Swimming with Sea Lions, Galápagos

My exploration of nature around the world continues in South America with some entertaining underwater guides…

Jason waited patiently as I repositioned my mask and settled onto the edge of the rubber zodiac beside him. I thrust the snorkel into my mouth and gave him a thumbs up. Jason nodded, then held his hand up for the count down. One finger. Two. Three. We simultaneously rolled backwards and splashed into the water. Goose bumps sprouted across my skin as the frigid Galápagos waters engulfed me. I wrapped my arms around my torso to shield against the cold and shivered alongside Jason as we departed the boat. We were well-matched snorkel buddies. Our preferred pacing and interests so well aligned that we naturally stuck together and hand signals were rarely needed, a particularly good thing given that mine generally remained tightly wrapped. The only exception to our compatibility was when we encountered sea lions.

Nose to nose with a Galápagos sea lion.

Nose to nose with a Galápagos sea lion.

It always started with a gentle tug on my flippers. It startled me the first time. I had kicked violently and whirled to see what predator might be sampling me for a potential meal. Now I knew better. I would even grin under water at the signal, confident I’d turn to face the curious eyes and whiskery nose of a sea lion. Inevitably, the sea lion would swim up close, then flip away just before our noses touched. It would be back again before the bubbles settled, then casting away just as quickly. This sea lion, and maybe another or more, would pause in front of me and I took this as my official invitation to play. How could I say no? I’d take a deep breath and dive below the sea lions, spinning around to face them as I began my ascent. As I turned, the sea lions would dive to join me and we’d surface together. Then we’d continue in a series of giant figure eights, back and forth across our sandy clearing. Jason would give me a thumbs up as another sea lion joined the antics, and he to would often join our circular party. Engrossed in the spiral procession of sea lions, I’d forget to keep my arms tightly wrapped and worse, I’d forget Jason. Time whirled into irrelevance amongst these playful creatures and I just never knew if it had been seconds or hours since I’d last seen Jason. At some point, I’d force myself to resist further frolic, even if my flipper was tugged anew. I would peer above the water and there Jason would be, off in the distance desperately waving for my attention.

Galápagos sea lion following my figure eight through the water.

Galápagos sea lion following my figure eight through the water.

I was baffled the first time. Could he have gotten bored? Was something wrong? He couldn’t possibly have found something more intriguing, could he? He ruefully explained that a large male had escorted him away. There had been no attack, no overt aggression, but Jason felt the message was clear; he needed to leave the party, immediately.

We shrugged it off as a fluke the first time, but the scene played out a second time, then a third and a fourth. We declared it an official pattern the fifth time Jason was herded away while I was left amongst another playful gathering of female and young sea lions. The trend held for our entire trip. Could it be that the sea lions were picking up on our human hormones? Did my estrogen earn me passage to a bubbly harem while Jason’s testosterone provoked territorial defense? If so, the sea lions had indeed highlighted a compatibility issue we would never resolve.

Galápagos sea lions luring me to play.

Galápagos sea lions luring me to play.

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