Dipping my mask and snorkel into the azure waters of the southern Galápagos brings a silent, serene world into focus: skinny purple angelfish with golden tails nibble on orange coral, while pink-tinted bluechin parrotfish wriggle through lush lawns of sea grass.
Suddenly, my eye catches something big closing in fast, almost brushing my right side. It’s a sea lion, as long as me, that somersaults, doubles back, then starts literally swimming circles around me. She’s just playing, showing off—but it is a lion, after all, and it takes my breath away. Still, before I can react, she swims right up to my mask, and for a couple seconds, we’re nose-to-whiskers, gazing curiously at each other before, with a push of her flipper, she zips off.
It’s the kind of wildlife encounter one might expect on islands that lie 600 miles from their continental landlord, Ecuador. And not just any group of islands, of course, but the laboratory for one of history’s most significant scientific discoveries, and an area that still plays host to species found nowhere else on earth.
But as renowned as these volcanic landmasses are, the idea of protecting the Galápagos is a shockingly recent development. It wasn’t long ago that overfishing, irresponsible tourism, and a nonchalant attitude toward invasive species threatened the entire ecosystem. Without the relatively new—and ongoing—effort to preserve what’s here, that beautiful, intimate dance with my sea lion friend might never have happened.