How do you choose which Galapagos animals to feature in a place filled with incredible wildlife diversity? Of course the blue-footed boobies and giant tortoises must be on the list, but where do you draw the line among all the sharks, rays and fish that are also spectacular? While we could go on and on about some of our favorites (including the red-lipped batfish), here’s what most people have on their Galapagos animal bucket list. We hope this post not only helps you learn more about the animals you want to see but also introduces a few more to pack your binoculars for.
This iconic Galapagos seabird is found throughout the archipelago (mostly islands south of the Equator), nesting on land and plunging into the water for fish. The blue-footed booby dives to the water surface from as high as 80 feet in the air. To counteract the force with which they hit the water from tall heights, blue-footed boobies have developed air sacs in the skull that serve as built-in shock absorbers.
Roughly half of all blue-footed boobies reside in the Galapagos and they enjoy a stable population, with an average lifespan of 17 years. The saturation of color in their feet is indicative of their health, with more vibrant feet (especially turquoise) attracting potential female mates.
The saturation of color in their feet is indicative of their health—the more vibrant the better.
During the mating season (any time of year when food is abundant), the male’s high-stepping dance and whistle, and the female’s honk, provides quite a show. The booby’s name is thought to come from the Spanish bobo, meaning “stupid,” however another Spanish name, piquero, gives a nod to the blue-footed booby’s pointed beak.
Look for the blue-footed booby’s cousins the Nazca booby and red-footed booby, both also found in the Galapagos Islands.
We commonly think of penguins living near the frigid south pole, but Galapagos penguins enjoy a mix of the Humboldt Current’s frigid waters and the warm Equatorial sun. Galapagos is the northernmost place to find penguins, and these rarest of the penguin species are a delight.
Look closely for these tiny penguins darting around in packs under the water and resting in lava tubes or cracks among seaside cliffs.
Look closely for these penguins—some of the smallest in the world—darting around in packs under the water and resting in lava tubes or cracks among the seaside cliffs of Isabela, Fernandina, Bartolome, Santiago and Floreana Islands. In the water, these animals reach up to 25 miles per hour; keep up with your snorkel fins, if you can.
The population of Galapagos penguins is endangered, having declined to under 50% of what it was in the 1970s due to several strong El Nino events in the 1980s and 1990s, plus increased predators such as rats and cats. These marine mammals are known to occasionally mooch off of their parents, shrieking for food by the water’s edge.
Galapagos Marine Iguana
The Galapagos is home to the world’s only marine iguana, which can be found on almost every island in the archipelago. These lizards, called the “imps of darkness” by Charles Darwin, reside on land but head to the water (when tides are right) to feed on seaweed and the green algae that clings to rocks—some have been recorded at depths of 40 feet, staying submerged for up to an hour. Their tricuspid teeth enable them to literally gnaw on rock for their nutrient-rich food source, while their long tail acts as a rudder to propel them through the waves and current.
Marine iguanas began as terrestrial beings but evolved to dip into the ocean, spreading throughout the islands. Watch out for their powerful sneezes, an effect of their large supraorbital gland which expels excess salt from their body. Marine iguanas live anywhere from 5 to 40 years and have a population that’s vulnerable to predators that prey on the eggs and young, like snakes, birds of prey, eels, cats and dogs. Their seven subspecies range in size and color.
Galapagos Sea Lion
The playful Galapagos sea lion can be found arcing through the water like a gymnast and lounging oceanside at almost every island in the archipelago. The smallest species of sea lion is also the largest land animal in the Galapagos.
The playful Galapagos sea lion can be found arcing through the water like a gymnast and lounging oceanside at almost every island in the archipelago.
This endangered marine puppy dog will bark greetings to each other, and while the males may bite, the females and young pups will often become your new best friend wherever you find them. They can plunge to depths of 500 feet, staying submerged for up to 10 minutes, to satisfy their staple diet of sardines, which sustains them throughout their 20-year lifespan.
Studies have shown that young females start hunting earlier than their male counterparts. However, mature males do the work of defending their harem territory, meaning they naturally reside on the beach for long stretches without food. These members of the seal family have external ears and can move their flippers forward to “stand up” (similar to a cobra pose in yoga); these flippers also enable them to gallop across land, reaching speeds similar to that of a running human.
Look for the smaller Galapagos fur seal, keeping an eye for its thicker, lighter (when dry) fur and more pronounced ears. Fur seals hang out more on rocky shores of Isabela and Ferdandina (while sea lions prefer the smooth beaches).
Galapagos Giant Tortoise
The largest living tortoise species, weighing up to a whopping 550 pounds, Galapagos giant tortoises are found on Isabela, Santa Cruz, Santiago, Rabida, Bartolome, Marchena, San Cristobal and Espanola Islands.
They often live over 100 years and can weigh up to 550 pounds!
They often live over 100 years, perhaps due to the fact that they rest for an average of 16 hours per day; during drought they may sleep for weeks. This energy conservation may explain why Galapagos giant tortoises can survive up to a year without food or water.
The shell shape of this endangered species varies between islands, and on Isabela, it varies even between volcanoes. The dome shape enables the tortoises to pass through the brush in warmer climates with ground-level shrubs. The saddleback tortoises, whose long necks can crane up to reach the vegetation above, are found on islands with a drier climate. The word galapago is in fact Spanish for “saddle.” They all eat grass, leaves, bushes, guava and other tropical fruits, and the cactus pads of the prickly pear. They are starting to eat invasive, non-native plant species as well.
The greater flamingo, a member of the American flamingo family, can be spotted—with a little luck—on Santa Cruz, Floreana, Santiago, Rabida, Isabela and San Cristobal Islands. Young flamingos are born gray and white. They become pink from two years old through adulthood, with a richer color indicating a healthier and heartier diet. These birds—some of the largest in the archipelago—live to be 18-24 years old. As the world’s smallest flamingo population, they are endangered; however, their population is currently stable.
Interestingly, flamingos in general have the largest and heaviest tongues among all birds, enabling them to filter large quantities of the small crustaceans and microorganisms they feed on, in one gulp. Their feet help them stir up food from the mud in their brackish lagoon habitat, and then the liquid is filtered out. Like the blue-footed booby, the greater flamingo puts on a show during mating season, with both male and female partners in a dance.
Galapagos Land Iguana
The Galapagos land iguana makes its home on the islands of Floreana, Isabela, Baltra, Santa Cruz, North Seymour and South Plaza. You can sometimes spot males fighting over burrowed territory.
Land iguanas look to birds such as finches and mockingbirds to help clean their scaly exterior, creating a symbiotic partnership.
Their leathery mouths enable them to eat cactus fruit—their main food source—whole, however they will also prepare their dinner by rolling the fruit through the sand and over stones until the spines fall off. These impressively colored animals live an average of 50-60 years and enjoy a healthy population.
These endemic iguanas average 30 pounds but can weigh up to 175 pounds. While there are three subspecies, the sunset-colored Galapagos land iguana is the most prevalent. They look to birds such as Darwin finches and Galapagos mockingbirds for help in cleaning ticks off of their scaly exterior, creating a symbiotic partnership.
Even more unique to the Galapagos than this endemic species is the rare hybrid land-marine iguana of South Plaza Island, which exhibits characteristics of both iguanas but does not swim or feed in the water like marine iguanas.
The robber from the skies, the magnificent frigatebird is ever-present throughout the Galapagos archipelago, with two of the world’s five species residing there. On a small ship cruise, you will find them riding the breeze above or in the wake of the boat, periodically dipping to the water for fish.
The males’ emblematic inflated red pouch is used to attract female mates.
It’s a sight both amazing and frustrating to watch them steal food right out of each other’s mouths, and sticks from each other’s nests. More impressive is their emblematic inflated red pouch, used to attract female mates. When the male clacks his beak, a drumming sound resonates throughout the pouch, adding sound to the stunning visual display.
In Spanish, these birds are known as pajaro pirata or “pirate birds.” These thieves are known to chase boobies and tropicbirds and force them to give up their recent catches by forcibly shaking them. This behavior is due in part to their inability to dive under the water, as their feathers are not waterproof. They’re aided in traveling long distances—aloft for sometimes months at a time on thermal updrafts—by having the largest wingspan-to-weight ratio in the world (eight feet across and one to four pounds).
Sally Lightfoot Crabs
The fiery-colored, photogenic Sally Lightfoot crab is commonly seen along the shores and beaches of most Galapagos islands. Their name is often linked to a Caribbean dancer, due to their agility in leaping among rocks along the shoreline, their ability to run in four directions and their capability to scale vertical walls. These invertebrates ubiquitous to the Islands help keep beaches clean due to their non-discriminatory palate.
Their name is often linked to a Caribbean dancer, due to their agility in leaping among rocks, running in four directions and scaling vertical walls.
Sally Lightfoot crabs also help out marine iguanas by eating the ticks off of their scaled skin. They molt and grow new shells until they mature into adults, and if scared they may shed one of their legs in defense. They are quick to scurry away—so quick that they can even walk on water across tide pools. If you remain still, as lava herons do, then these crabs may approach you.
One of the most famous animals associated with the Galapagos, Darwin’s 13 species of finches were a driving force behind the biologist’s theories of evolution. Darwin’s finches are present throughout the archipelago, and while the different species started out isolated to a unique island, they can now be found in combination in certain places. Their similar mottled gray, brown, black and olive coloring makes them difficult to distinguish. Males court females by building nests, and once they become a pair, the male may build yet another nest at the female’s request.
Darwin’s 13 species of finches were a driving force behind the biologist’s theories of evolution.
The 13 endemic species breaks down as: four species of ground finches (small, medium, large and sharp-beaked), three tree finches (small, medium and large), two cactus finches (common and large), a mangrove finch, a vegetarian finch, a woodpecker finch and a warbler finch. Each species has a unique beak size and shape, and their diet is specialized to their specific niche. Their preferred food ranges from seeds to insects, ticks from tortoises and land iguanas, leaves, flowers and even blood from seabirds. Two finch species use twigs or cactus spines to extract insect larvae from holes in dead tree branches. Together they comprise seven different families of birds found on mainland South America.
How to See the Best Galapagos Wildlife
Make use of the well-trained eyes and ears of your Galapagos National Park guide. Park guides undergo an extensive training regimen and many of them have been leading groups through the islands for years if not decades. Your guide will help not only spot but also interpret what’s unfolding in front of you. The best guides work with first-rate ships and land programs, which we at AdventureSmith Explorations source from experience; view all our Galapagos trips.
Another important consideration is time, even more so than route. Most of the Galapagos’ iconic animals presented here can be found on a Galapagos tour in any season (learn about seasonal nuances), but the longer you can devote to exploring the archipelago, the more opportunity you’ll have to spot these amazing creatures.
The longer you can devote to exploring the archipelago, the more opportunity you’ll have to spot these creatures.
Keep in mind that just because an itinerary visits a place inhabited by flamingos, for example, it doesn’t guarantee that you will see them. Longer options of 8 days or more often provide repeated chances to not only see what you’re after but also snap a great photo to bring home.
A small ship cruise optimizes your wildlife moments, as the ship efficiently moves among islands and visitor sites while you relax, dine, take in lectures and sleep. Land programs can require daytime spent traveling to other islands, resulting in less time to seek out the wild species that draws adventurers to the Galapagos, but can have other wildlife-spotting benefits our experts can advise you on.