The Top animals in the Galapagos Islands
These magical islands have captured the hearts and minds of travelers for centuries as their diverse and stunning natural beauty leaves visitors with a sense of awe.
At the confluence of three oceanic currents, nutrient rich water mixes with a surge of chilled water from the Antarctic Humboldt current and a jet of warm water from the other side. The islands are also located serendipitously over a volcanic hotspot that spans the equator. This trifecta of volcanoes, currents, and its location on the equator, just 600 miles from Ecuador’s mainland has made it the ideal home for some of the most unique animal species that have evolved exclusively on these islands.
- The Galapagos Penguin: This cute little cousin of its frigid relatives is one of the only species of tropical penguins. Thanks to the cold-water currents, this penguin is able to live comfortably in the Galapagos. It is a tiny bird, growing to only 49cm (19 inches) as an adult. With only 2,000 left, it is considered an endangered species. They can be seen perched on rocks with their wings out at 45-degree angles allowing the wind to pass over them and cool them off. If you’re snorkeling, you might even see these expert divers plunge into the water for fish.
- The Great and Magnificent Frigatebirds: The Galapagos Islands are home to two species of the recognizable and majestic frigatebird. This tropical bird is native to the Galapagos Islands and is one of the larger birds on the islands. In an impressive display of courtship, male frigate birds will inflate their bright red throat pouches for females flying above. They are commonly seen in large groups, waiting for their mate to choose them.
- Blue-footed boobies, Nazca boobies, Red-footed boobies, & Masked boobies: These peculiar birds are somewhat of a mascot for the Galapagos Islands, especially the blue-footed booby, appropriately named for its vibrant turquoise feet. They have a very distinct mating dance in which the male will approach a female and lift his feet in a display of courtship. The various species can be seen all around the Galapagos Islands, and they breed and nest year-round.
- Flightless cormorants: This is probably one of the more interesting birds on the islands, and contributed to Darwin’s formulation of his Theory of Evolution. As its name suggests, this bird has evolved such short wings due to its land-borne lifestyle that it is no longer capable of flying. In fact, it is the only species of cormorants in the world that is not able to fly. It is only 89-100 cm when fully grown and can be seen nesting or spreading its wings to cool off.
- Waved albatross: This bird proudly holds the title as the largest sea bird in the Galapagos Islands, with a wingspan anywhere between 1-2 ½ meters (3-8ft.). They are a truly amazing bird, that can spend years at sea without having to return to land. Despite several mating pairs on the closeby Pacific Isla de la Plata, the remaining 12,000 couples remain exclusively in the Galapagos.
- Other birds of interest include: The Galapagos Dove, the Greater Flamingo, the Short-eared owl, the various Galapagos herons, the lava gull, and the Darwin’s finch.
- Giant tortoises: These gentle giants give the archipelago its namesake. Spanish explorers saw their gargantuan shells and decided they looked like saddles, or “galapagos” in Spanish. There are several species of giant tortoises on the islands, but their limited number (approximately 15,000 remaining) makes them an endangered species. They can weigh over 500 pounds with a total height of nearly two meters (6ft). At their oldest, they can live for around 150 years.
- Land iguanas: Unlike their spritely green relatives in mainland Ecuador, these giant lizards love to soak up the sun. They are usually yellow-orange in color and have a scaly prehistoric look, reminiscent of dinosaurs. Look for their burrows along the nature trails, but don’t get too close, because males are known to be very territorial and aggressive.
- Marine iguanas: There is perhaps no greater evidence of evolution than the marine iguanas, endemic only to the Galapagos Islands. Every major characteristic has been adapted their life in the Galapagos Islands. Most commonly they are a jet black color to blend in with the dried lava rock on which their colonies bask in the sun, however some have popping pink highlights. Their stomachs have evolved to digest their seaweed diet, which they scavenge when they dive into the depths of the sea, using their flattened tails and webbed feet to plunge even deeper.
- Lava lizards: You’ll need a sharp eye to spot these tiny reptiles. They are populous on mostly all of the Galapagos Islands and vary accordingly. They can remain completely still for long periods of time, and their gray or khaki skin and orangish head blends right into the rocky sand, making it extremely difficult to see them. Sometimes, you will see a lava lizard in perfect symbiosis, sitting comfortably on the heads of the large marine iguanas.
- California sea lions: These playful animals are a favorite of many visitors to the Galapagos Islands. There are large colonies on several islands that visitors frequent. They are rather fearless and can be seen twirling in the water right by boats or often lounging on the benches in the towns. But don’t let their cuteness draw you in too much – male bulls are very protective of their colonies and can be very aggressive if you get too close. The California sea lions grow up to 850 pounds. On top of that, it’s against the law to touch any of the Galapagos animals, as there are serious ecological implications that come along with that.
- Tropical fish: While the marine ecosystems of the Galapagos don’t support the quantity of stunning reefs in places like Australia, there’s still countless species of colorful tropical fish that call these waters their home. Every island hosts its own variety of tropical fish, and your naturalist guide can tell you all about the most vibrant and interesting species you’ll see every day.
- Reef sharks, Galapagos sharks, and hammerhead sharks: Sharks are a common sight in the Galapagos Islands. Depending on where you are snorkeling/ diving, you will probably encounter one of these harrowing creatures patrolling the shallows. But don’t worry, they are very docile towards humans and usually only swim through the shallower parts of the ocean when they are passing through a natural cleaning station, where you will see other fish dart around their bodies feasting on all the organisms that have attached themselves the sharks’ bodies.
- Whales & Dolphins: These sea-faring mammals are best spotted either from cruise ships or from the shore with a good pair of binoculars. The dolphins are relatively easy to see as they like to jump playfully out of the water, often coming very close to cruising yachts. Humpback whales are a more rare sight in the Galapagos, so if you’re hoping to see them, plan your trip for June or July when they frequent this part of the ocean.
- Golden rays, eagle rays, sting rays, & manta rays: Keep your goggles clear as you snorkel or look out as you kayak, and you’ll probably see these graceful rays. They are usually seen traveling in large schools, but occasionally you will also see one peacefully gliding through the water on its own. The eagle and golden rays are small and golden yellow. Stingrays are a sandy gray color and commonly rest on the ocean floor. And manta rays are the undisputed giants among the ray species in the Galapagos.
- Green sea turtles: Sea turtles are a fascinating part of the Galapagos marine life ecosystems. They are the only turtles native to the Galapagos Islands and generally spend their entire lives at sea, other than when they come ashore to lay their eggs between January and June. Because of their aerodynamic bodies and their streamlined front and rear limbs, they can efficiently cruise through the waters at speeds up to 35 mph.
- Mola mola: Known also as the ocean sunfish, this is one of the biggest fish in the ocean. It is a strange fish, commonly described as a giant floating head or a large blob. They are hard to spot, but lucky travelers will catch a glimpse of these mammoth creatures, which can weigh between 500-2,000+ pounds.