If your backpacking budget doesn’t stretch to a Galapagos trip, don’t worry! It doesn’t mean that you have to miss out on all of the wonderful wildlife that South America has to offer! Did you know that it is totally possible to see blue footed boobies at Isla de la Plata, giant tortoises in Guayaquil in Ecuador and sea lions at Palomino Island in Peru!
Swimming with sea lions is one of the most sought after activities in the Galapagos because the animals are wild. However, there are alternative places in South America where you can do the same, and for a fraction of the cost!
Once our writers Alisha and Harry heard about the opportunity to swim with sea lions at Palomino Island (also known as the ‘Little Galapagos of Lima’), they couldn’t wait to check it out. Read on for their full review of the experience which will tell you everything you need to know about this bucket list activity!
Swim with Sea Lions at Palomino Island!
We first heard that we could swim with sea lions at Palomino Island when we were already in Lima, Peru. It grabbed our attention straight away as we are both huge animal lovers. However, we initially felt some apprehension about the activity. It was really important for us to make sure the company held ethics at the forefront of their business, especially as the activity was animal-based.
The Ethics of Swimming with Sea Lions at Palomino Island
The most renowned company that offers the swim with sea lions experience are Mar Adentro Excursiones and they were amazing from start to finish. You can tell straight away that the team have an amazing family-style bond and are all really passionate about their jobs.
We met with Eduardo, the owner, who has a wealth of experience in marine life. We also met many of the younger members of the team who were studying alongside their jobs, which Eduardo seemed proud and supportive of. Mar Adentro not only encourage professional development for their staff but also apply these high standards to animal care.
From our experience, the tour embraces the animal’s natural environment without being too invasive. You will wait for the sea lions to approach you which they usually choose to as they are such curious and friendly animals!
The sea lions seemed like they remembered the team and came over to us very willingly! As with seeing any animal in their natural environment, sightings and interactions work on pure luck, however, in this case, there are so many around that sightings are practically guaranteed!
How to make sure your visit doesn’t harm the sea lions
There are a few things you can do to make sure your visit is as environmentally friendly as possible:
- Don’t approach the sea lions, wait for them to approach you
- No screaming or loud noises
- Don’t touch the sea lions
- No feeding of the animals
- Do not crowd the sea lions or follow them
We really liked that there was no interference from guides such as feeding the animals or calling them to encourage them over. This was something we had seen on other tours around Central and South America.
Is Swimming with Sea Lion at Palomino Island Safe?
There are no predators such as sharks or Orcas in or around the Palomino Islands. The main thing to be aware of is the strength of the Humboldt current. Less confident swimmers should be fine swimming with the sea lions providing they heed guidance from the tour leaders and don’t stray from the group.
Life jackets are provided for all travellers which help to keep you safe and the two guides on the trip also do regular checks to make sure that the group is together. If you are nervous about the open water swimming, have a chat with one of your guides beforehand and stay close to the boat. The sea lions are still likely to approach you.
Swimming with Sea Lions at Palomino Island: A Review
The Day Begins…
Our day started with a taxi ride from our hostel in Miraflores to the meeting point, Museo de Sitio Naval in the La Punta district (Callao). The taxi took around 45-50 minutes for a 10:00 start. Traffic can be bad in Lima so give yourself plenty of time (it is worth noting they also offer a hotel/hostel pickup service for an additional fee).
Once we arrived, we had a quick introduction from our lead tour guide, Julio (who spoke both Spanish and English). During the introduction, he gave us a rundown of what to expect, what islands we were visiting and whether we could see either sea lions, penguins or some of the many different species of birds there. Once the introduction was complete and we signed the disclaimer, life jackets were fastened and we each picked a seat on the speedboat.
The speedboats are very modern and in excellent condition. You can tell that they are very well looked after and that high quality is a priority for Mar Adentro Excursiones. Motion sickness can determine your enjoyment of any boat ride so it might be worth taking seasickness tablets just in case. For the smoothest ride, it is advisable to sit at the back of the boat. Luckily the water is relatively calm because the large island of Isla San Lorenzo acts as a barrier off the coast of Lima.
Isla San Lorenzo
We set off from the harbour and headed towards the islands of Callao for stop one of four: Isla San Lorenzo. On the way to the island, we were given some information about the surrounding area from our guides on the boat.
There was the opportunity to see huge jellyfish en route as well. There were so many that it reminded us of the scene from Finding Nemo! We stopped briefly at Isla San Lorenzo and Julio, our guide, gave us more information about the island.
Isla El Frontón
We carried on around to the other side of the island to our second stop, Isla El Fronton, a former high-security prison. This was our chance to see the first batch of penguins and other birds. There was also the opportunity to observe interesting rock formations here.
Although we happened to be far away, we got a good glimpse of the birds. However, it was on our third stop that we had the chance to get even closer to them on the Cavinzas Islands and sh*t island (the guides will undoubtedly tell you the nickname). This island is nearly completely white as it is covered in bird poop, no joke!
The Palomino Islands
Our fourth and final stop, Islas Palomino, had sea lions literally EVERYWHERE! Hundreds, if not thousands, of them! We have only ever seen the likes of this on a BBC documentary narrated by Sir David Attenborough before, so witnessing it first hand was incredible.
They were popping up beside the boat, screaming and making a weird human-like shouting noises from the island. Sleeping, sunbathing, fighting, playing, you name it, they were doing it! We stopped reasonably close, allowing us to take some photos from the boat. Take this as a warning and be prepared for the stench… The smell was strong enough to turn even the strongest stomach!
We had a few minutes to look at (and smell) these magnificent creatures before we carried on a little further to the spot where we would jump in and swim with them. We didn’t think there could possibly be any more sea lions after the first stop but again, we saw hundreds of them camouflaged into the rocks and groups of them diving around the boat. We didn’t know where to look first.
At this point, Julio and the other guide began to give us some tips for entering the water and helped us put on our wetsuits. Wetsuits are supplied by the tour (at no extra cost), and they are very much needed as the sea is quite cold.
You’ll also receive a life jacket to help you float which is so much easier than treading water. The lifejackets are really modern and clip around you in all directions, which means that they are never uncomfortable around the neck (a pleasant change from the lifejackets we were used to). This stop was far enough away from the poop island so that thankfully, the water was a lot cleaner; the perfect place to jump in!
One by one we nervously slipped off the back of the boat and into the water. At first, the temperature comes as a bit of a shock but you soon get used to it. Once in, Julio, leading from the front, dragged us right up to the island. Grouped together with our front row seats and life jacket buoyancy, we casually let the ocean swell lift us up and drop us closer to thousands of sea lions perched on the rocks.
Meanwhile, the sea lions are swimming underneath you and jumping out of the water all around the group. We got to spend at least 20-30 minutes up close and personal with the sea lions. Julio was never far away to help and was continuously taking pictures on a GoPro to share with the group. He also assisted travellers to float on their backs with their feet in the air, waiting patiently for the sea lions to come up and sniff their toes!
At first, we were hesitant but the sea lions are super friendly and curious so it really is worth braving it! You’ll never find another experience like the tickle from their whiskers out on the open sea! The other guide was in between the boat and the back of the group making sure everyone was safe and okay. From the boat, the captain was also taking pictures on a digital camera. All the pictures would be sent over to people who wanted them via WhatsApp usually at the end of the day, if not the following day.
After spending a good amount of time swimming around, we made our way out of the cold water and swam back to the boat. We wriggled out of the wetsuits into our normal dry clothes. Everyone was buzzing with energy over what had just happened. Something truly special and one to remember!
On the way back to the port we had a snack provided from the crew, consisting of crisps, and fruit juice. The journey back to the island took around 20-30mins whereas the outward journey was a little longer because of the stops. All in all, the tour lasted approximately 3 – 4 hours. It was the perfect amount of time, giving you the rest of the afternoon to do as you please.
We have experienced trips in the past where we travelled for hours and hours to reach somewhere but fortunately, this boat ride took no longer than 45 minutes. The meeting time of 10:00 was also an ideal time to start the tour. There were roughly 20 people in our group all in one boat, which we felt was a perfect size. At no point did we feel disconnected from either of the tour guides and we also never felt overwhelmed by the other tourists, (note: we were travelling in low season).
A Word About Suncream…
We went on a particularly warm day in January so be prepared and pack suncream, hats and sunglasses. Certain types of suncream can damage the marine environment so apply this once you have finished in the water with the sea lions.
If you are rocking ocean-friendly sun protection then pat yourself on the back and apply it at the start of the day to be safe. We would advise taking reef-friendly suncream if you can, given that you are jumping into the sea lions habitat, you should play your part and respect it.
The End of the Trip!
We made it back to the port with a big thank you from the crew. They also told us how we’d receive the photos taken during the trip. Hats off to Julio and the other members of the team that were on the boat, we were very impressed by the professionalism and charm they all showed.
Both Julio and the other guide had plenty of knowledge about the area and spoke very good English. Julio showed a real interest in us and the other guests, which added to the experience. It was so nice to see the passion the team had for the trip and the genuine interest they had in sharing their knowledge and chatting with each and every person on board.
They helped people with both the wetsuits and the lifejackets, as well as reassuring the guests once in the water. Julio also assisted another traveller who started to feel a little ropey due to motion sickness. Once we stepped off the boat and back on land, we happened to catch the owner of the company.
We spoke for a while and in his own words, he said that he aims to make the experience as great as possible, which is something we felt Mar Adentro did. You really can see how much the team works together and how happy and enthusiastic they all feel about the sea lions. Their positivity shines through and you can’t help but leave feeling positive too.
This tour is perfect if you have a day in Lima. It’s a short but very worthwhile trip giving you also enough time to spend the afternoon exploring the rest of the city.
Swimming with Sea Lion Trip Itinerary
10:00: Arrive at the Naval museum port.
10:00 – 10:30: Introduction and information about the tour (15-20mins) There is an option to use the toilet before departure at around 10:30.
10:30: 15-20 minutes on the boat to reach the first island.
10:45: 5 brief stops along the first island and the next two islands. This offers the chance to see different bird species, penguins, sea lions and rock formations. This takes around 45 minutes – 1 hour.
11:30: Arrive at the swimming spot. There is 10 minutes to get ready and briefed before entering the water.
11:40 – 12:10: Enjoy 20-30 minutes swimming with the sea lions at Palomino Island.
12:20: Time to dry off and enjoy a snack whilst cruising back to the port (roughly 20-30mins), leaving around 12:45.
13:15: Head back to the port. There are free shower and toilet facilities here if you wish to use them.
What to Bring on Your Palomino Island Trip:
- Change of clothes
- Swimming costumes (better to have it on and ready beforehand)
- Drinking water (or use a reusable filter bottle)
- Reef-friendly suncream – very much needed, it was slightly overcast the day we went but still managed to catch the sun!
- Money (for taxi or snacks at the port)
- Waterproof case (if using a phone for photos)
- Snorkel/goggle (not provided inclusive of the tour but a worthwhile addition)
- Dry bag/waterproof backpack