Wildlife on the Galapagos Islands
The wildlife on the Galapagos Islands, both on land and in the water, is exceedingly unique. Visiting the archipelago, you will see highly-adapted species, some endemic to individual Islands. Something truly incredible about the Galapagos Islands is that the wildlife there has evolved with comparatively little human contact or major predators for hundreds of years. And, a healthy fear of humans have never developed, meaning you can observe these beautiful creatures from surprisingly close range in their natural habitat. Below, we've listed some examples of the wildlife you are most likely to see on a Galapagos tour, some safety guidelines, and the do's and don't of wildlife spotting.
Wildlife Most Likely Seen on the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Tortoise is probably the most iconic species you will find on the islands. In fact, the islands are actually named after these creatures, "Galapagos" is an old Spanish word, no longer used, meaning tortoise. All the species of giant tortoises found in the Galapagos are native to the islands, but all evolved from a common ancestor which journeyed from the mainland to arrive at the islands around 2 to 3 million years ago. This seems like an incredible journey, but giant tortoises can in fact float quite easily in salt water. The largest group of can be found on the Volcano Alcedo on Isabela Island, with over 4,000 living there.
2. Marine Iguana
The Marine Iguana is unique to the Galapagos Islands, and is the only species of iguana that is not land-based. Adapted from years of life on the islands, they took to the ocean where they could exploit additional food sources, such as algae, especially as the land provided limited nutritious vegetation. The Marine Iguana lives on seaweed, with special nasal glands that are able to filter out excess salt from its body. This incredible creature can dive up to 30 feet in the water, and can be found on the rocky shorelines, marshes and mangrove beaches of the Galapagos Islands. There are hundreds of Marine Iguanas and they can be found on every Galapagos Island.
Known as Darwin's Finches, the 13 species of finches on the island are defined by their environment, with differing features between each specie. This diversity among one species contributed to Darwin's theory of natural selection and gave Darwin valuable insights into evolution. You can spot the endangered sharp-beaked finch on the central and western islands, the small ground finch on most of the large islands and the cactus finch on the central islands, except Fernandina.
4. Galapagos Penguin
One of the smallest penguins in the world and the only penguin that lives north of the equator, the Galapagos Penguin is entirely unique to the Galapagos Islands. The most endangered creature on the islands and most endangered penguin in the world, their populations have dropped largely because their limited options for nesting on the islands have been destroyed or overtaken by Marine Iguanas. You can find 90% of the Galapagos Penguins on the western islands of Fernandina and Isabela.
Blue-footed boobys are native to Central and South America. They are defined by their distinctive blue feet. The shade of blue is very important, since the bluer the feet, the healthier the bird, and the more attractive the bird is for potential mates. They can be found all along the Pacific coast, stretching from Southern California down to Peru. Approximately 70% of the total blue-footed booby population are found on the Galapagos Islands, they can be found on most islands, except those in the north.
6. Galapagos Sea Lions
The largest marine mammal on the islands, and with a population of around 50,000, the playful nature and loud barking noise of these creatures usually make them one of the first animals you see on your approach to the islands by boat. They are very playful and will often swim around you during a snorkeling excursion. This specific species of sea lion exclusively breeds on the Galapagos Islands and can be found on most of the islands. If needed, Galapagos sea lions travel 10 to 15 km from the coast in order to hunt for their prey (fish and sardines).
7. Magnificent Frigatebird
The male Magnificent Frigatebird has an extremely distinctive feature of a giant red throat pouch just beneath its beak. The males inflate in a display for the females, and the brighter the pouch, the more attractive. While the Magnificent Frigatebird is a seabird, if its plumage gets too wet it will drown, as it does not have the oily, waterproof feathers seabirds usually have. The largest and most active colony of Magnificent Frigatebirds can be found on North Seymour Island.
8. Sally Lightfoot Crabs
The Galapagos Sally Lightfoot Crab works in harmony with the marine iguanas of the islands, cleaning ticks from their skin. Their brightly-colored bodies make them stand out on the rocks and shores of the islands, a target for keen wildlife photographers on the islands. Their name comes from their ability to move easily across the top of the water, which makes them look like they are walking on water. Often seen in large groups on the rocks of Santa Cruz Island.
9. Land Iguanas
There are three species of iguana found on the Galapagos Islands, the yellow iguana Conolophus subcristatus, Conolophus pallidus, and the pink or rosada iguana, Conolophus marthae. Most land iguanas can be found in the drier areas of the islands, hiding in the shade of cacti, rocks or trees. Land iguanas can live to be 60 years old and are herbivores. Found on the islands of Fernandina, Isabela, Santa Cruz, North Seymour, Baltra and South Plaza.
10. Galapagos Green Turtles
The Galapagos Green Turtle is the only species of green sea turtle that nests on the Galapagos Islands. Unlike tortoises, sea turtles cannot put their heads inside their shells, but can stay underwater for about two-and-a-half hours without coming up for air. Large numbers of sea turtles are found on Bartolome Island, Santiago Island, Santa Cruz Island, Santa Fe Island and Floreana Island. These turtles were placed on the IUCN Red List of threatened species and remain under protection to this day. One of the major problems that have led to their decline is the slow growth rate and long period from juvenile to maturity.
The Galapagos Islands are a protected National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the primary concern of the park is to protect the rare wildlife of the islands. If you decide to swim with Galapagos Sea Lions be aware of their bulls. They are usually friendly but can charge in the water and even bite, when they feel threatened. On land, you may find the playful pups nudge you and touch you, but resist the temptation to pet them. If their smell gets tainted, as a result of getting to close to humans, their mothers will abandon them. Stings are also something you want to avoid. Wearing a wetsuit, even when the water is warm enough to snorkel without one, will reduce the risk of being stung by jellyfish.
With that in mind, a key issue is keeping a respectful and safe distance from the wildlife. Your guide will instruct you on how much distance to stand from animals (for their and your safety). You may not use the flash setting when taking photographs as it can startle or even harm the wildlife. Selfie-sticks are not allowed to be used for taking close-up photos. Another less cute issue, is to watch out for iguana snot. When they leave the water they have a tendency to clear their nostrils of salt, with a spray of saline. It isn't a harmful substance, but can ruin up your digital camera so try to stay out of the way.
Do's and Dont's of Wildlife Spotting
- Do not pick flowers or remove rocks
- Do not remove any plant or animal, dead or alive, or even bones, wood or shells from the islands
- Do not take any food to the Islands
- Do not touch or handle the animals
- Do not feed the animals. It can be dangerous to you, and can destroy the animals' social structure and breeding habits.
- Do not startle or chase any animal from its resting or nesting spot
- Do not cross the marked paths and areas designated at visiting sites
- Do not use the flash setting on your camera
- Do not visit unapproved areas of the Islands
- Do not be loud and rowdy, this may cause wildlife to hide
- Do not get too close to the animals
- Do stay within the permitted areas and only visit the islands with a licensed guide
- Do keep the recommended distance away from you and the species
- Do sit still and listen carefully, sound can work better than sight for spotting wildlife
- Do familiarize yourself with sounds and calls of wildlife before visiting the islands
- Do observe water patterns, splashes or ripples can be a sign of wildlife movement
- Do pay attention to landscapes, something that looks "out of place" may be an animal
- Do go out early in the morning, or late at night, many animals conduct their "routines" during these hours
- Do bring your binoculars, camera and notebook to take notes
For more information about wildlife on the Galapagos Islands or booking a Galapagos cruise please contact us or call 1-888-215-3555.