When I had the opportunity, I jumped at it. I had always been a science nerd, so to sail from island to island with a naturalist guide was as close to a Darwinian experience as I could imagine.

One day when we landed on Española Island and there were Galápagos Sea Lions sunning themselves everywhere. Some sea lions were having a bit more fun wrestling and playing in the water.

It was a sight unlike any other, as our guide explained the safety information. Be careful when approaching the sea lions on land, they can be very territorial, but in the water they know they’re faster so they’re not afraid of you. If you get bitten, he explained, you’ll need a helicopter to take you to the closest island with a hospital because of the bacteria in a sea lion’s mouth.

Galapagos Sea Lions fill the beaches on Española Island Ecuador with Leah Ramuglia Photography

Ok, easy enough I figured, we’ll keep our distance from the sea lions as we walk down the beach and hop into the water.

My brother and I head off into the turquoise waters with snorkels, slippers, and an underwater camera. One sea lion in the water was very interested in us, and curiously followed us around. As my brother twisted and turned through the water, so did the sea lion, mimicking his every move. It maneuvered so smoothly through the waters of this fascinating archipelago nibbling at my brother’s flippers while I followed behind, documenting this enthralling experience.

Leah Ramuglia on a white sand beach on Española Island, Galápagos Ecuador

As I followed them through them, the sea lion became more interested in me, as I wasn’t playing with it so much as documenting the moment. The sea lion swam over to me, looked me right in the eyes, and then bit my thigh, as to gesture “hey! come play with me!” It was clear that this bite wasn’t viscous, just a playful pup looking to have some fun and play with its new visitors.

But panic quickly set it, for me anyway. My brother seemed much less concerned. All I could think about was the warning our guide had given us just half an hour earlier. I hadn’t approached the sea lion at all, it approached me because I wasn’t interacting with it. How could I have prevented this bite? Did I need to be taken off the island by a helicopter and treated at a hospital?

Underwater photography Galápagos Sea Lion biting snorkelers flippers

What would happen to the rest of my trip? All this time I should have been exploring the Galápagos archipelago, what if I have to leave my trip early? I just got here! I tell my brother that I’m headed back to shore, to tell the guide what happened and have him look at my leg. My brother shrugs it off, and snorkels in the other direction, planning to meet me back on the beach later.

Galápagos sea lion follows snorkeler off Española Island Ecuador Leah Ramuglia Photography

As I swam back, I kept looking down at my leg. I could see the red teeth marks on my thigh easily through the crystal clear water. Was I bleeding? I didn’t see any blood, but my leg was underwater so it was hard to tell. As I headed back the 100 or so yards to shore I started to wonder, if I was bleeding… sea lions are shark food, and sharks can smell blood, and fear. I thought more about how many sharks infest these unique waters, and started to panic, which just led me to try to swim faster, squeezing my thigh, to hold in the bleeding if there was any. The more frantically I swam ashore, the more I knew I was attracting sharks with my quick movements and the mix of fear and blood in the water. It seemed like it would take forever to get back to shore swimming like that, so I decided to walk. The water was only about 4 feet deep so I scurried inland in my flippers, when it popped into my mind; I was at this beach yesterday, and these same sandy shallow waters were covered in sting rays, hidden in plain site along the sandy bottom of this very beach. I guess I should swim.

Leah Ramuglia Photography Galápagos sea lion followers snorkelers off Espanola Island Ecuador

I finally got to shore, and I chaotically explained to my guide what happened. I didn’t agitate the sea lion, it was playing with us, but it bit me! What do I do now? Unfazed, my guide assured me that I was fine. But I spent the rest of the day back on land, just to be sure.

Leah Ramuglia snorkeler's leg with Galápagos sea lion bite teeth marks