Galapagos Part 1: flies and sea water (and yes I saw penguins!)

“You’ve changed. Your body has changed drastically! This was good for you!” 

So says my friend and Thai massage therapist Kerry, who’s just spent 90 minutes bending me into different stretches. I scheduled this appointment before leaving on my 11-day trip to Ecuador and Galapagos, knowing I’d have airplane ass and kinked shoulders to work out after the long trip home.

Every swim trip I’ve taken has left a mark on me—whether its burn lines on my butt, or a deeper appreciation for the world’s persistent beauty—I come home changed. But it’s always felt more on the surface, a temporary shift, something that eventually fades and becomes buried in my Google Photos archives.

This is different, and I can feel it. Not just in my more flexible, less-stressed muscles, but in the way I’m experiencing my daily life. It’s a letting go of sorts, an attitude shift toward something that feels like grace. And gratitude. And I don’t just mean being able to drink tap water again and flush toilet paper.

If I’m honest, it’s something I’m still processing, and I’m not sure if this feeling will stay. But I desperately want it to. What was different this time?

This was my third trip with SwimTrek, a mostly all-inclusive swim vacation company that offers excursions all over the world. The trips aren’t cheap, but they do a great job of hiring engaging guides who know how to provide the wow factor. 

Our guide Carolina adding the wow factor!

Perhaps this difference I’m feeling comes from all the flies I swallowed and sea water I drank, my mouth perpetually open from all the jaw-dropping, gob-smacked moments of my trip. 

It started on our very first swim. Walking down to a small cove on Isabela Island for our “acclimatization swim” (read: “how fast are you and which group do you belong in?”), we had to step around a momma sealion nursing her baby on the boardwalk. 

She was not disturbed in the least, if anything she was more perturbed at our clumsy-sandaled disruption of her morning. Huge iguanas basked on the stairs we descended to the water, completely unfazed and also annoyed by our presence. Not angry-annoyed, more eye-roll, “this-damn-species” annoyed.

It’s a miracle I remembered to put my cap and goggles on. I was agog, barely breathing, and we hadn’t even gotten in the water yet.

I’m not a super fast swimmer, nor am I slow. However, with everything to see and take in on that first swim, I was almost dead-last finishing. Did I want to turn on my power kick and pass some folks? Or did I want to stop and float by the iguana swimming in the mangroves? Please.

This was how the trip started, and the surprises, animal encounters, and multitudes of awe just kept coming. Every single day was something new, extraordinary, and poop-your-pants unbelievable. (OK maybe that’s a bit much, but you get the idea.)

Swim snack snorkel lunch swim. That was our daily schedule on the boats,  swimming at different islands every day. Much blobbing of eco-friendly sunscreen, and frenetic gear-losing and finding happened in-between, along with storytelling and loud laughter about what we’d just seen and swam with: manta rays, hammerheads, fierce damsel fish, bottle-nosed dolphin, schools and schools of king angel fish, and sleepy Galapagos sharks trying to find their caves to rest.

I would never have known it was a Galapagos shark, or that it was indeed sleepy, without our naturalist guides swimming along with us and pointing things out.

After awhile the sealions, turtles and iguanas became commonplace on our swims. “Another turtle? I just swam by four. I’m going to keep swimming.”

I did my best to see and experience everything, but it was nearly impossible, the sheer number of extraordinary sights was overwhelming, in the very best way.

Perhaps this change I’m feeling comes from being in the world like a child again, everything new, startling, and so alive. It reminded me that I still am too.

And that blue water. I will never get over that blue.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth