Los Tuneles, Isabela-Galapagos
First, if you haven’t read our description of Los Tuneles in our post about Isabela, do take a moment to do so. Read it here. It takes about an hour to get to Los Tuneles from Puerto Villamil, but what a glorious hour it is! There is an oceanic path of sorts that is primarily shallow water near the shore. So on the way, we got to see giant manta on the surface, so many sea turtles I was afraid we might run over one, and of course, those vistas on the land. More below the photos…
The backdrop began like most views in Isabela with Volcan Sierra Negra looming. Other obvious cones began to appear as we headed south. As we neared an outcrop of rocks called Roca Union, the boat slowed so we could take in the Nazca Boobies and Blue-Footed Boobies perched side by side. If you’ ve made it out this far into the Galapagos, by now you’ve begun to take the sea lions for granted. In the water were thousands of yellow tailed grunts schooling at the surface. There were so many that were so vivid, I could capture the image with just a point and shoot camera.
As we continued on, the giant mantas began to appear at the surface. They seemed to glide near the surface to sun their wingtips. Sea turtles were so common that the only time we stopped was to capture an image of two mating.
Entering Los Tuneles can apparently be a tricky affair, but we were lucky and arrived on a day when the ocean was so tame, you barely felt like you were surfing in by boat along the breakers. Just before we entered, we witnessed a pair of eagle rays mating at the surface, something the local guide said he had never even seen before. It almost seemed a violent affair given the amount of flapping.
Inside the breakers, the water is calm, shallow and crystal clear. They were right! It is like snorkeling in an aquarium! First, we passed through the labyrinth of lava tubes that had spilled over into the sea. Time and the ocean has created a maze of these tubes, many of which are now lava arches with narrow passes above the sea. Some are still intact and it was one of these where we landed and walked for a bit while viewing 2 active volcanoes in the background. To the south was Cerro Azul which last erupted in May 2008 and to the north was Sierra Negra which last erupted in October 2005. It was as though we were right in the center of these magestic volcanoes and not another sign human beings inhabited the planet was anywhere to be found.
While walking above the water and seeing white-tipped reef sharks was nice, we were anxious to get in the water and snorkel. We headed back out towards the breakers to begin in between lava tubes where we saw schools of many thousands of salemas and yellow tailed grunts. After swimming through one school that would have blacked out the sun had they been above me, I spotted two sea turtles which I slowly approached and was able to view at leisure from a distance of maybe 4 feet. In places, you can swim under the water and through an arch into something akin to a cave without a roof, open to the sky, an area colorful angelfish seemed to favor.
Then, our guide began heading back to the boat. Since we had only been in the water about 10 minutes and now knew how much of Los Tuneles we were yet to see after the boat tour through the labyrinth, we were not a cooperative group. Apparently, he had an injury that prohibited him from swimming for very long, but at that point, we didn’t feel like he was needed, so he returned to the boat and we kept on snorkeling for as long as we wanted. I think I heard this trip normally leaves around 9AM and returns around 1PM. We got back around 3:45. I LOVE that we could. Imagine being on a cruise and saying, “We’re not ready to leave… we’d like to stay here longer.” They would have to say some version of, “Nope…run along with your group now.” To me, this trip is a perfect example of how land-based programs offer more flexibility than cruises.
As we continued snorkeling, I swam up to a rock where 3 blue-footed boobies were resting. I was about 2 feet below them. They just looked at me. I saw so many different types of tropical fish that I’m now motivated to learn enough to be able to identify a lot of the fish in the Galapagos. And for me, the height of snorkeling glory was seeing the penguins! Only in the Galapagos folks, only in the Galapagos can you snorkel with penguins and tropical fish! I remain madly in love with the idea of being up close and personal in crystal clear water beneath two active volcanoes when I get to witness where tropical meets polar.
As if that were not enough, we were also joined by a lone, young sea lion who seemed overjoyed to have company. He would not leave us alone! I suppose I was so captivated by him and the experience of him that I completely forgot to ask anyone in the boat to grab my camera because I have no photos of the most amazing time I’ve ever had snorkeling with a sea lion.
They are such fluidly smooth acrobats under the water that they can turn on a dime. Still, he seemed to especially enjoyed heading straight for my mask only to turn away mere inches from my face. Though you have to love the experience, it is still a bit disconcerting to have an animal heading into my face at that proximity. I did enjoy it when he decided to just swim upside down only a couple of inches below the surface and about 2 feet to my right side. He just watched me as we swam alongside together. My son later told me of him coming up underneath him and then turning around and just watching him once he was about two feet in front. He stayed with us long enough for me to call out to the other snorkeler I couldn’t even see did join us a few minutes later and the sea lion was just as happy for more company. This little guy swam with us for at least 10 minutes.
I was so happy to have had the experience. For awhile, that Galapagos National Park had closed Los Tuneles was to visitors. Boats are required to have a special permit to enter, one reserved exclusively for artisanal fishing since lobsters are abundant among the lava tubes. And large lobsters as you also see when snorkeling. So very few boats have the permit and for awhile, it was completely closed. It had only reopened a few days before we arrived. Boats are limited to five passengers and while it is not necessary to take a guide, none of the boats with permits have captains who speak English.
Los Tuneles is perhaps the most amazing place I have ever visited on this planet! This is another perfect example of how the Galapagos always exceed your expectations. If you get the chance…DO NOT MISS IT!! If you go, you will never forget it. I look at the guest book inside Red Mangrove Isabela Lodge and saw others who talked about that as the highlight of their trip in spite of the rather steep price tag which is due to the small number of boats with permits and the small number of passengers they are limited to. One guest had written that it was expensive, but so worth it. How right he is.