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What I Learned from the Famously Fearless Creatures of the Galápagos Islands

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Charles Darwin first landed on the Galápagos Islands in 1835.

Photo by Jess Kraft/Shutterstock

Charles Darwin first landed on the Galápagos Islands in 1835.

Sometimes the lessons we learn while traveling come from the most unexpected teachers.

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As I adjust my snorkeling mask and take in the jagged cliffs of dark red lava rock looming high above me on Santiago Island—a place Charles Darwin described as “altogether both picturesque and curious” during his 1835 visit to the Galápagos Islands—other snorkelers pop to the surface of the water and start sputtering all at once: “Sharks!” “Two of them!” “Right below you!”

A sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach replaces the awe I felt seconds earlier. I plunge my face underwater, and the bulletlike forms of two whitetip reef sharks come into focus. As they slowly swim along the sandy seafloor, all I can think is: Just 20 feet of water separates me from sharks. Sharks

Passengers on Lindblad Expeditions’ “National Geographic Endeavour II” go for a hike.

I’ve always been anxious about getting into the ocean. Whenever I think about how much lies in that deep blue expanse that I cannot see—animals, strong currents—and how powerless I am against that vast unknown, my mind spirals. But my fear wasn’t going to keep me from visiting one of the world’s most incredible destinations, which is how I find myself on a 10-day cruise in the Galápagos on board Lindblad Expeditions’ National Geographic Endeavour II, staring down sharks.

Knowing this trip is likely a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I don’t want to miss out on anything, so I’ve forced myself into the water at every opportunity. A few days earlier, we were anchored off the red-sand shores of Rábida Island for our first snorkeling session. As soon as I slid into the ocean, I nervously twisted the mouthpiece of my snorkel and accidentally inhaled a mouthful of salt water. I choked and sputtered, and the fear of what could be lurking below gnawed at me. But as the week went on, my fear gradually diminished. I got comfortable swimming in shallow waters alongside gentle sea turtles and marine iguanas that looked like Godzilla but were too small to be scary. Still, I dreaded that I would panic if a shark appeared. Now that moment is here. 

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I swim in place—eyes locked on the sharks—and it starts to rain. The raindrops splat on the surface of the ocean, reverberating deep inside my head like the boom of a timpani. I could swim back to the Zodiac boat that’s following my group. But I remember what the naturalists have repeatedly told us: These sharks eat only mollusks, crustaceans, and fish. I remind myself that I am none of these. I look down at the sharks as they settle onto the seafloor. My mind is racing, but I convince myself that as long as they don’t make any fast movements, I’m safe. Keeping our naturalist’s neon yellow snorkel tube in the corner of my eye, I listen to the reassuring beat of the rain and slowly let the knot of dread in my stomach unravel.

Left: Galapágos tortoises can weigh more than 900 pounds. Right: Sally Lightfoot crabs are numerous in the Galápagos.

I think back to my first morning in the Galápagos. We were on North Seymour Island, a small, flat piece of land created by an uplifting of lava millions of years ago. As my hiking group carefully moved along the rocky trail, watching frigatebirds fly overhead, I squatted down and focused my zoom lens on a blue-footed booby standing about 10 feet away. 

Suddenly, it flew toward me and landed on a rock so close that I could make out the dirt on its feet with my naked eye. Having no natural predators, this bird wasn’t scared of me or the dozen other people nearby. Our group’s naturalist, Socrates Tomala, explained why most creatures in the Galápagos Islands are either deeply curious or generally indifferent toward humans.

“They choose not to fear at all,” Tomala said as we turned to the other side of the trail to observe another blue-footed booby sitting on two eggs resting in a depression in the dirt. “Being fearful requires energy, and everything in life is energy. If you don’t have to fear, there’s no point in being fearful. So what they’re doing is saving energy, because here they can afford it.”

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Over the course of the trip, I had come face to face with dozens of animals: an octogenarian giant tortoise that ambled right by us without a care; male frigatebirds eager to show off their bright red throat pouches; mockingbirds so curious they hopped right up on our shoes. 

I watch the sharks for another minute before swimming on with the rest of my group to look at the iridescent blues and oranges of parrotfish up ahead. As we round the bend of the island, two sea lions zoom past us like tiny torpedoes in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment. Here, the seafloor abruptly drops down 60 feet. I can’t see the bottom, just an endless void of blue. Turquoise deepens into navy, and schools of fish fade away into nothingness. This would have terrified me before, but now that I’ve been swimming with sharks, I head back to the Zodiac giddy with excitement. As I climb into the boat, I decide I will no longer waste energy on fear. 

Great blue herons can adapt to many types of wetland habitats.

How to do this trip

Destination news editor Lyndsey Matthews sailed the Galápagos Islands as a guest of Lindblad Expeditions. Lindblad offers 7- to 16-day Galápagos trips throughout the year on its ships National Geographic Islander, which holds 48 passengers, and National Geographic Endeavour II, which holds 96 passengers. Itineraries include a stop at Santa Cruz Island, where travelers can watch giant tortoises roam, and may include a visit to Fernandina Island, where snorkelers swim alongside marine iguanas. Onboard naturalists talk about Charles Darwin and the human history of the archipelago and offer their expertise on the bird and marine life encountered on daily hikes and aquatic excursions. From $5,800. 

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>> Next: 17 Things I Wish I'd Known Before Going on a Galápagos Cruise

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