The dive master discovered something interesting on the ledge of a coral covered rock wall. I swam around a barnacle encrusted boulder to see what it was. I realized it was a white tip reef shark right about the time that it decided it didn’t like all the attention and tried to leave. I was right in its escape path. White tip reef sharks are normally not dangerous to humans. But as the sleek grey beast swam right at my head, everything that I had ever heard about trapped animals being dangerous flashed through my mind. It got within two feet of my face and then pulled up and gracefully glided right over my head. I turned to my right and watched as it vanished with a few strokes from its long tail. Its grey body disappeared into the blue water first but for several seconds longer I could see just the white spot on the top of its tail stroking back and forth like the flashing beacon on an airplane at night. I was five minutes into my first dive in the Galapagos and I had just been buzzed by a shark.
The rest of the dive was good. I saw rays, sea turtles and hundreds of silver, yellow and purple tropical fish. After nearly an hour underwater we surfaced and the boat picked us up. I climbed aboard, pulled off the restrictive, extra thick wetsuit and relaxed in the powerful equatorial sun as the boat lazily motored towards the next dive site. We pulled up to a small rocky island and the guide announced that we had arrived at Champion Island. The crew brought out sandwiches and everybody began to eat.
I looked at the black volcanic boulders that made up the island and realized that there were several sea lions moving about and sleeping in the hot sun. The coats of the wet sea lions were impossibly shiny and beautiful. They looked like they were made of perfectly polished glass that had been glazed a rich bronze color. The ones who had been relaxing in the sun on ledges that were incredibly small and high above the water were dry and their coats had become an adorable fluffy blonde. Occasionally one would let out a bellow that was somewhere between a goat and a dog.
There was a bright blue lagoon near the rocks and I saw the occasional head or flipper break the surface and then disappear. There were sea lions in the water. “Can we swim with them?” I asked as I grabbed my mask. “Yes, but just don’t touch them.” replied the dive master. Before he had finished the sentence I was frantically scrambling over the side of the boat with my mask in hand. I was in a near state of panic as I ungracefully flopped into the refreshing water creating a massive splash. Every second that I was not swimming with the sea lions was a personal tragedy.
I swam freestyle at top speed toward the cove where I had seen the sea lions swimming. After diving in the bulky wet suit with the scuba gear and tank I felt nearly naked and totally free in just my board shorts and mask. I quickly arrived in the sea lions’ area. I wasn’t sure if they were still in the water or what would happen if they were. I slowed down and looked around the water that was shallow enough for me to stand in. Several sea lions lounged on the rocks around me. I splashed the water in an attempt to be playful and interesting. They looked at me but were not impressed and continued to enjoy the powerful sun.
Then out of the shallow blue water a brown face materialized. It looked like the most adorable puppy I had ever seen. It had massive dark eyes and a friendly, curious expression. We made eye contact. As soon as I saw the creature I clapped my hands underwater to capture his interest. It worked and he flew, they don’t swim they fly through the water, straight at my face. I didn’t have the good sense to be afraid of the 200 pound sea creature that was rushing at my head; I was just so happy that he was interacting with me. At the last second he changed direction and with the liquid smoothness of the water itself he swooshed by me. I let out a shout of joy as I turned to see where he went. He smoothly glided in an arc around me. I instinctively understood the rule less game that we were playing. I had played it when I was a child. All that was required was that you fully enjoy and utilize the weightless freedom that the water gave you. I clumsily rolled on my back and looked at my new amphibious friend upside down as he turned back towards me. He immediately recognized the challenge and smoothly rolled onto his back as he gracefully glided towards me. He then twisted and rolled as he shot by me. I responded by doing several flips and a barrel roll. He shot around in a tight circle and then looked at me. I clumsily did what I imagined was the same thing. As I battered and splashed through the water the sea lion moved as if he was part of it. Every part of him from his streamlined face to his wing like flippers and silky coat made him perfectly suited for the marine world.
The commotion that my aquatic friend and I created drew the attention of several more sea lions. I could tell that the newcomers were puppies because they were smaller, their coats were darker and if it was possible they were even more adorable than the first sea lion. They also lacked the confidence of my friend and stayed in the shallower water closer to the rocks. They looked at me with intense curiosity and they would get close but didn’t fully play with me like the first one. Instead they created a ball of twisting and twirling puppies in the shallow water. Ever changing as they played with each other, blew bubbles and then stopped and looked at me to see what I was going to do. They were inquisitive but cautious. They wanted so badly to just abandon their fears and completely play with me like the adult but they couldn’t seem to do it so they would come right up to me and look me straight in the face and then shoot back to the shallower water with the other puppies. One of the puppies bellowed into the water and bubbles shot from his mouth with the sound. I replied with what I thought was a relatively authentic sea lion bark into the water. I watched in amazement as one of the puppies curled his body into a crescent so that he could scratch his chin with his hind flipper. I laughed bubbles into the water at the ridiculous feat.
Occasionally what I think was one of the mothers appeared and played chicken with me like the other sea lion but I got the feeling that she was also letting me know that she was keeping an eye on me and that I should be careful with the little ones. I understood and whenever I felt like I had drifted too far into the shallows and into puppy space I would swim back out a little deeper and let the youngsters come to me.
After nearly an hour of playing with my new buddies I was called back onto the boat. It was time to suit up for the next dive. I reluctantly swam back to the boat. As I climbed aboard the boat I looked at the other divers who had not played with the sea lions with a sense of confusion and disdain. They had stayed on the boat to relax and have a snack and had missed out on an incredible experience.
On the second dive I saw a ton of fish and sea turtles and the whole time the sea lions swooped around us and tried to entice us into playing with them. They would occasionally nip at our fins and one even gently nipped my mom’s hand. It was amazing to see their agility and speed once they were in deep water but it wasn’t as much fun. In the scuba gear all I could do was watch.
My first two dives in the Galapagos were easily some of the best in my life they could not compare to the experience I had playing with the sea lions in between dives. While swimming with the sea lions I learned a valuable lesson that no matter how much you scuba dive, no matter how much you swim, no matter what kind of physical agility and strength you possess, you will never ever defeat a sea lion in an underwater back flip contest but by no means should that prevent you from trying. Because as you try and fail miserably you will be interacting with one of the most incredible sea creatures in the world and you will also feel the sense of wonder and excitement that you felt when you were a kid and jumped into the water for the first time. And that sense of childlike freedom and joy that I savored as I was befriending those incredible creatures may have been one of the most amazing things that I have experienced on this trip.