The Galapagos Islands are a unique paradise in the ever-shrinking natural world. Carefully protected and actively conserved by the Galapagos National Park, this archipelago just 600 miles from the Ecuadorian mainland is considered a living laboratory because of its rich biodiversity and unique natural characteristics. In fact, this was the site in 1835 where young naturalist Charles Darwin first theorized evolution and natural selection after carefully observing the animals here.
Many of the Galapagos creatures are actually endemic, meaning that they can only be found here. Some are even endemic to one island, like most of the tortoise populations, you can check out this infographic for more details on the main endemic species of the Galapagos Islands.
Thanks to the efforts of conservationists, these same animals can still be seen today nearly 200 years after Darwin first set foot on these islands. Wherever you go in the archipelago, you will surely encounter amazing wildlife, so we’ve compiled this list of the Top 10 animals to see in the Galapagos Islands which you can visit either by cruise tour or as part of a hotel package tour.
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1) Blue-footed Boobies (Sula nebouxii):
These curious creatures are an unofficial mascot of the Galapagos Islands. While graceful in flight, with a wingspan reaching five feet across, their behavior on land is markedly less so. Most notable is their mating dance, in which a male will court a female by walking around in front of her and showing off his blue feet, lifting them up in a comical strut.
The bluer his feet, the better he will be as a mate. They can be found in coastal areas of Central & South America, but over half of the breeding pairs call the Galapagos their home.
2) Sea lions (Zalophus wollebaeki):
The Galapagos sea lion is a favorite of many travelers and can be spotted just about anywhere in the Galapagos Islands, including lounging lazily on the benches in town! They grow to large sizes (males weighing up to 900 pounds and females well over 200 pounds) and live in colonies.
Male sea lions fight for a colony of females (harems) and whoever wins then mates with that colony, while the loser goes to live in peace among other bachelor sea lions. The male in a colony can change frequently. Although two males vying for dominance over a harem can be quite violent, they are otherwise peaceful animals that can be spotted playing in the water or relaxing on the beach.
3) Giant Tortoise (Geochelone nigra):
The Galapagos Giant Tortoises are the largest tortoises in the world, with males weighing up to 500 pounds and females weighing in over 200 pounds at maturity. Many of the islands have their own endemic species of tortoises, and unfortunately, several species have been hunted to extinction. Now, conservationists and scientists of the Galapagos National Park have helped to restore and breed many endangered populations back to healthy levels.
Fun fact: The saddleback tortoises actually lent their name to the whole archipelago - when Spanish explorers first came to the Islands, they called them by the Spanish word for “saddle”: Galapagos.
4) Galapagos green turtle (Chelonia Mydas):
Lucky snorkelers might be able to spot this swift sea turtle. They spend most of their lives in the sea but will come ashore on various beaches in order to lay eggs. While they can grow to weigh over 400 pounds on a balanced diet of seaweed and mangrove leaves, they are at their most vulnerable when they are eggs and right after they hatch when they have to crawl their way to the sea.
5) Land iguana (Conolophus subcristatus):
Reaching sizes of 3 feet long and 30 pounds, these giant lizards can be spotted in arid parts of the Galapagos Islands. They are brownish-yellow in color and enjoy hiding from the sun in the shadows during the day. They dig burrows to live in and enjoy a diet of prickly pear and Opuntia cactus fruit and leaves, from which they draw most of the water that they require.
6) Marine Iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus):
One of the finest examples of evolution, the marine iguanas are the only ocean-going lizards in the world. Their bodies are perfectly adapted for their lifestyle, with black bodies that absorb the heat that they need to survive their cold dives for food.
Their sharp claws grip the lava rock, a rounded tail makes paddling, swimming, and diving easy, and glands above their nose help them to expel any excess salt they ingest while grazing on seaweed in the ocean.
7) Galapagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus):
This is a species which is part of the must-see- list of most nature lovers, make sure to check in advance if your Galapagos Cruise Tour will be covering the islands where it is possible to see this unique and somewhat funny Galapagos Penguin, this is the northernmost penguin in the world and the only one that lives above the equator.
Unlike its large cousins in the Antarctic, these cute little guys only grow to heights of 19 inches with a weight around 6 pounds at maturity. While they can’t fly, their bodies are perfect for diving, a necessary adaptation in order to get their diet of fish. Look for them airing out their wings on rocky islets in order to keep cool in the hot equatorial sun
8) Galapagos shark (Carcharhinus galapagensis):
Unless you’re an expert, it can be hard to distinguish a Galapagos shark from other similar species, but these marine giants are the masters of the Galapagos waters. Their diet consists primarily of bottom-feeding fish and they can grow to 12 feet in length.
They can be seen throughout the Galapagos, but the most common place to spot them is the marine sanctuary around Darwin and Wolf Islands, where the largest concentration of sharks in the world resides.
9) Waved albatrosses (Phoebastria irrorata):
These majestic birds are native to the Galapagos Islands and are critically endangered, with just around 12,000 breeding pairs left in the world. They have brownish-black bodies with distinct white heads and yellow beaks. Most impressively, they can spend hours at a time soaring over the ocean without ever touching land.
10) Frigatebirds (Fregata):
Though not particularly remarkable at first glance, once these large black birds inflate their bright red pouches to attract a mate you’ll see how they are truly unique. Males will build nests and flap their wings and inflate a throat pouch to signal to the females flying above that they are a suitable mate.
Other animals you might see:
•Finches (the little guys that inspired Darwin’s work)
•Rays! Eagle, spotted, sting, and manta rays can all be spotted.
•Sharks! Hammerheads and Reef sharks can be seen all over the Galapagos.
•Tropical fish of all kinds.
•Coral colonies, urchins, and sea stars.