How the animal anomalies of the Galapagos helped validate my life choices

written by Sinead Mulhern January 13, 2024
Lizard Galapagos

While exploring wildlife that defies nature, this traveller discovered part of her evolution as a woman was to challenge societal norms in favour of embracing individuality and freedom how she saw fit.

There I was trying to spot a sea lion, 1000 kilometres off the Ecuadorian coast in the famous Galapagos Islands, which lie like specks in the Pacific Ocean. My new travel companion, Sharon – a woman in her sixties from Australia and the only other solo female traveller on this group trip – calls out.  

‘A shark!’ She says while frantically waving me over. ’Harmless. A tiny one.’

A shark, here, where our group is snorkelling. And Sharon wants me to swim closer. Charles Darwin – the naturalist who studied these islands and became famous for his survival of the fittest theories – would probably roll in his grave. Sharks are fierce predators, yet I inch my way over anyway, taking Sharon’s word that he is harmless. 

Then I see it lingering over the ocean floor just meters from me. Yes, it’s tiny and, yes, seemingly harmless. But a shark is a shark in my eyes. Still, I’m thrilled. This is one of many incredible wildlife sightings I’ll have over the next few days.  

Underwater, the magic of the Galapagos is alive. Schools of fish come in every colour of a box of crayons, and they swim just inches from my outstretched hands: green, yellow, blue, and orange. I’m fascinated by the shelves of coral and the way I can see the crumbling wall of a cave beneath the water’s surface. I’m wide-eyed, mesmerised by the marine life here.

I’ve come to the Galapagos Islands on a four-day adventure with Intrepid. I arrived alone but have since met many others, including Sharon. 

While cutting through the Pacific’s refreshing waters and salty breezes, leapfrogging from island to island, we sail past fluffy blue-footed boobies and remnants of volcanic eruptions. I revel in feeling off-grid, somewhere in the middle of the ocean in one of the most glorious natural spaces in the world.  

blue footed boobie
The blue-footed booby is a distinctive seabird known for its comical courtship dance and vibrant blue feet.

The focal point of this adventure is to see some of nature’s most extraordinary marvels. The Galapagos Islands were made famous by Darwin, whose theories on evolution come primarily from observing creatures that shouldn’t have survived here – but did anyway. 

You won’t see these ecosystems anywhere else in the world. Tortoises grow to the size of small couches, making you wonder if dinosaurs still roam the earth. Penguins have made a home on the equator, far away from ice-covered Antarctica. Marine iguanas have evolved into the only ones with a special ability to forage in the ocean. Finches in the Galapagos flash through the sky with beaks uniquely adapted to fit their dietary needs.  

This place is full of oddballs defying the laws of nature by their sheer existence. That’s a large part of its allure. I’m totally here for it. And to be honest, I’ve started feeling like a bit of an oddball myself. 

I came to Ecuador five years ago as a 27-year-old solo traveller. Today, I’m in my early thirties, working as a freelance writer. I’m single. I don’t have any kids (nor will I). I’ve made a life right here in the Andes where the bells of ancient churches ring out, goats roam freely across the river from my home and women sell hot chocolate and roasted pork on the streets in my neighbourhood. I’ve become conversational in a second language. I’ve made new friends. 

I notice the looks I get when I tell people I live alone. I notice how they intensify when I tell them I don’t have kids and likely never will.

I’m living a life far away from home in Canada and even farther outside the box – well away from many societal conventions. It’s a lifestyle that throws me a lot of curveballs and question marks, but even still, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Maybe oddball is the wrong word. Let’s go with non-conformist. 

Still, just because I’ve left behind my own country and its cultural norms doesn’t mean I can avoid the ones in Ecuador.  

Living in a place hemmed with Catholic and family-oriented values comes with its own societal pressures (particularly the ones placed on women). I notice the looks I get when I tell people I live alone. I notice how they intensify when I tell them I don’t have kids and likely never will. When this topic often comes up (people love to ask), the conversation drops, suspended in awkward silence. Their facial expressions read crestfallen.  

I’m not crestfallen. I never wanted to become a mom. 

I respect people who choose to step into a motherhood role a lot. The physical, lifestyle and identity changes that women go through deserve so much support and acknowledgement. But it’s not for me. 

I’m not drawn to motherhood. I never saw a future with kids in it. In that sense, it never felt like a decision – let alone a big one. It’s just who I am. 

As the years go by, though, I feel like the odd one out in certain circles. People are inclined to ask me more about what I’m not doing instead of what I am doing. 

The things I have chosen not to do have opened the door to the Amazon, scaling rocky ledges in the Andes, riding motorcycles through the countryside and trekking through the misty wilderness with a backpack of camping essentials. I’ve kayaked in the crater of a volcano and kept myself company in random nooks around South America. And now, I’ve swum with sharks.  

After the shark sighting, I’m longing for more wildlife. I don’t have to wait long. 

A giant sea turtle passes by accompanied by a school of bright orange fish nibbling the algae off its shell. We spot a manta ray, flat-bodied like a tortilla chip. 

Then, I turn a corner, following along the jagged and rocky edge of the island, creating a phenomenal maze below the surface. That’s when I see them. Penguins who live on the equator.

They’re the embodiment of pure joy as they dive and dart through the water, their little bodies like tuxedoed torpedoes zigzagging through the ocean. One swims right in front of my face, an inch from my nose. It’s so close I could reach out and touch its little body as it zooms by. I instantly know I’ll remember this moment of pure awe forever.  

Galapagos’ penguins are the only species of penguins that live north of the equator, adapting to the unique environment of the Galapagos Islands.

We’re cold and it’s time to swim back to the boat for lunch: fresh fish and cold mango juice. ‘That was amazing. I’m going to pass on this afternoon’s snorkel, though, and enjoy the sunshine from the deck,’ Sharon tells me. I decide to join her. As surreal as the morning’s snorkelling was, I wanted to bask under the hot sun and watch the frigate birds fly overhead.  

We head to the top deck, where the afternoon sun is so amazingly hot and the smell of the ocean wafts in the breeze. Sharon has some questions about my life in Ecuador. Why Ecuador? For how long? Will I return to Canada? What are the mountains here like? Do I like my job? 

She tells me about her adventures. They span decades and an impressive number of countries. I hear about cherry blossoms in Japan and what it’s like to hear the call to prayer on loudspeakers in the Middle East. 

‘There’s nowhere I wouldn’t go,’ says Sharon. She’s about my mother’s age, travels the world solo and works in tourism. She’s a cool woman.  

Then, Sharon moves the conversation to women’s reproductive rights in Ecuador and on a broader scale. We’re far from small talk here as I share my plan not to have kids and ask her if she has any. ‘I had my tubes tied,’ she says. ‘And I never regretted it.’ 

Her words mean a lot and are powerful for me, and I let them sink in. I feel seen, supported and validated. She’s not trying to tell me I’ll change my mind, looking at me like I’m broken or allowing her eyes to glaze over as I talk about my passions. Instead, she looks me right in the eye and confirms that my path is worthwhile, meaningful and one I’m allowed to choose. She has been where I am and I can’t wait to go where she already has. 

She looks me right in the eye and confirms that my path is worthwhile, meaningful and one I’m allowed to choose. She has been where I am and I can’t wait to go where she already has. 

We’re two sunburned intrepid souls floating here on a yacht in the Galapagos Islands. From afar, we could be easily mistaken for mother and daughter on vacation. 

We finish our drink as a sea lion flops onto the deck below. The frigate birds fly. Fittingly, they’re known for displaying their mating status. The bright red throats of the males that have failed to reproduce are hard to miss.   

Embracing who you are means letting go of who you’re not. I’m still working on that. My gut tells me to go. Go to the places where I can breathe fresh mountain mists after pushing my body to reach such heights. Go to where I’m confused, intrigued, challenged and inspired all at once. Swim with wildlife, stare at volcanic imprints on the earth and venture beyond small talk with travellers you admire. 

Despite the question marks, I feel more solid about going with my gut.  At some point, we choose which doors to close and keep open. The doors I’m leaving open lead to curiosity, travel, freedom, creativity and active adventures in natural spaces.

On our last day in the Galapagos, we snorkel again. When the crumbling island wall gives way to a cave, I’m hesitant but swim forward into this enchanted grotto. 

Galapagos’ sea lions are the smallest of their species and known for their social, playful nature. They are often seen sunbathing on the sand or hitting the surf.

Sea lions are playing, swimming down to the dark blue depths and popping up to the surface with menacing looks on their faces. Underwater, they flip, twirl and somersault like circus performers who defy having bones. A beam of sunlight hits the water at just the right angle so a school of fish glimmers like a thousand sequins. A shark enters this magical scene, and once again, I feel a jolt of anxiety in my body. I swim for a little longer and exit the cave.  

This is the Galapagos and there’s no use being anxious. It’s wild, weird and unexpected. I came to explore one of the most captivating parts of Ecuador and see the creatures who dared to defy the laws of nature to live in their paradise. I got that plus more. 

I head home feeling secure in my path, ready to choose exploration and adventure. There will always be the quizzical looks and prying questions, which my answers don’t seem to satisfy. But if you ever need to feel validated for living unconventionally, I dare you to swim with Galapagos’ animals who didn’t do as they should, did it their way instead and in doing so, created one of the most fantastical places in the world.  

See Galapagos Islands’ anomalies for yourself on a small group adventure with Intrepid.

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