Sea urchins in Galapagos

The ocean environment is a place where we, as humans, do not belong. It’s cold, full of confusing and potentially dangerous animals, and, thanks to our air-needy lungs, it will kill us without adequate equipment. These reasons and more are the contributors to my anxiety any time I strap on a snorkel mask and have to constantly tell myself not to breathe through my nose—yet I never miss an opportunity to venture into the terrifying waters.

While snorkeling in the Galapagos, the landmine-like sea urchins that often line the ocean floor are a stern reminder that my skin should not contact any of the creatures I see while submerged. Stingrays make my heart skip a beat when they gracefully swim just above those urchins like a magic carpet barely avoiding the floor. Just above the rays are sea turtles that are both slow-moving, patient creatures and deceivingly fast swimmers when slightly agitated by my graceless kicking. Weaving in and out of all of those ocean animals are the hundreds of fish that I periodically take for granted and seldom recognize their individual beauty.

While all of that marine life keeps me coming back, fascinated with a touch of fear, it’s actually the mammals that entertain me the most. Two species of mammal, to be specific.

The first species of mammal that I continuously find entertaining is the Galapagos sea lion. There are a few places in the world where one can swim with sea lions, but none more enjoyable than the Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos are known for their uniquely friendly wildlife, which has essentially never been threatened by humans. This is one of the reasons why the sea lions in the region love snorkelers like myself.

Swimming with Galapagos sea lions

Sea lions are playful animals who bend their bodies around in ways that only rubber bands can mimic. Their underwater flipping and swirling mesmerize us onlookers, but it’s when they gain more comfort with us that the show really gets entertaining. The sea lions become curious with us foreign creatures and nip at our fins or, my favorite, play “chicken” with us. They swim straight toward our heads, giving the feeling that there will be an uncomfortable collision, and then abruptly making a vertical U-turn, leaving us gasping for the breath we failed to take during the charge.

This game of “chicken” is so entertaining that I find myself squealing in my snorkel again and again. Hearing myself underwater is when I make a striking realization: I must not be the only one so thoroughly amused by this. Enter the other species of mammal to entertain me: humans.

I lift my head above the water to see a dozen other snorkels providing air to whomever they are attached to as they watch the activity below the water’s surface. As speculated, the other snorkelers are experiencing the same level of amusement I was and, similarly, are laughing and squealing through their snorkel tubes, as well.

Happy humans in the Galapagos

The muffled giggles and shrieks of surprise become my new subject of appreciation as I tread in the water, focused no longer on what I can see below, but rather what I can hear above. Occasionally my fellow swimmers will catch themselves laughing through the tube and peek above the water with an embarrassed look on their faces. We make eye contact, and their embarrassment is quickly drowned by an expression I can only describe as pure joy.

I travel because there’s an insatiable hunger inside of me to see more places and experience more activities. I travel because I want to see wild animals in their natural habitat. I travel because I love to have stories to tell. But, perhaps the biggest reason I travel is this: because I cannot imagine anything more beautiful than that look of pure joy on those mammal’s faces.

Swimming with sea lions in Galapagos

This guest post was written by Nat Hab Adventure Specialist Joey Sudmeier. All photos © Joey Sudmeier.