It was a “Mola mola” or Ocean Sunfish, one of the largest fish on earth. It was being hunted by the wolves of the sea. A pack of orca, or killer whales. My family and I were in zodiac boats (pangas) exploring the shoreline of one of the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, photographing penguins along the rocky shore, along with sea turtles and rays. Our naturalist guide was explaining the creation of the islands, telling us about Charles Darwin, rock formations, and the wildlife, when someone noticed a huge fish in distress nearby. As the black and white whales revealed themselves to us, it became clear why the fish was so alarmed.
Understand that this was no ordinary fish! Ocean sunfish are typically about 3 metres (10 feet) long, and almost as tall from top to bottom, resembling a giant fish head with a tail. The heaviest known bony fish in the world, they have very few natural predators except for large sharks, sea lions, and of course, orca. That might go some way toward explaining why they’re so comfortable basking on their sides near the water’s surface – another fascinating animal behaviour, if you’re ever so fortunate as to see it.
There’d be no basking for this sunfish though. The killer whales had cornered it in the very bay we were exploring. Our zodiac driver turned off the engine and we all sat, witness to the show of a lifetime. Watching an incredible display of nature from the surface of the water, at times we could have touched the ‘action.’ There were three orca, one being a calf with its mother. All three blocked the sunfish between the jagged rocky shore and its escape, and the two adults evidently took turns to dive down, and rush up from beneath, stopping the sunfish from diving to freedom, and allowing themselves to constantly breathe. Every so often they would bash the sunfish with their heads or violently slap it with their tails. We floated to a position where we were now part of the sunfish blockade, willing participants, with the sunfish right alongside us. The poor sunfish was done for, circling on the spot frantically, but the relentless assault didn’t stop. Water was thrown over us, as again and again the sunfish was smashed, hit and struck, it began to roll over, clearly stunned.
An opportunity presented itself and the largest orca cut in. Its huge dorsal fin broke the surface and in a surgical strike, it delivered a death blow. A perfect set of sharp teeth flashed in the sun, some red inter-mixed with the ocean’s blue, and apart from the clicks of cameras, all was silent. Our group looked down upon the injured sunfish alongside our panga. It stopped moving, and slowly started to sink. The whales would finish it off underwater, and as our panga moved on, two tails appeared in the air. “Goodbye,” they seemed to say, “Thanks for the help!”
In the safety of our boat, we were all beaming. Despite the gruesomeness of the spectacle, we all knew we had just seen something extraordinary. Our hearts and minds were racing! Having been lucky enough to have seen this, as well as a kill on an African safari while in Botswana, it struck me that a Galapagos cruise is a wildlife vacation on par with the magic and excitement of an African safari. The classic safari tour has long been a bucket list favourite… but I began to wonder, isn’t it high time for the Galapagos Islands to claim their rightful place in the upper echelons of the bucket list? Could anyone disagree?
The Galapagos Islands offer a unique opportunity to get close to wildlife that has never learned to fear humans. Globetrotters who venture here not only learn about the fascinating natural history, but also the history of science as we know it. It was here Charles Darwin finally understood what would become his Theory of Evolution. The Galapagos is the perfect place to see the beauty of his discoveries in action. Swim among friendly sea lions, and marvel at the tiny little penguins and ever-smiling marine iguanas. Impressive sea birds display complex mating rituals – that’s when they’re not diving off high cliffs into the water. The Galapagos Islands are a natural highlight of our world unlike any other, and through careful conservancy, they’ve been preserved for future generations. A Galapagos cruise offers something to enchant romantics, families, teenagers, solo travellers… in fact, just about anyone. It’s an active, educational vacation in what is obviously a photographer’s paradise. The food is fantastic, and though the climate is never too hot, you’ll almost certainly come back with a suntan and a greater understanding of these incredible creatures, thanks to the fascinating lectures on board your vessel.
When considering your next 1-2 week travel adventure, start from the top of your bucket list and come to the Galapagos Islands.
Goway promotes several ships, of varying size, price and atmosphere, as well as land based touring. There are 4, 5, 8 and even longer day cruises, and the islands are good to visit all year round. Its major international gateway, Quito, is one of the best colonial cities in the world and deserves a mention. Surrounded by mountains and offering distinct indigenous culture, and great food, you don’t want to miss it!