Snorkeling in the Galapagos

Snorkeling allows those of us who either can’t afford or are too scared to SCUBA dive to still experience the wonders of the ocean. That said, often the most awe-inspiring aquatic sites are hidden deep below the surface and hidden to those of us who don’t have an oxygen tank strapped to our backs. Thankfully, if you find yourself in the Galapagos Islands, the animals of the sea come looking for you. That makes it one of the most satisfying and rewarding places to snorkel.

I visited the islands a few months ago and strapped a ContourGPS HD video camera to my snorkel mask for a week of exploration. Every single time I entered the water, I swam with a creature that I’d only previously encountered at aquariums. Notice that I said “swam with.” It’s not an exaggeration to say that the sea lions frolicked with us, the penguins teased us and the sharks shared some close encounters with us. Unlike any other place that I have been, snorkeling in the Galapagos is very much an interactive wildlife experience and you don’t need to be a professional cameraperson to capture the action.

Of course, it’s not all fun and games with animals in the Galapagos. I learned a few things in the water. Did you know that penguins poop while swimming? It’s like a public pool over there!

Video of the Day: Galapagos animals can dance

Us Gadling writers don’t usually use this space for self-promotion (mostly because our editors get mad at us when we do). But, well, this is the Video of the Day post and I made a travel video today. It just feels right to share it with you. I was in the Galapagos a couple of months ago and was blown away by the animals there. They know no fear, so you can get amazingly close to them (without you can’t touch them, of course) and witness their natural behaviors. It turns out that they have a fantastic sense of rhythm. I just assume that they evolved that way.

Anyways, it’s a Galapagos Dance Party and everyone’s invited.

Finding the Holy Spirit in Baja: Darwin would be proud

Imagine an uninhabited island with clear bays of turquoise water edged with rocky cliffs. Sea turtles, blue-footed boobies, and sea lions make their home on its shores. The surrounding waters contain giant manta ray, shark, dolphin, orca, and the mighty pacific gray whale. This island boasts one of the most biologically diverse bodies of water in the world, so you might think we’re describing the famed Galapagos. We’re in Baja Mexico, the island of Espiritu Santo to be exact.

The cockpit of a kayak is the best place from which to view the island. Paddling the shores allows you to experience the water and take in the beauty of the landscape. I trolled for jack and bonita while paddling and even caught dinner for my camp one night. There are several operators on the island, but be sure to go with a trusted tour provider. For example, Boundless Journeys provides week-long all-inclusive trips (under $2,000) to the island and practices leave-no-trace camping ethics.

To see the unique desert landscape of Espiritu Santo strap on a pair of boots or sturdy sandals and explore the dirt paths criss-crossing the rocky landscape. After a rain the dry island transforms into a colorful wonderland of flowers and plants. Summer temperatures can easily skyrocket into the 90s and sunscreen as well as frequent shaded breaks are mandatory. While on a guided hike of the island our group found shelter in one of the caves naturally carved into the cliff line. Self-guided hikes are fine for experienced hikers but a guide is recommended for those unfamiliar with desert hiking.

Setting up camp in one of the natural bays provides a perfect base of operations. From a base camp a panga (small motorized boat) can be used to reach remote areas of the island. A base camp also eliminates the need to trek across choppy water back and forth to the mainland each day. Most pangas are equipped to carry kayaks and can drop paddlers in bays that offer easy paddling as well as mysterious mangrove swamps. The twisted limbs and roots of the mangroves are home to many of the islands bird species such as the long-necked snowy egrets and blue herons.

Although paddling and hiking are two of the most popular activities on the island, wildlife viewing is why most come. Throngs of tourists flood the shores each year to spot the many species that call them home. The playful sea lions on the north shore are a huge draw, as are the wide variety of bird species. The blue-footed booby is one of the most sought after. February and March are the best time to catch mighty gray whales as they spend their winter in the warm waters of the Sea of Cortez.

The closest city to Espiritu Santo is La Paz. The calm waters in the bay where La Paz sprouted create a protective harbor for ships. Although small, the airport has daily flights from Mexico City and Guadalajara to accommodate tourists. Visiting La Paz during the Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, provides an opportunity to experience one of the world’s most unique festivals. Giant skeletal statues, faces painted like skulls, and dioramas depicting tiny skeletons enjoying daily activities are just a few of the ways locals celebrate their ancestors.

After a week of paddling the mangroves and experiencing the diverse mix of bird and sea life, I couldn’t help but wonder how long it might take the Mexican government to get a good grasp on the difficult task of enforcing the rules they’ve set forth on Espiritu Santo.

Locals cash in on the abundant fish populations surrounding the island and are finding employment as guides, camp cooks, and panga drivers. For now, the island seems to be maintaining it’s extraordinary biodiversity while simultaneously providing income for locals and enjoyment for tourists, but this is a delicate balancing act indeed.

Photo of the Day (03.06.10)

I’m one of those people who believes that it’s OK to pee in the ocean. And in lakes. And pools. Basically, bodies of water bigger than my bathtub are fair game for urination. But, I’m always worried that pools will have that dye that activates when urine is introduced into the water. Can you imagine how embarrassing that would be? Anyway, I was reminded of how nice it is to just pee in the water when I saw this picture by Flickr user JasonBechtel. This sea lion is hidden so perfectly in the dark water. Even if that pee dye were activated, who would notice? Lucky sea lion.

Have a picture of some public urination? Or, even better, any great travel photos? Submit your images to Gadling’s Flickr group right now and we might use it for a future Photo of the Day.

Help save the sea lions when you stay at Portofino Hotel and Yacht Club

Warm waters caused by El Nino currents may be responsible for the record number of sea lions that have shown up weak and hungry along the California coast this year. In Sausalito, the Marine Mammal Center says it has rescued a record number of exhausted and malnourished sea lions, who can’t find enough food to survive because the squid and anchovies they normally eat have headed out into colder waters. While the center normally helps around 600 sea lions, so far they’ve rescued over 1000 in the last 7 months. In southern California, the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro has taken in 365 sea lions since January.

Want to help? You can book the “Save the Sea Lions” package at the Portofino Hotel and Yacht Club in Redondo Beach. For $299 per night (plus tax), you’ll get an ocean-view room, a sea lion stuffed animal, a disposable camera, and a two-hour paddle-boat rental so you can get up close to the sea lions in the water. 10% of the proceeds from each package sold will go to the Marine Mammal Care Center to help them rescue and care for the sea lions. You can also visit the Center to learn more about their efforts firsthand. They don’t charge admission but do accept donations.

[via Los Angeles Times]