Survival of the Fittest: Finding My Sea Legs for a Galápagos Travel Story

It was cloudy and windy the day I found myself alone on a zodiac boat off the coast of Floreana Island in the Pacific Ocean. The small boat swayed near Devil’s Crown: an extinct, collapsed underwater volcanic cone. Around me were jagged, dark rock remnants, haunting and beautiful.

I was on a snorkeling outing as part of a seven-day Ecoventura cruise to the Galápagos for a writing assignment on the islands’ exotic wildlife. On the water’s surface, colorful snorkeling tubes bobbed, evidence of my cruise-mates enjoying the myriad of marine life below. As much as I loved animals, I was too paralyzed with fear to jump in.

I had never snorkeled or even put on a wetsuit. A childhood trauma of almost drowning in a pool kept me from venturing into the ocean. Even though I never swam in water deeper than my waist, I’ve enjoyed traveling around the globe, sharing my stories about off-the-beaten path adventures and animal sightings with fellow nature lovers. In the past ten years, I visited more than 120 places on five continents, all the while keeping a safe distance from bodies of water.

“Don’t be afraid to do things you never tried before,” advised a long-time travel journalist I met. While my friends and family considered me brave to travel anywhere in the world, there still were some things I wouldn’t dare do. On the flight from Ecuador to the islands, I was excited to observe the native species — the giant tortoises, land iguanas, waved albatrosses, and Darwin’s finches. When I noticed snorkeling on the agenda, I became anxious.

“I’m afraid of the open ocean,” I admitted to our naturalist guide, Ivan, on the day of the snorkeling trip.

“I will hold your hand and you can hold onto the buoy,” he said. “You will be just fine,” he reassured. When everyone else got into their wetsuits, I put mine on, certain that it would never get wet.

Devil's crown, Floreana, Galapagos Islands
Devil’s crown, Floreana, Galapagos Islands

On the boat ride to Devil’s Crown, my chest tightened as if to contain my racing heart. The cool breeze didn’t stop the beads of sweat forming on my forehead. “Are we going to see sharks here?” I inquired, wanting someone to acknowledge my other fear of this destination that attracts daredevil divers from around the world.

“They are harmless reef sharks. Don’t worry, they will go after me before you,” Ivan said, patting his rounded belly.

After everyone leapt into the choppy waters, I stayed on the boat.

“Jump in!” a friend yelled. Others shouted encouragement. Ivan swam up and held out his hand. With the gray clouds above and black, ragged peaks of the volcano surrounding me, I could almost hear dramatic horror movie music playing.

Then I heard, “Oooh, look at those wings!” A happy snorkeler caught a glimpse of a spotted eagle ray.

Known for its distinctive white spots on its flattened body, a wide wing span, and a long whip-like tail that can reach up to 16 feet long, the giant spotted eagle ray is an angelic and rare sight to behold. This near-threatened creature graced the snorkelers with its presence and I was missing out.

What would I write about when I returned? How I stood idly by while others made the most of their adventure? Sure, the blue-footed booby birds and the sally light-foot crabs that resided on the rock formations above water would be fun to chronicle, but I wouldn’t be doing justice to my article on the wildlife of the enchanted isles if I didn’t experience the marine world.

“You will see more wildlife underwater in eight minutes than you would in eight hours on land,” Ivan told us on the first day of the cruise.

I made it this far. The long plane ride, the continuing adventure, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I would surely regret if I fell victim to my own cowardice. I reminded myself that I am a travel writer, so fortunate to have the chance to soak up the unspoiled natural beauty that inspired Charles Darwin.

It was time to get my feet wet.

I took a deep breath and reached for Ivan’s hand as I jumped in. I stabilized myself by holding onto the ring buoy. The wetsuit kept me afloat. The cool water seeped through the suit, then became warm, trapped in a thin layer between my body and the fabric exterior, instantly calming me. I moved gingerly, put in my mouthpiece, and dipped my face underwater.

My anxiety quickly floated away. Azure light shone on a vibrant landscape unlike anything I had ever witnessed. Lavender and bright blue coral hugged the gray rocks; harmonious schools of fish danced around, giant sea turtles and turquoise fish gracefully swam towards their prey, and the same majestic spotted eagle ray, with its wings spread wide, swam 20 feet below me.

A few moments later, a white-tipped reef shark ascended from its hiding spot in the caves below. I gasped, sending bubbles up the snorkeling tube. I couldn’t take my eyes off its sleek body as it glided away, completely ignoring my presence. I was in awe as I shared a moment with such a powerful and beautiful creature. I then realized that I no longer felt any fear or anxiety. I made myself overcome my terror to enter this amazing world, and I was rewarded with an experience of a lifetime.

Ecoventura  is a carbon-neutral company  that has been leading expedition cruises in the Galápagos since 1990.  The first-class fleet includes three identical motor-yachts for 20 guests. Small groups of 10 accompanied by a naturalist guide venture ashore for daily land and sea activities.

Galápagos is an all-year round destination. December through May is warmer, and the winds are calmer for cruising. Visit or call 800-633-7972 for more information.

Where to Stay in Ecuador: Hotel Oro Verde in Guayaquil.
Airline to Galápagos: AeroGal from Guayaquil to San Cristobal Island.

Published by Lavanya

Lavanya Sunkara is a writer, animal lover, and globetrotter based in New York City. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Architectural Digest, Fodor’s, Forbes, USA Today and many more in a career spanning ten years. She covers travel, eco-lifestyle, culture, pets, and wildlife conservation.

One thought on “Survival of the Fittest: Finding My Sea Legs for a Galápagos Travel Story

  1. I’m so glad you took the plunge, overcame your fears, and discovered the beautiful underwater world. I’m happy, too, to have been with you, in this incredible place on planet Earth! As usual, you have beautifully written about your experience.

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