19 Jul Wondrous Wildlife of the Galapagos Islands
In the 1830s, Charles Darwin set sail to the Galapagos Islands aboard the HMS Beagle. His discoveries on the diverse and largely endemic wildlife there had a profound effect on his theories, and played a huge role in the development of his ground-breaking book, On the Origin of Species.
Set in the Pacific Ocean 1000km off the coast of mainland Ecuador, and intersected by the equator, the Galapagos Islands are an otherworldly volcanic archipelago hosting jaw-dropping scenery and an abundance of unique wildlife. With just 3% of the Galapagos Islands falling outside of Galapagos National Park and only four of the islands being inhabited, it’s no wonder that this little corner of the world is a leading destination for wildlife viewings.
Consisting of 18 main islands and further minor islands offering varied landscapes and panoramic ocean views, each island offers different habitats. What’s unusual about this archipelago is that some animals are only found on one island, while others can be found on multiple islands, but with species differing greatly depending on which island they call home.
Of this, Darwin said, “I never dreamed that islands, about fifty or sixty miles apart, and most of them in sight of each other, formed of precisely the same rocks, placed under a quite similar climate, rising to nearly an equal height, would have been differently tenanted.”
And so, from the tide pools of Genovesa island to the lava fields of Isabela, we explore just a sample of the beautiful wildlife the Galapagos has to offer visitors.
Without a doubt, the most famous animal associated with this part of the world is the Galapagos tortoise. Growing to weigh almost 1000lbs, these gentle giants are the largest species of tortoise and spend their lives (sometimes over 100 years) eating the varied vegetation of the islands and relaxing in muddy pools to regulate their body temperature.
If seeing a Galapagos tortoise is on your bucket list, the best places to find them are at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz or Galapagueras on Isabela or San Cristobel. If you’d prefer to observe them in their natural habitat, head towards the highlands of Santa Cruz.
This is the second smallest and rarest species of penguin, and the only species found north of the equator in the wild. The Galapagos penguin nests either in burrows, caves or crevices in lava rock and feeds on small fish, such as sardines and mullet, which they hunt in the thriving waters surrounding the islands.
While some species of penguin migrate across great expanses, the Galapagos penguin sticks close to their breeding site, hunting during the day and returning to land at night.
Your best chance of spotting a Galapagos penguin is either on Fernandina island or the west coast of Isabela island.
Galapagos Marine Iguana
A rarity among reptiles, this endemic species has the ability to search for its food in the sea. Its diet is comprised mainly of algae which it dives to search for, staying underwater for up to an hour without needing to surface for air.
Marine iguanas live in groups along the rocky shores of the oceanfront and enjoy basking on the rocks to regulate their body temperatures after foraging for food in the cool waters.
Marine iguanas can be found on almost any of the islands if you stick to the shoreline. If you happen to be visiting in June, you’re likely to spot baby marine iguanas, which hatch in late May.
Galapagos Land Iguana
Unlike the marine iguana, these solitary land-dwelling reptiles with muted yellow markings can be found in areas with scrub vegetation. They are often spotted foraging for food like the prickly-pear cactus, which makes up the majority of their diet, including the spines!
There are a variety of species of land iguana across the different islands, and they typically grow to anywhere between 3 and 5 feet and can weigh up to 25lbs.
Land iguanas are typically found on Fernandina, Santa Cruz, North Seymour, Isabela, South Plaza and Hood.
Galapagos Sea Lion
These social and curious creatures are certainly the among loudest species within the Galapagos. Sea lions live in colonies led by males and are a favourite amongst visitors, especially for the close bond that can be witnessed between pups and their mothers, who care for their young for up to three years.
Sea lions can be found on any island in the Galapagos at any time of year. If you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of new pups, make sure to plan your visit between June and November. Ocean activities such as kayaking or snorkelling can offer visitors up-close encounters with these inquisitive animals.
Blue Footed Booby
The Galapagos islands are home to a number of species of both land and sea dwelling birds, but among the favourites is the blue footed booby. When manoeuvring on land, these birds look awkward and clumsy, but they are more graceful in the air or when diving into the ocean in hunt of fish.
The colour of their feet (a result of their diet on fresh fish) plays an important role during mating season. Males dance to show off their blue feet in front of the females, who consider brighter blue to be indicative of the ideal partner, as it’s typically the younger and more fertile males with brighter pigments.
Blue footed boobies can be found on most islands along the shoreline, but the best nesting colonies are in Española, Genovesa and Floreana.
David Pettitt writes on behalf of Pettitts. To learn more about travelling to the Galapagos Islands, click here.