Galapagos animals: what to see & where
Cruising around the Galapagos Islands is like nothing on earth, a genuinely unique experience that guarantees intimate encounters with some of the most extraordinary animals on earth, endless photo opportunities and a lifetime of memories. Specialist cruise ships allow you to explore the archipelago comfort, always in the company of expert guides and with a variety of activities on offer. Even better, the Galapagos can be combined with the wildlife found in the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest and a visit to the UNESCO world heritage centre of Quito.
Narrowing down the many weird and wonderful inhabitants to a small selection is a tough job, picking our big five even harder still. So, with apologies to the hawks, owls, pelicans, finches, lizards, fur seals, dolphins and whales, we present our favourite Galapagos animals.
The Big Five
If Charles Darwin is the human most readily associated with the Galapagos Islands, then his animal equivalent would surely be Lonesome George, who came to symbolise both the majesty and fragility of the world, and the importance of the ongoing conservation efforts in the archipelago. The beloved giant tortoise sadly passed away in 2012, leaving the Pinta Island sub-species extinct. Today, George's cousins can be found mainly on the island of Santa Cruz, spending much of the year in the highlands, briefly coming down to look for nesting sites around June. Able to live for up to 150 years, they fill the role of the elder statesmen of the islands and are one of the very few creatures that shy away from human presence.
If the giant tortoises are the wise elders of the archipelago, then the sea lions (particularly their pups) are the cheeky youngsters. They are the most charismatic creatures here, often seeming not just to tolerate the presence of humans, but to actually relish it. An underwater encounter with a playful pup could well be the defining moment of your visit to the archipelago, the first story you write on a postcard home (left at Post Office Bay perhaps) and a memory that keeps putting a smile on your face long after your return. On land they can be found lounging in the sun on beaches throughout the Galapagos.
Land & Marine Iguanas
Ok, we're cheating a bit here, squeezing two iguana species into one.
The marine iguanas of the Galapagos are unique in being the only sea-going lizard anywhere in the world. Their bodies have specially adapted over time to enable them to powerfully torpedo themselves all the way down to the sea bed, where they feed on the scant algae and seaweed that grows here. Though they may look a little menacing, rest assured they are harmless vegetarians, the worst that might befall you is a warning spit through their nose if you invade their personal space a little too much! They can be seen resting on lava rocks throughout the archipelago, as well as zipping about underwater when snorkeling.
The marine iguanas of Española take on a distinctly exotic appearance during the mating season (January), turning from crimson to bright red. Otherwise their colour varies from island to island and depending on their age.
Much like their marine equivalents, land iguanas are also vegetarians, though as the name suggests, they prefer to stick to terra firma. Spread throughout the islands, they can be equally vivid as their sea-going cousins, found in various shades of yellows, reds and pinks, usually basking in the rays of the sun. The most colourful are typically found on Española and Floreana.
One of the more curious examples of co-operation in the archipelago is the service rendered to the land iguanas by the finches, who feed on the ticks which live on the backs of the iguanas, providing a meal for the finches and a free grooming service for the recipients.
It certainly isn't hard to identify the archipelago's different varieties of boobies, particularly the blue footed kind. The behaviour of these charming birds is often as colourful and comical as their distinctive feet, with their elaborate mating dances (seen on North Seymour around May) a particular highlight of the yearly cycle of nature. Unsurprisingly, their feet play a central role in the ritual, with a healthy turquoise shade being the most desirable to prospective mates. They can be seen diving dramatically into the sea, swiping unsuspecting fish below the surface, and waddling clumsy around on land.
One of the undoubted highlights of the Galapagos' cycle of nature is the start of the waved albatross mating rituals on Española, in the months of April and May. The spectacular sequence last several minutes, as the two suitors circle one another, with lots of squawking, posturing and seemingly co-ordinated dance moves, before loudly clattering their bills against one another, in what can only be described as some sort of amorous sword fight. All the while, in the background are a group of fixated and amused visitors. Given that the waved albatross is listed as critically endangered, it is a hugely important, as well as entertaining, endeavor.
The endemic waved albatross is the largest bird in the Galapagos, with a huge wingspan of up to 8 feet. It is easily identified by its large yellow bill, wavy markings and distinctive waddle.
Best of the Rest
Instantly recognisable for their huge red throat pouches, displayed by males during mating season, frigatebirds are a common sight in the skies of the archipelago. Separated into two species, the Great variety have a green tinge to their feathers, whilst Magnificent frigatebirds have a purple hue. These aggressive birds are known for their bullying hunting style, often stealing food out of the mouth of other birds, dashing to catch it before it hits the water (as they would drown if they get too wet!).
With their piercing blue eyes and large webbed feet, the flightless cormorants are a strange sight at first glance, but as the name suggests, its appearance isn't what makes this bird so unusual. Perhaps due to the lack of natural predators and the preference for a more powerful body to help catch prey in the waters of the archipelago, the endemic species has now lost its ability to fly. Instead, it has a long neck, which it puts to good use to catch passing eel, as well as non-oily feathers and strong body to help it reach great depths below the surface. The mating roles amongst flightless cormorant are reversed, with the females taking the lead, aggressively courting the males. They are seen on journeys to the western side of the archipelago.
The Galapagos penguins are the only penguins to live on, or north of, the equator. These penguins, like many Galapagos inhabitants, have had to find ways to adapt to their unusual home. Unable to sweat, they instead pant furiously, shed feathers and take regular dips in the water to keep cool. They can therefore be seen frequently both on land, as well as when snorkeling. Identified by their large bill and black head with white border, they are the second smallest penguin species and the rarest, and they are also unusual for not having a set breeding season.
The graceful Galapagos flamingo belongs to the American family and can be most frequently seen around the coast of Santa Cruz and a shallow lagoon in the north of Floreana. They sport a vibrant pink coat, thanks to their diet, using special filters in their beak to consume large amounts of brine shrimp and crustaceans, with their heads upside down.
Crabs don't often garner the attention of wildlife aficionados, but then most don't look like the Sally Lightfoot crabs of the Galapagos. Their bright rusty exterior is even more marked because they are often found scurrying around the dark black lava rocks of the archipelago's shorelines. Despite being nimble footed and able to dart off in all directions, they are amongst the most photographed of the wildlife here.
Last, but certainly not least, we come to the Green Sea turtles, usually found below the surface gliding gracefully through the clear waters of the archipelago. On land, the females can sometimes be seen nesting on beaches throughout the islands, their young emerging two months later to make their perilous sprint to the safety of the sea.
Are you inspired to visit the archipelago and meet its colourful residents for yourself? Check out our wide range of Galapagos cruises to find the perfect one for you.