Each trip to the Galapagos is different, depending on the routes and season, but there is masses of amazing wildlife to see throughout the year and across the whole archipelago. Most of the wildlife listed below you can see throughout the islands and throughout the year, the most notable exception being the Waved Albatross which is only seen on Espanola Island between late March and early December.
Here is a list of my top 10 amazing animals that you can experience during a visit to the Galapagos. Some you will see during your land visits and for others you would need to grab your snorkel mask and tube and head under the water to experience the delights of the underwater Galapagos, which is as amazing as the life above it!
1. Galapagos Giant Tortoise
These magnificent giants which gave the Galapagos their name (from the Spanish word galapago which means saddle) have to top any list of amazing and unique animals to see in Galapagos! With lifespans of over 100 years in the wild, they are one of the longest-lived invertebrates on earth, weighing up to 417kg (919lb) they are also the largest living species of tortoise. Scientists believe the first tortoises arrived to Galapagos 2-3 million years ago, drifting 600 miles from South America on rafts of vegetation or on their own. Some 20,000 – 25,000 wild tortoises live in the islands today, with 15 separate populations living across 10 of the largest islands.
2. Galapagos Sea Lion
Slightly smaller than their Californian relatives, the Galapagos Sea Lion is the most common mammal in the Galapagos and snorkelling with them is invariably one of the highlights of any visit to the Galapagos. You can see them right across the whole archipelago, often sun bathing on the beaches or rocks or gliding through the surf. Their playful nature is a joy to see and you get the sense as you swim with them with their acrobatic spins and turns that they have as much fun as you do!
3. Blue-footed Boobie
With their comical dance and amazing blue feet, Blue-footed Boobies are another favourite for visitors to the Galapagos. They are known for their courtship display. This involves the birds lifting their blue feet and waving them in the air, which makes them appear to be dancing with each other. The word ‘booby’ comes from the Spanish word ‘bobo’, which means clown or fool. In the Blue-footed Boobie world, the bluer the feet, the more attractive the mate! We don’t think they’re clowns, they just have quite funny feet!
4. Marine Iguana
The only sea going lizard in the world, Marine Iguanas are only found in Galapagos and have a number of unique adaptations, most notably the ability to go under water to forage for food. Scientists believe that millions of years ago, land-dwelling iguanas from South America arrived to Galapagos on land rafts or logs and evolved to survive. They can actually dive up to 9 meters (30 feet) into the water in search of food and are found across the entire archipelago. Each island has its own unique population in terms of size and colouring though the absolute best place to see them in the greatest numbers is Fernandina Island in the west of Galapagos.
5. Waved Albatross
These magnificent ocean travellers nest almost exclusively on Espanola Island in the south-eastern corner of Galapagos. The birds spend the months of December through March flying long distances to find feeding grounds and spend this entire time out at sea, returning to Espanola at the end of March to begin their courtship. Couples mate for life, and their courtship dance is quite something to behold, involving bill clacking, circling, waddling, head nodding and a cow-like moo! Only one egg is laid each breeding season and chick will be ready to fly by the time it is around five and a half months old. Once fully fledged it will spend up to six years at sea before returning to Espanola to find a partner.
6. Galapagos Penguin
The only penguin found north of the equator, the Galapagos Penguin is endemic to the Galapagos. Standing at an average height of just 49 centimeters (19 in) and weighing in at 2.5 kg (5.5lbs) it is the second smallest species of penguin in the world. They are able to survive in Galapagos thanks to the cool temperatures brought from the Humbolt and Cromwell Current that bathe the islands. They have the smallest breeding range and population size of any penguin with less than a thousand breeding pairs in the world. 90% of the population live in the western islands of Isabela and Fernandina, though there are also small populations on Santiago, Bartolome, Floreana and northern Santa Cruz Island.
7. Galapagos Mockingbird
Although it was the Galapagos Finches that rose to fame as part of the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, it was in fact the four species of Mockingbird found in Galapagos that were the true source of his theory. All four species are very similar in appearance and it takes a trained eye to be able to differentiate each species. The most obvious difference is in their beaks and that is what caught Charles Darwin’s attention. Galapagos mockingbirds are extremely curious, even landing on visitors heads and exploring backpacks!
8. Land Iguana
There are three species of land iguana endemic to the Galapagos, the Galapagos Land Iguana, Santa Fe Land Iguana and the Pink Galapagos Land Iguana. Despite their fearsome appearance, with powerful hind legs and sharp claws on their toes, they are mainly herbivores, eating prickly pear leaves and fruit. They can live for up to 50 years.
Usually yellow in colour, the Pink iguanas (originally spotted by National Park rangers in 1986 and passed off as an oddity) are one of Galapagos’ most recently described species (2009) and aren’t just a different colour from the other land iguanas; they are a completely separate species.
9. Galapagos Green Sea Turtle
For me, one of my highlights when snorkelling in Galapagos is coming across a sea turtle. These gracious sea dwellers are a special subspecies that are the only species of sea turtle to nest in Galapagos (although in Galapagos waters you can also come across Hawksbill, Leatherback and Olive Ridley turtles, they are less common). As marine reptiles they have adapted their bodies to live in the oceans and spend about 96% of their lives at sea. They can be seen throughout the Galapagos, and throughout the year, but December through March is when pregnant females maybe seen around the shores waiting for night to lay their eggs.
10. Flightless Cormorant
One of the most striking adaptations of the wildlife that arrived to the Galapagos is the loss of the ability to fly of the Flightless Cormorant. As it had no predators on land, nor does it need to fly for food as it gets all the food it needs in the nutrient rich waters around the islands of Galapagos and Isabela, the Flightless Cormorant traded off its ability to fly with an improved ability to swim with its webbed feet and powerful solid legs. Whilst it might not be able to fly, it can really move like a torpedo underwater!
If you’d like to know more about the animals of the Galapagos why not visit our Galapagos page where you’ll find an Island by Island guide.