On Galapagos there are awesome days and then there are epic days. Snorkeling Los Tuneles off of Isla Isabela turned out to be the later – so much so it was the highlight of our trip to the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. The best part is this site is not accessible to the cruise ship crowds so remains mellow and for the most part untouched.
Navigating the Choppy Waters of Isla Isabela
Realizing a little too late that there were no ATMs on Isla Isabela, we knew if there was one excursion we should ration our money for it was Los Tuneles. We booked our trip the day before through Pahoehoe, a recommended tour operator on Isabela, for $90 per person. Though not the cheapest price we were offered by agencies on the island, they threw in wet suits and snorkel gear so we could check out nearby DIY snorkeling at Concha La Perle.
On the day of our tour, we left Puerto Villamil at 11am. We were joined by a boat full of interesting travelers from Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Spain and Ireland.
Our journey around the southern coastline of Isla Isabela was slow going so as to avoid the rough waters traveling north from the Pacific ocean. We sailed relatively close to the shoreline for about 1 hour, always with a view of Volcan Sierra Negra and Volcan Cerro Azul on the horizon.
Turtles, Sharks & Sea Horses Oh My!
Once at our first snorkel site, our boat captain dropped us near a mangrove forest that had grown up around a maze of underwater lava tunnels. Together we weaved in and out of rocky coves and shallow corals, sighting schools of fish and sea turtles along the way.
The long-tailed green sea turtles were especially impressive due to their size and grace. Their body is very different from that of their terrestrial counterparts, with more flipper-like limbs to help them swim gracefully through the water (at speeds up to 35 miles per hour). Our guide pointed out the ones he believed to be over 100 years old.
After playing with a dozen friendly sea turtles, our guide directed us to a rock under which a white-tip shark was sleeping. One by one we took turns diving under the rock to get a better view.
Finally swimming in amongst the mangroves our guide helped point out a giant sea horse camouflaged in the tangly root system.
There was so much to see, we stayed in the water for more than an hour. I was so thankful to be wearing a wet suit at this point as many of the other ladies were shivering and losing feeling in their limbs in the cool water.
Playful Galapagos Penguins & Sea Lions
As we pulled up to our second snorkeling site, we could see the animated silhouettes of tiny Galapagos penguins on the rocky islands ahead. We all jumped in quickly and made our way to where the penguins were perched, playing, diving, and sunning themselves in the afternoon sun. For the most part they paid little attention to the hoard of snorkelers crouching nearby. Adam got so close one started pecking at his GoPro camera. We thrilled to be able to hang out and briefly swim with these beautiful endemic creatures who seemed so out of place in this exotic volcanic paradise.
Soon thereafter, the sea lions swam up to us almost beckoning us to come play with them. Although by this time we’d seen our share of sea lions on the Galapagos, it was a fun experience to get to swim side by side with them. They are such graceful acrobats under water (completely opposite of their awkwardness on land) twisting and twirling through the water with such ease.
Dancing Blue Footed Boobies on the Lava Arches of Los Tuneles
Again aboard the boat our captain, a former lobster fisherman from Isabela, navigated us carefully through the shallow lava tunnels of Los Tuneles. Inside the breakers the water was much more calm and clear, forming a near reflective surface against the cloudy late-afternoon sky. We snacked on delicious sweet and savory empanadas until we were safely docked, then hopped off the boat to explore the maze of lava tunnel arches.
A short distance from our boat a pack of Blue Footed Boobies were hanging out. We were in luck – it was mating season and the male Blue Footed Boobies were putting on a show. To commence courtship, the male Blue Footed Boobies would show off his blue feet by strutting from one side to another. Then, after presenting his nest he finishes his mating ritual dance by “sky-pointing” or pointing his head and bill up to the sky while raising his tail and wings.
The Nazca Bobbie Perch
On our way en-route back to Puerto Villamil, the captain made one final detour at Roca Union, a stunning rock (formerly volcanic cone) in the middle of the ocean. The waves thrashed from all sides onto the protruding rock, mixing hues of aqua marine, blue and white.
Hundreds of Nazca Boobies perched themselves atop the rock, oblivious to the angered waves crashing around them. As we circled around Roca Union a couple of times, pleasantly exhausted after an amazing day of snorkeling, we both nodded in agreement that this was one epic day.
If You Go: Los Tuneles Day Trip Logistics
Departure point: Puerto Villamil, Isla Isabela / Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Departure time: 8am or 11am
Duration: Half-day including 2 hours of snorkeling
Method of Transport: Speed boat, snorkeling, light trekking
Included: Wet suit (if requested), snorkel gear, lunch and snacks, snorkel guide, water transport
Cost: $80-90USD per person (depending on the tour operator)
Tips & Tricks
- Bring all the cash you need for your time on Isabela plus return ferry tickets with you. There are no ATMs or banks (for foreigners) on the island.
- Wait to purchase your ticket for this excursion until you are on Isla Isabela. There are numerous outfitters with trips daily. We were quoted $110 to book on Isla Santa Cruz versus $80-90 to book direct on Isla Isabela.
- If you can, book your excursion for the same day that you arrive off the morning ferry from Isla Santa Cruz. Your negotiating power is far greater and prices come down by $10-15USD per person if you are leaving that afternoon. Unfortunately we were still trying to navigate our no ATM situation so opted for a free day activity to Los Humedales and El Muro de las Lágrimas.)
- Bring your good camera as well as an underwater camera (such as the GoPro) – you can keep it dry and safe on the boat while you are snorkeling. We left Adam’s good camera at home but in the end wished we’d had it for penguin pictures, Roca Union and walking around the lava arches.
- Bring a pair of good sandals or walking shoes that you can wear for you walk around the lava arches.
- Request a wet suit if you are like me and get cold easily. There are only a few months of the year where the water is warm enough that you won’t want one. I was really thankful to have one after spending more than an hour in the water at a time.