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Swimming with a Sea Creature Like No Other

Posted by on August 9th, 2019

Submerged a few feet below the surface of the Pacific, I spot a curious creature chomping something on the ocean floor.  The rest of our group is swimming in the other direction, dangling their GoPros toward a darting Galapagos penguin, but I decide to drift down solo toward the dark figure lurking below.

Marine Iguana
A mysterious sea beast

The face that greets me is not that of a lovable little penguin, but of a Marine Iguana, a sooty grey-black reptile with a row of spikes extending from the top of its head down its spine and tail.  His spikey, sinister stare and creepy claws would be enough to give me a scare if our guide Eugenio hadn’t ensured us that Marine Iguanas are harmless vegetarians, the only species of iguana in the world that dives into the sea to feed off algae on the ocean floor.  I’ve interrupted this sea-lizard’s meal, and he pushes off the rocks and ascends towards the surface, a dinosaurian merman with his arms and claws pressed to his sides.

Swimming toward the surface
Outta here
Surfacing
Surfacing

As his spiked head pokes above the water, I believe I’ve discovered the real reason why cartographers of centuries past included images of sea monsters in the depictions of oceans on their maps.  Perhaps it wasn’t because of a superstitious fear of the unknown seas; perhaps they’d been to the Galapagos Islands and seen a Marine Iguana emerging from an algae feast.

Sea monster drawing
This suddenly makes more sense

He catches his breath and descends back below the water line, propelling himself forward by slithering his long tail, like a sea snake with a dragon’s body.  Wondering where he might lead me, and relishing the once-in-a-lifetime chance to swim alongside the world’s only seafaring iguana, I decide to pursue, kicking my finned feet furiously to keep up.

Swimming with sea creatures
Swimming with sea creatures

The race is on, and as the algae blooms below us sway with the tide, we whirl through schools of fish below the waves.  I keep pace for a little while, long enough to record an amateur video (below) of our aquatic encounter, but soon the distance between the rocky ocean floor and the water line decreases to the point that his slender slithering gives him the upper hand over my clumsy kicking.  He pushes ahead and eventually out of the water, clawing his way up the volcanic rocks to join his brethren basking in the equatorial sun.

on the beach
Basking

We are snorkeling in the shallow pools of Punta Espinosa, a highlight site of remote, unpopulated Fernandina Island. Located at the western end of the Galapagos archipelago, it is a site visited only on select five-to-eight-day, small vessel live-aboard naturalist Galapagos cruises.  Marine Iguanas can be found throughout the Galapagos Islands, but Fernandina Island is home not only to the largest colonies of them, but also the largest subspecies of Marine Iguana in terms of their physical size, with some adult males, like the one I’d encountered, measuring over 4 feet from the snout to the end of the tail.

cuddling marine iguanas
surprisingly cuddly

The 90 second amateur video below includes glimpses of other highlight Galapagos species: playful sea lions, iconic giant tortoises, graceful sea turtles, endemic flightless cormorants, dancing blue-footed boobies, shaking flamingos, puffed-up frigate birds and stoic land iguanas – but the last 30 seconds are dedicated exclusively to my impromptu underwater race with a creature who appears to have been lifted from the pages of a sea dragon fairy tale, an encounter that can only happen in one place on the entire planet: the Galapagos Islands.

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