The seas around the Galapagos are every bit as biologically interesting and diverse as the land, but in a different way.
Whereas there are relatively few land dwelling species on the island, all unique and generally completely lacking in fear of humans, the sea life is more in line with what you would expect in relatively tropical waters around the world.
While the fish were fairly typical, the underwater environment was otherwise atypical. Notably, there simply isn’t any significant coral growth. No coral heads of any size. No coral reefs and none of the rough, nook and cranny filled, walls of coral growth normally associated with tons of tropical fish.
Instead, and making the waters of the Galapagos fairly unique in and of themselves, the lava foundation of the islands provides all the hidy holes marine life of all sizes might need.
To provide the biomass to feed the incredible numbers of fish and other marine life, the islands sit at the cross roads of five ocean currents, with major currents dominating from the South, North, or West depending on season and El Nino.
Some of the currents are quite deep and bring up tons and tons of biomass in the form of plankton and other deep sea creatures as the currents hit the archipelago.
As a result, there is plenty of biomass to support a dense and diverse marine population. Yet, those very currents — the one up the west coast of South America from the Antarctic — also means that the water temperatures can be really cold for part of the year.
Hence, no significant coral growth. Coral needs a constant, relatively warm, water temperature.
Travel tip: If you are planning on visiting the Galapagos, go in April/May. The predominant water current is very warm and, thus, we spent the week snorkeling in 79 to 82 degree water. No wetsuit needed. If you were to visit the same locations in August-ish time frame, the water would be a chilly 65 degrees!
In any case, enough words. What about the creatures themselves?
As can be seen in the photo above, there are tons of fish! Lots and lots of your relatively typical equatorial fish with a handful of Galapagos only (endemic) fish.
Yet, there are also pretty much always sea lions darting about. Being the inquisitive creatures that they are, it was pretty much the rule that any time humans are in the water, at least a couple of sea lions would wander by to check us out.
Likely, this one was laughing at my complete ungainliness underwater compared to a sea lion’s nimble grace!
Sea lions are natural clowns. They love to play. You’ll constantly sea juvenile sea lions playing tag, wrestling, or pestering the adults.
Much of the sea life falls into one oftwo categories for sea lions; food or toy. Thus, it is rare to find a puffer fish of any size — a fish that isn’t particular fast and sticks near the shore — that doesn’t look a bit beat up because sea lions will annoy them to inflation and then use the puffer fish as a ball!
(I have to admit that I’ve done the same before I knew better. Not very nice to the puffer fish, admittedly.)
While many of the fish are relatively generically colored, there were a handful that really stood out.
This is a King Angelfish. King it was! These large fish can be found all over the waters near the shores of the islands. Sometimes a lone fish will be about, but we also saw schools of up to a hundred individuals darting about just below the surface.
The fish of the Galapagos are pretty much just as skittish as anywhere else. Which should come as no surprise given that the blue footed boobies are avid hunters that dive at high speed and will hunt fish up to 40 or 50 feet down.
Because the water was so rich with biomass from the deep currents, underwater photography — already hard — was a challenge in the Galapagos. You pretty much needed to dive down to get close enough to get a good picture that wasn’t cloudy.
Even in this picture, you can see how quickly the colors and details disappear with any distance.
It wasn’t until the third or fourth snorkel trip that I hit my photo-groove underwater.
While there were lots of holes to hide in, there was also lots of open areas on the rocky bottoms.
No surprise, there are creatures that occupy these areas, too. While the waters of the Galapagos lack coral, they are rich in algae.
This slate pencil urchin wanders about the open areas eating algae.
The Galapagos are also home to quite a few different kinds of sea stars.
This is a Blue Sea Star and it made for a very striking bit of color on top of the mottled lava and algae.