The boat stopped near a very small island, or rather a sandbank between a few rocks. A family of sea lions was living there. The place was very picturesque, so I rushed to the shore, planning to warm up in the sun that had just come out of the clouds. It was my last trip before leaving the Galapagos archipelago.
Shortly after disembarking, I saw some of the younger sea lions approaching. The way they did it immediately caught my eye. The sand formed dunes towards the central part of the island, and the sea lions were going up and then coming down, slipping and sliding on the slopes. They looked like they were having a good time.
Some people from the group I had come with went into the water, and several sea lions went after them. I put on my snorkeling mask and followed them, eager to see what was going on. As I dipped my head into the water, I began to see the animals circling us. Not long after, one of the pups came very close and almost frightened me. But when he was only a few inches away from me, he made an impossible turn and avoided me at the last minute, with the same incredible speed. Other family members also began to behave in a similar way. They would come very close and spin around us before backing away. It was clear they were curious. They didn’t touch us, but otherwise, they weren’t shy at all. Obviously, we were not the first people to visit the island, but given the strict control exercised by the authorities, there was no doubt that the initiative belonged to the hosts, not to the guests.
The youngest of the sea lions did not waste time and quickly moved on to the next stage. From one point on, it became clear that all their tricks were not just curiosity, because they were getting closer and closer, and the whole family had surrounded us. As I continued to watch, I began to recognize them, from the little one who was like quicksilver and never ceased to challenge us, to the older female, who was content to watch everything from a distance.
One of the young females had an unmistakable style; she first positioned herself a few feet in my direction and then came straight at me at an insane speed. At first glance, I could have sworn she wanted to get right into me with maximum impact. But her posture betrayed her. Instead of swimming normally, she came towards me in a strange, unnatural position: on her back and with her head down, slightly turned to one side. It was as if she wanted to show me, beyond any doubt, that she was only playing. One second before reaching me, she twisted her body and changed direction completely. She often surprised me, causing me to scream unintentionally, and then I would burst out laughing. I could have sworn she was amused by me at least as much as I was by her.
Looking around, it didn’t take me long to realize that all of us, the few visitors to the island, had become the main attraction of the sea lion family. At one point, I don’t know from where, they brought a piece of a yellow fruit, which they were holding in the mouth and passing from one to another, like in a sort of a polo game. From time to time, they would let the “ball” float freely close to us, as if inviting us to join them. In other words, they studied us, tested us a bit, and after seeing that we were cool, they decided we could be their playmates. But who would have coped with their speed in the water!
With all the agitation, the water was so troubled that it felt like a game of hide and seek. The young sea lions appeared unexpectedly, jumped out, passed between us or right next to us, and made us laugh like children, every time.
Other games were being played, as well. For example, one with fins, for those who had brought such a thing for diving or snorkeling. I hadn’t, so I just watched. Our feet seemed to make our hosts very curious, but the fins had an almost irresistible effect on them. It didn’t take long, and they started grabbing them with their teeth, first hesitantly, and then with all their strength as they saw they were being encouraged. They bit those fins just like some puppies would.
Someone next to me had found another amusement: he was playing dead. He let himself float on the surface of the water, face down, without making the slightest movement. He had a mask and a snorkeling tube, so he could stay like that for as long as he wanted. The sea lions, intrigued by the fact that he was not moving, would come very close to him, examining him eye to eye. But he was lost every time. Seeing those funny faces so close, and those big, round eyes staring at him, he couldn’t refrain too long from laughing. And his playmates immediately resumed their tricks.
At a certain point, the male who was the head of the family appeared and started to call, signaling that the fun was over. Animals and people, we all went ashore together. But in the hosts’ camp, the little ones had no intention of calming down, so they came up with another game. Wet as they were, they climbed the sand dunes and then slid down them hard, rolling over, until they were so covered in sand that they looked almost white. Some of the younger visitors from our group began to do the same, sliding on the sand dunes together with the sea lions, to the full satisfaction of the latter. I think that in that moment, the sea lions must have presumed that we were some kind of distant relatives of them.
Saying goodbye was difficult. Upon departure, as we sailed away from their island, the little ones wanted to thank us for the playtime together and swam behind us for a while. And the youngest, the acrobat of the family, as a sign of goodbye, outdid himself with somersaults over the water that left us all speechless. I had never witnessed such deep, friendly, and most of all, spontaneous communication between humans and wild animals.