Isabela Island is not only the largest island, but it is also located in a more remote area in the archipelago, creating the perfect place for wildlife and nature to thrive.
This remote, protected environment makes Isabela Island a haven for a diverse array of animals, including penguins, sea lions, sharks, sea turtles, whales, rays, flamingos, iguanas, and so much more.
As you continue to read about one of the most memorable days of my life, it should become clear why Isabela Island is my favorite island and one that cannot be skipped during a visit to the Galápagos Islands.
In the morning, we went on a lovely hike on lava rock at Punta Moreno. Punta Moreno is situated between two towering volcanoes, which can be seen rising up in the distance behind the expanse of black lava rock that encompasses most of the island.
It was here that we saw penguins for the first time—a pair of penguins. They were surprisingly small and so cute I could hardly believe my eyes.
The Galápagos penguin is the second smallest species of penguin and the only penguin found north of the equator.
These tiny, adorable creatures can only be found in the Galápagos and have been listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Endangered, with only 1,200 mature penguins in existence as of August 2020.
Just watching these penguins sit on a rock and interact with one another was amazing. I had been anxiously anticipating seeing penguins for the first time, and it was every bit as exciting as I had hoped.
Brown pelicans could be seen scattered along the rocky boulders that bordered the shoreline.
This large seabird looks massive in comparison to the adorably small penguins we had just come across. An exceptionally long bill and expandable neck pouch help this magnificent bird to be a skilled fisherman.
Countless blue-footed boobies could be spotted throughout the hike, inviting your gaze with those bright, blue feet.
A short walk along the rocky shore leads to tide pools containing white-tip reef sharks and sea turtles.
The icing on the cake was that pink flamingos could be seen relaxing in a nearby pond on the island.
Sometimes I forget just how impressive birds can be, but it is impossible not to appreciate their magnificence when you see penguins, blue-footed boobies, pelicans, and flamingos one after the other.
As amazing as our hike had been, I had no idea that our morning would almost seem boring after what came next, which was possibly one of the best experiences of my life thus far.
The greatest snorkeling experience of my life
The water was unbearably cold where we went snorkeling just off of Isabela Island. Yet, I was almost immediately distracted by the multitude of sea turtles swimming among us in the water.
Then I laid eyes on them. Countless sea lions were playfully swimming in the water surrounding us. I had been anxiously awaiting another moment like this since our prior encounter swimming with sea lions in the Galápagos.
Sea lions are incredibly fast and graceful at the same time. But most importantly (to me, anyway), they are one of the most fun and playful creatures I’ve ever encountered!
This was similar to our first experience in that there were so many sea lions, and they were SO incredibly playful.
We spent much more time with the sea lions this time. I had improved my diving and swimming skills immensely by this point, making it much easier to stay underwater playing with them for more extended periods.
It was wondrous spending more time with them because certain ones truly began to take a liking to us. We would stay under the water playing with the sea lions as long as we could but inevitably had to come back up for air time and time again.
Each time we would go up for air, some of the sea lions would circle beneath us, just waiting for us to dive back down and continue playing with them.
I was giddy. I couldn’t stop myself from continuously diving down under the water to get more playtime with these incredible creatures.
And like clockwork, it never failed. I swim down and stay under the water swimming for a bit, and anywhere between one to six sea lions begin darting right past and swimming circles around me.
Over and over again, sea lions would swim directly towards my face, barely dodging me within less than a foot right before getting to me.
Some of the more rambunctious sea lions would open their mouths as they approached and bite at the water right in front of my face immediately before spinning away.
You could hear me squealing giddily beneath the water the first few times this happened, partly out of enjoyment and partly out of fear.
It was not only amazing to play with these sea lions, but watching them play with one another was endlessly entertaining.
They darted past one another, nearly colliding but avoiding one another with ease. They nipped at one another, playfully taunting each other and nudging the other to continued playtime.
The water was frigid. I was so exhausted from all of the swimming that I would be panting for air every time I came up for a breath, but I could not have cared less.
I would catch my breath as quickly as possible and dive right back down to continue the fun.
There were numerous times that I found myself swimming between a sea turtle and a sea lion, close enough to reach out and touch either one of them.
The thing that amazed me the most about the sea lions was how interactive and friendly they were with us. They were not afraid of us at all.
Not only that, but there was a level of connection and understanding that I would never have expected between the sea lions and us.
You would swim down and look at them, and they would just be gazing back at you with these huge, curious eyes.
They wanted to know and understand us just as much as we wanted to know and understand them. The more we interacted with them, the more playful and curious they became about us.
The end of the snorkel time was nearing, and it was probably best because I was utterly exhausted.
My toes were so cold I felt like they might fall off soon. And honestly, I think I would have stayed out there swimming with the sea lions and sea turtles until they did fall off if someone didn’t make me stop.
Just as I thought the most extraordinary snorkel possible was coming to an end, the guide called out to us to let us know that a group of penguins was not too far away. We could stay in the water a bit longer.
We immediately began swimming our little flippers off, trying to meet up with the penguins.
It was a pretty good distance to get there, and being so tired, I thought it might be challenging. But, as soon as I laid eyes on the penguins, my adrenaline kicked in, and I was so motivated to get to them that the distance faded away.
As we swam over to the penguins, our new sea lion friends tagged along with us the entire way. It was unbelievable having them join us on this next mini adventure.
Before I knew it, Nick and I were face to face in the water with about a dozen penguins, and they were some of the cutest things I’ve ever seen. As we looked at the group of penguins surrounding us, the sea lions continued to swim beneath us.
My heart melted as these tiny, adorable creatures floated in the water alongside us, bobbing with the sway of the current. I peered beneath the water and could see their cute, little webbed feet flapping leisurely from front to back.
Something scared the penguins away after about a minute of us being with them, and they darted off in the opposite direction, leaving only a trail of bubbles behind. They were unbelievably fast underneath the water.
Watching them swim away was like watching a bullet fire off in the opposite direction. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it!
I dove down and enjoyed a few more playful moments with the sea lions before returning to the panga.
My feet were nearly frozen, and I was completely whipped from the snorkeling. And it could not have been more worth it. I will never forget this experience for the rest of my life.
Story over, you would think. Nope. Not yet, actually.
Shortly after returning to the boat, I heard an announcement over the loudspeaker. They had spotted a whale, and we should all grab our cameras and get to the bow of the boat.
I couldn’t believe it. I’d never seen a whale before. And I had no idea where to find the bow of the boat!
After spotting water spouting out of the whale’s blowhole multiple times in the distance, it finally happened—I saw the whale’s massive back breach the water. It was only a very brief glimpse, but even that quick glance was plenty enough to appreciate the magnificence and enormity of this extraordinary animal.
While we watched the whale in amazement, we spotted a manta ray swimming alongside the yacht that appeared to be about 4 meters long. That’s over twice as long as I am tall!
As we continued to take in these phenomenal sea creatures, countless boobies soared over the water surrounding us, each one biding its time before aggressively diving into the water to catch a fish.
There was so much to see from the boat in just that one area and within only a 10-minute span. It was unbelievable.
The last outing of the day was a panga ride around Elizabeth Bay. The excursion was filled with interesting sightings, such as egrets, sea turtles, multiple schools of golden rays, and penguins both in and out of the water.
Every other time I’d seen rays in the past, usually it would only be one or two swimming on their own. It was interesting how these golden rays were swimming in a pack.
The penguins we had previously seen in the water were adorable, but watching the penguins on the rock turned out to be so much more entertaining. There were two juvenile penguins and one adult penguin on this particular rock.
We watched them interact for a while before each of them jumped into the water one at a time. The adult penguin’s jump was quite impressive. However, the two juvenile penguins looked rather spastic when jumping into the water.
The first juvenile penguin considered jumping into the water for a while before finally committing. Over and over again, we believed the penguin was about to make the jump.
But again and again, the juvenile changed his mind and backed down right before the moment of truth. After quite some time and consideration, the juvenile penguins finally gained the courage to take the leap.
When the first juvenile penguin finally made the jump, it knocked its webbed foot on the way down, toppling over sideways into the water. This emboldened the second young penguin, following its sibling into the water almost immediately.
It was so clear that the youngin was not prepared for the jump, though. Truthfully, I would call it more of a fall than a jump. It was quite an entertaining and comical sight. Silly penguins.
After spending the day with sea lions, penguins, sea turtles, whales, and so much more, I could not have even imagined having a more phenomenal day in my entire life. My dreams that night had nothing on my day.
Story over, for real this time.
Read more about our adventures on Isabela Island as we continue to explore this incredible island!
If you missed it, go back and read about our experiences with tortoises, flamingos and volcanoes as we explored Santa Cruz and Isabela Islands.