours.

A Day Trip with the Sea Lion

Coen and I were staying at the Finch Bay Hotel, on the island of Santa Cruz. The hotel has a yacht for day-trips and this morning a rubber dinghy had taken the two of us and twelve other guests to the Sea Lion in Puerto Ayora’s harbor. While the captain steered the ship to open waters, Mario, our bilingual guide (En/Sp), gave us a briefing in the airconditioned lounge about what the day had in store for us.

After about 1,5 hours of sailing we anchored at Plaza Sur, a tiny, rocky island east of Santa Cruz. The dinghy took us ashore where the photographers focused on a young, playful sea lion in a natural pool hemmed in by lava rocks while others listened to Mario’s stories about the island and its inhabitants.

Something unusual was going on because marine iguanas normally don't eat this plant (©photocoen)

Something unusual was going on because marine iguanas normally don’t eat this plant (©photocoen)

Evolution of Flora and Fauna

Mario stood among prickly pear trees. Yes, you read that right: trees, not plants. While the spiny tree originates from the prickly pear plant, it has evolved into its own species as a tree and is now called an Opuntia echios.

This island has other examples of how evolution transformed flora and fauna into new species over thousands or millions of years. For example, there are two kinds of iguanas on Plaza Sur. Both descend from one iguana species that once floated this way from Ecuador’s mainland on some vegetation and on the Galápagos evolved into a pitch-black marine iguana and a grayish land iguana.

The Role of Mankind

The marine iguana feeds on algae underwater. Land iguanas, on the other hand, eat the fruits and leaves of the above-mentioned giant opuntia. The reptiles sat under the trees waiting for a fruit to fall, totally undisturbed by our presence. Mario pointed out that there are only old trees, no young ones. And with that observation came the all too familiar tale of mankind destroying the sensitive balance of ecology.

A land iguana feeding itself on a fruit from the opuntia echios (©photocoen).

A land iguana feeding itself on a fruit from the opuntia echios (©photocoen).

Plaza Sur is home to some 350 land iguanas, which is too many for the size of the island. This number was once kept in balance by hawks which fed on young iguanas. When urbanization started on the nearby Santa Cruz Island, the hawk was wiped out. With the iguanas no longer having a predator, they will thrive until no food is left, because eventually the Opuntia will disappear from the island, not getting the chance to multiply as every single fruit is devoured by the reptiles.

No matter where you go on the Galápagos you’re confronted with this reality: the fascinating, unique species inhabiting the islands vs. the destruction by mankind. Having said that, numerous initiatives (private and government) have led to successful restoration and conservation projects of flora and fauna.

Back to the Sharks

Sea Lion underneath a  Opuntia Echios on Plaza Sur (©photocoen)

Sea Lion underneath a Opuntia Echios on Plaza Sur (©photocoen)

While we hiked over Plaza Sur, admiring frigates, red-billed tropicbirds, pelicans and sea lion colonies, the cook was preparing a buffet lunch of pasta, chicken, salads, and dessert on the Sea Lion, which we enjoyed on our return. Half an hour of sailing brought us to the entrance of the Itabaca Canal that separates Santa Cruz from Baltra Island.

We put on our bathing suits, the staff handed us the snorkeling gear and one by one we entered the water. Because I needed a long time to acclimatize to the cold water and Coen waited for me, the group had swum far ahead of us. We were just the two of us when Coen exclaimed that magic word, “Shark!”

We quietly followed the six-foot-long shark. The white tip the fins of the dark-grey, wide-mouthed fish have given it the name of whitetip reef shark (Triaenodon obesus). It slowly curved its body from left to right, following the coastline and appearing to be in no hurry.

It was easy to keep up with it and in fact the swim was quite peaceful. Until excitement took over once more as another broad snout loomed up ahead of us: a second shark, going the other way!

We turned around to follow the second one. For at least ten minutes we could keep up with its movements. Little by little it swam away from the rocky shore to deeper waters. It increased speed and suddenly sped off into the distance, fading into a narrow grey stripe until we were alone once more in this magic underwater world of the Galápagos Islands.

Practical Information

  • For scuba-divers Finch Bay Hotel can organize a day-trip to places where you are likely to spot hammerhead sharks.
  • Day-trips on the Sea Lion include coffee, tea, water, lunch, snorkeling gear and a guide. You can sign up for a day-tour or you can book a hotel & cruise package, which includes your stay in the hotel and a number of day-trips.
  • It would be a good idea to bring an underwater camera – it was the only thing we missed!
  • Finch Bay can organize trips on Santa Cruz Island as well, such as a visit to an organic coffee farm and to wild tortoises. Within walking distance are the Tortuga Bay to go for a swim, the Charles Darwin Research Station to learn about the tortoise breeding program, as well as Puerto Ayora to go for a stroll, check out the fish market, or buy souvenirs.
  • For more information check out Finch Bay Hotel’s website.


  1. Marie Claude Arnott says

    Your story makes me want to go even more. I also love all the photographs. The picture of the swallowed-tailed sea gulls is so beautiful: poetic, romantic, artistic. A beautiful composition to be framed.


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