Family Adventures in the Galapagos

By: Julie McCormack

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October 20, 2023 | Adventure Experts

“Hammerhead!” yelled Julianne. We all raised our heads, looked around to see where she was and then raced over and plunged our masked faces in the water. Julianne was always the first one to spot wildlife on this trip and this encounter was no different. We were snorkeling off remote Genovesa Island on our Galápagos Wildlife Adventure. We had been treated to amazing wildlife sightings, both on land and underwater, including mating frigate birds with their inflated red balloons; red-footed, blue-footed and Nazca boobies; albatross, flamingoes, land and marine iguanas and a plethora of other creatures. But sharks were different. They engendered in each of us an excitement and corresponding fear.

It all started at our orientation the night before we flew to the Galapagos Islands. After our guide, Luis, explained the trip, Treya, the youngest member of our group at age 9, piped up: “Will we see sharks?”  Luis enthusiastically responded, “We want to see sharks!” Treya, with her big brown eyes, nodded slowly, seemingly unconvinced. My daughter Erin followed with “Are there snakes in the Galapagos?” Luis replied with a simple, “Yes.”

Despite initial trepidation, in the end, everyone in our group saw multiple sharks: Galapagos, hammerhead or white-tipped and it was exhilarating!  Conor and Keaton, both 15, captured great footage of the hammerheads with their underwater cameras. Conor kept telling me, “Mom, MT Sobek must add underwater cameras to the packing list. It’s a game changer!”

group of tourists both young and old sighting a large tortoise during their cultural & wildlife tour of the Galapagos Islands

On the first day of our trip, we saw giant tortoises mating on Santa Cruz Island. The process takes several hours. We also learned that on Espanola Island, there were only two male tortoises that Luis called “nerds” because they were not mating. Twelve females made up the rest of the colony. This colony was in danger of disappearing, so the park authorities brought in prolific Diego from the San Diego Zoo. The minute Diego got down to business and started making mating sounds, the two “nerds” kicked into action and began mating themselves. It was almost as if they forgot how to mate because there were so few of them. As a result, the giant tortoise population ballooned.

We boarded the boat, the Reina Silvia, in the evening and our first night was not an auspicious beginning as the choppy surf rocked the boat violently and all of us landlubbers began to feel queasy, whether donning seasick-prevention patches and wrist bands or not. My nephew, Evan wisely summed it up, declaring, “This could go south real fast!”  Most of the group forewent dinner and went to bed.

A solo traveler with a University of Texas orange t-shirt sitting on a bench next to a Galapagos seal

Luckily, the next morning everyone felt good and had a hearty appetite. Food, both in quality and quantity, was a definite highlight on the trip. Sea lions were another highlight. We saw them on land and then had the treat of swimming with them. They were exuberant and playful, darting in and out of our group, nibbling on fins and sometimes ankles. Most of us never tired of watching them.

Snorkeling was spectacular from thick schools of fish, to manta rays gracefully gliding through the water, to spiky sea stars and even sea snakes–always spotted by Erin. The more we snorkeled, the more comfortable we became with the Galapagos’ underwater environment.

Before every snorkel, Luis would announce what we might see, always being very careful to undersell any exciting marine life. But the sharks always held sway in our thoughts. We saw sharks on many days, and the hammerheads were particularly thrilling. On the last two snorkels of the trip, we saw four white-tipped sharks sleeping. Luis dove down to them and woke them up. Suddenly, all the kids were holding their breath and plunging down to film or just get near the sharks. Even Treya! That afternoon, Treya told her dad, Steve, that she wasn’t afraid of sharks anymore.

a small lizard nestled on a rock in Santa Cruz island in the Galapagos

tortoise and bird nestled on a rock in Santa Cruz island of the Galapagos in Ecuador, Central America

two girls and two guys staring at a Galapagos seal on the Santa Cruz island of the Galapagos in Ecuador

Our land excursions were no less impressive. We became accustomed to sea lions approaching us and walking within inches of nesting Nazca boobies and prehistoric looking marine iguanas. When on the boat, we sailed the open seas with no sight of land from horizon to horizon.

a girl and a guy exploring the Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos scenery in Ecuador

A transformation had come over our group after a week unplugged in the pristine eco-system of the Galapagos. Every creature had its unique place in this complex and elegant system and somehow it just didn’t make sense to be afraid. Fears washed off us like the salt on our bodies from the outdoor showers on the back of the boat.

On the final night of the trip, we reluctantly packed and organized our belongings, unpinning our bathing suits and rashguards from the boat clothesline and packing the shoes that we’d never worn on the boat. The crew met us on the upper deck in formal nautical dress and we toasted passion fruit cocktails to an amazing experience, unanimously agreeing that this had been a trip of a lifetime–one none of us would ever forget!

Julie McCormack, MT Sobek Program Director

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The Galápagos is the perfect family destination! Check out our group and private Galápagos departures for more details.