The snorkeling over the volcanic reef was excellent. Very calm, clear waters, shallow enough to float silently among the fantastically-colored fish just a few feet below without worrying about making contact with the blocky, plant-covered rocks. Black-and white striped Zebra-fish, plate-sized black angelfish with yellow-lips, parrot fish in aquamarine and pink. A flick of a flipper to change direction and two giants appeared. Two Galapagos green turtles, each five feet long from the tip of the nose to tail, gliding slowly and impossibly with gentle strokes of their wing-like flippers, gorgeous mosaic patterns on their proud heads. They chose different directions and I followed one, floating along behind at a respectful distance as he went along his or her business, scraping plants from the reef with his beak, groups of tiny colorful fish clumping at each place he bit to consume whatever small particles were loosed by his efforts. Time moves differently underwater and I don’t know how long I watched the sea turtle pursue his life’s work: dive, eat, float up to take a breath, repeat the pattern. But eventually I turned away and passed the edge of the rocky area of the bottom onto a sandy area and the world changed. I was in a huge shoal of small white fish, each only a few inches long but thousands upon thousands of them in a three- dimensional array, just hanging in the water, existing.

©Stephanie Scheffler

The scale was overwhelming as the school stretched into the distance. I had the thought that fish colored to blend with the sand below couldn’t compare to the neon electric hues of the reef fish, colors normally absent in the natural world. But then a cloud shifted overhead and the picture changed again. Sunlight hit the water, filtered and refracted by the surface ripples, and was redirected over the shoal like a spotlight, lighting up different parts of individual fish in dazzling patterns of bright white flashes as the fish moved ever so slowly as the waves shifted them. Then the sharks came. Juvenile black-tipped reef sharks, no more than two to three feet long, two or three at a time, threshing their tails powerfully as they prowled below. Not hunting, just swimming around and through the school, the fish reacting and clearing space for the predators, curving the edges of the school and creating halls and corridors in the overall structure as the sharks passed through. The shoal became a white cathedral, reforming and reshaping itself to the demands of each individual fish warily giving way to the muscular, torpedo-shaped sharks. This was the experience of just one hour in the Galapagos. It would be easy to assume it was one of rare, fortunate happenstances when weather and wildlife just happened to cooperate at that moment to gift something extraordinary. But that would be wrong. You don’t have to get lucky to see incredible things in the Galapagos. You just have to get there, and they happen all around you.

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