Behind the Lens: Freediving with Galapagos Sea Lions

Raised in the Galapagos Islands, Expedition Filmmaker Jorge Prigann has spent much of his life in the wildlife-rich waters of the archipelago, nurturing his passion for the vibrant marine environment and growing as a member of Silversea’s Expedition Team. For him, “the experience of diving deep into open water is comparable to flying. Some animals move so fast and gracefully that it looks like they are soaring through the air. Every dive is an opportunity to live a different reality, and to change the perspective of what you think you know.”

In March of 2019, Prigann was 10m deep in the eastern Pacific Ocean, off of the Galapagos’ North Seymour Island, when his love of the deep blue and his wealth of diving experience led him to witness a rare moment: a Galapagos sea lion playing with a bright-hued shoal of fish, swirling in the sunlight under the waves. Equipped only with a GoPro Hero 7 camera, and recording in 4k with no filters, Prigann fulfilled a lifetime ambition by capturing the unique moment on film.

A Galapagos sea lion/Lucia Griggi

Galapagos in the Blood: “I grew up in the Galapagos Islands,” begins Prigann. “They are my home. I have been there all my life. My father was a guide there and his passion for the archipelago was amazing. He taught me about our world and its inhabitants, and I adopted his strong belief in the importance of conservation. I learned to respect nature—especially marine environments. I am grateful to have been able to bring my father on a couple of Galapagos cruises before he passed away three years ago, so he was able to see the work that I do. I also feel pride whenever I introduce Silversea’s guests to the Galapagos Islands for the first time. It’s a magical place.”

“The Galapagos Islands are entirely unique because of the beauty of the archipelago’s ecosystems and the behavior of its animals—they let you become a part of their world and admire their home. The islands are remarkable not only for their variety of flora and fauna, but also because of how they imprint on you. I think this is why they are called the ‘enchanted islands’—because every scene makes you fall in love with them.”

Connecting with the Sea: “The sea is a fundamental part of my life and I connect with it daily. I relate my pains and achievements to the sea. I love the sea, especially when I share the water with hammerhead sharks and sea lions. I lived in San Cristobal as a child and became used to seeing sea lions in the surrounding waters. I have always had a strong emotional attachment to these wild animals, as they were present for many of my fondest childhood moments, spent in the water. I actually saw them as part of my family.”

Galapagos Sea Lion, North Seymour Island/Jorge Prigann

Freediving is Like Flying: “I developed a passion for freediving when I joined Silversea, almost five years ago. I learned to dive by studying the movements of the other guides, who had experience, and by practicing. You improve with every dive, going deeper with every attempt. I believe freediving in the Galapagos is not about the length of time spent underwater, though, as if often thought by travelers, but it’s about the moment. Each and every encounter with an animal is unique. I can dive for over two minutes, to roughly 18m or 60ft, but two minutes spent underwater without seeing anything doesn’t compare to coming face-to-face with a hammerhead shark, for example.” 

Panamic Sergeant Major, North Seymour Island/Jorge Prigann

“If you want to connect with the sea lions, it’s most important to understand how their world exists,” continues Prigann, when asked about his most memorable moment behind the lens for Silversea. “You need to see and experience this life over time, first-hand. For me, it’s not about descending and taking pictures. You need to read the behaviors of the animals; you need to anticipate what will happen; you need to find the right position, at the right time.”

A Playful Sea Lion: The moment in question occurred one afternoon, as Prigann was snorkeling with Silversea’s guests:

“I’ll never forget it: A colleague driving a Zodiac beckoned me to go with him. I could tell it was something special, as he had a look of excitement on his face. Together with a small group of guests, we journeyed towards North Seymour Island, where I saw a large school of fish near the surface of the water. A sea lion was darting through the mass, as it descended deeper into the water. The sea lion seemed to be toying with the frantic fish, playing a game. I’d never seen anything like this before. It’s hard to describe with words how I felt. My motto as a photographer is to first enjoy with your eyes. This is one of those moments that I needed to experience first-person.”

Be Present and Savor the Moment: “Everything I had learned about diving, nature, and underwater photography enabled me to catch the shot. I was patient and reacted to the behavior of the animals. But it’s not just about pictures and video: when you have the chance to discover a place as special as the Galapagos—with the sea lions, the fish, and the sharks—it’s easy to focus on capturing the moment for other people, behind the screen, forgetting that this is our special moment. It’s essential to be present. That’s what the best travelers do.”

“When freediving, you need to remain calm to limit your use of oxygen, but I was so excited to witness the playful sea lion that it was hard to stay underwater. So filming this unique interaction was a real challenge. Fortunately, we were in open water and there were no rocks among which the fish could hide. It was a clean, well-lit shot. It was my once-in-a-lifetime shot and I managed to get it as a memento.”

“We stayed on the scene for around 20 minutes—all the while the sea lion was forming hypnotizing movements through this ever-changing ball of fish, never quite catching its prey, performing for the camera. When our guests watched my video on the last day, they were very happy. I felt real pleasure in sharing this moment again with them.”

Galapagos Sea Lion, North Seymour Island/Jorge Prigann

Heed Nature’s Call to the Galapagos: Prigann attributes his ability to capture this unique moment to his experience, but urges passionate travelers to dive below the waves in the Galapagos to experience this unique environment first-hand:

“I made it my mission in life to nurture an affinity with the animals of the ocean. It’s about time and practice. If you love what you do and follow your ambitions, you can begin to understand life underwater. This is how I managed to capture my unique encounter with the sea lions of North Seymour Island. When I was swimming with the sea lions, I just wanted to stay with them forever. They were so curious, so playful, wanting to share their home with me. It was over in an instant, but it is sure to remain with me for a lifetime. And so goes my approach to discovering the Galapagos—this beautiful place that I call home. I just try to live each day as if it were the last day of my extraordinary, ordinary life, and I urge you to do the same.”