First, whales.  

On a morning in September, we woke up earlier than usual. We had been navigating overnight towards Isla Bartholomea and our guides, Roberto and Giancarlo, had prepared us for the possibility of whale sightings in the final leg of our voyage before arriving for the day’s activities.  

We bundled up and stood on the top deck of the Xploration, hot cups of coffee in hand. Roberto and Giancarlo, guiding in the Galápagos for years, were just as excited as we were to catch a glimpse. I trained my eyes on the gray ocean waves, not wanting to miss a sighting. And then, Giancarlo yelled while pointing out into the distance, “look at that!”  

It was a whale spout, far off, but unquestionable. And it was mesmerizing. I’d never seen a whale in the open ocean before—or heard the gentle sound that comes along with that expulsion of air—and I wanted more! We stood on deck for what seemed like hours that morning, not talking much, but searching. Every so often, we’d hear the “pfffftt” of a spout, or see the silhouette of one of these beautiful creatures as it popped above the surface for a moment to breathe.   

I could have stayed there all day and would have been happy if that was all we saw. But it was chilly, breakfast was being served downstairs, and there were things to do. So inside we went.  

…then, blue-footed boobies, sea lions and sharks…  

For our afternoon expedition, we boarded our pangas, 10-12-person inflatable vessels that the friendly crew used to transport us to and from the Xploration, and headed out in search of blue-footed boobies. We hadn’t seen many of the famous birds yet, and this was going to be a good chance to spot them on the shoreline.  

The afternoon sun was bright but just starting to set as we approached the shore, washing the cliffs in warm orange tones. And there they were…tons of blue-footed boobies perched as if they were sunbathing. One of our fellow passengers was particularly excited to see the colorful birds, so the crew and our guides let us spend some time here, positioning the pangas to achieve the best camera angles.  

© Jessica Sotelo / WWF-US

We continued along, watching the setting sun and just enjoying the peacefulness. To the right, between us and the shore, I noticed a sea lion was playfully swimming alongside our panga. They were our constant companions, the sea lions, and I could have watched this one for hours. The stillness was broken suddenly when Roberto yelled, “there’s a shark!” All our heads whipped around to behind the boat where he was pointing.  

This was my second shark sighting of the trip – but it was different than the first – a smallish white-tipped reef shark that swam past me during our first snorkel. This was a BIG shark. And it was swimming right next to us, just under the water’s surface. Now, Roberto and Giancarlo had told us not to be afraid of the sharks in the Galápagos, that they wouldn’t hurt us. In fact, it is a common misconception that sharks are dangerous predators that eat anything in sight. Instead, they are often the victims and it is important to conserve these critically important animals. But even though sharks aren’t as dangerous as we think, when there’s one right beside you and you see its fin crest the waves, it’s tough not to hear ‘duh duh…duh duh…duh duh’ from Jaws on repeat in your brain.  

“You’re safe, don’t worry,” Roberto said. “But I wouldn’t want to be in the water with that one.”  

© Jake Sokol / WWF

In the end, the shark kept to itself and we got to watch it swim along and then away from us until it disappeared from view. 

…then a volcano… 

In a “you can’t make this stuff up” turn of events, while we were out on the pangas that afternoon, we also noticed what looked like a huge, brilliant-white cloud floating above Isla Fernandina. Except it wasn’t a cloud. It was steam coming from the active volcano that was at that moment erupting! I couldn’t believe it. Everyone was so excited, taking a million pictures, because how often do you get to experience an active volcano exploding in front of you? I certainly never expected to.  

© Maura Quinn / WWF-US

The afternoon turned into early evening, and we were treated to one of the more beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. As the sun set and the sky grew darker, bright red and orange began to fill our view where the white cloud had been. We had just gotten back on board from our extended panga ride, chasing the volcano. Everyone hurried to get changed and come back on the deck to continue watching. Cocktails were poured to celebrate. It’s hard to describe how beautiful the fiery scene was against the black sky, but I’ll never forget it. Every single person on the trip – our guides and crew included – was in awe. We all took photos and posed for selfies to ensure we had memories of this remarkable night.  

There was no debrief that evening – just the group of us on deck, taking in a spectacular show.  

And that was a typical day in the Galápagos.  

By Maura Quinn, WWF

Travel to Galápagos with Nat Hab and WWF.