Named the world’s first UNESCO Site in 1978, the Galapagos Islands is an archipelago of volcanic islands located 563 miles off the coast of Ecuador.
The landscapes of these 19 islands are remarkably diverse, from the lush green flora of the Santa Cruz highlands (where the Galapagos Tortoise roams wild) to the harsh, alien lava fields on Bartolomé. It’s also home to some of the world’s most fascinating endemic species, from ocean-feeding Marine Iguanas and Flightless Cormorants to diminutive Galapagos Penguins.
The islands are most famous for their influence on Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. He observed that finch and tortoise subspecies genetically adapted to their environment differently on various islands.
Now, 177 years after Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, the Galapagos Islands is the only place in the world where wildlife has virtually no fear of humans. Curious Galapagos Sea Lions swim right up to you, and birds such as the Blue-Footed Boobie nest right beside marked hiking trails.
Here’s a look at some of the many Galapagos Islands animals you can expect to see when you visit Darwin’s paradise on Discover Corps’ new Galapagos Family Vacation…
The three booby species rank among our favorite Galapagos Islands animals. Red-footed Boobies are the smallest. They nest in huge colonies on the outer islands, since they feed far out to sea. Nazca Boobies (a.k.a Masked Boobies, for their distinctive facial markings) are prone to siblicide– they lay two eggs, but the oldest chick often kills the youngest. Blue-footed Boobies are widely distributed in small ground-nesting colonies and feed close to shore. Witnessing their bizarre mating ritual ( with stampy feet and skypointing) was a highlight of our first Galapagos visit.
These small, dull-colored passerine birds played a vital role in Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. After collecting samples during his second Beagle voyage, he noticed that each species had a different beak size, shape and specialized feeding behavior. Commonly known as Galápagos Finches, they belong to the tanager family and aren’t closely related to true finches. Collectively, these 14 species fill the roles of seven different families of birds found on the mainland.
These odd birds were nearly wiped out by El Niño, but their numbers have doubled since 1983 thanks to conservation efforts. Still they’re among the world’s rarest birds, with around 900 left. Their black and brown feathers, turquoise eyes and tiny wings (which are 1/3 the size they’d need to fly) give them a bizarre look. Their feathers aren’t waterproof, so they spend a lot of time drying their short, stubby appendages in the sunlight. They’re found on the islands of Fernandina and Isabela, where you’ll see them diving down deep in search of fish, eels and other small prey.
On the verge of being named a subspecies of the American Flamingo, the world’s smallest Flamingo is also its least populous. With less than 350 individuals left in the wild, it’s listed as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Galápagos Flamingos can often be found in saltwater lagoons near the sea. We spotted the one above on Santa Cruz feeding on brine shrimp, whose bacteria and beta carotene give Flamingos their pink color.
Galápagos Giant Tortoise
These prehistoric-looking creatures can live over 150 years, and have played an integral role in Galapagos Islands history. Used for food by pirates and whalers from the 17th to 19th centuries, they were nearly hunted to extinction. Population numbers dwindled to around 3,000 in the 1970s. But efforts overseen by the Charles Darwin Foundation have helped this most iconic of Galapagos Islands animals rebound. Today there are 10 subspecies of Galapagos Tortoises found in the wild, with current population numbers estimated at around 20,000. Discover Corps travelers have a chance to see them up close, volunteering at a ranch devoted to their conservation.
Galápagos Green Turtle
Although they were once classified as a subspecies of the Green Sea Turtle, this endemic species is smaller (up to around 33 inches long), with a more domed shell than its common cousins. They’re also known as the Black Sea Turtle due to their darker shell color. Though they are currently listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List, they are a fairly common sighting when snorkeling or Scuba diving the Galapagos Islands. They can occasionally be seen emerging from the water after sunset to make their nests and lay their eggs on the archipelago’s beaches, especially on Santa Cruz.
The only penguin species that ventures north of the equator, Galapagos Penguins are primarily found on Fernandina and Isabela. Measuring around 19 inches and weighing five pounds, it’s the world’s second smallest penguin species. Scientists believe that their Antarctica-based ancestors got caught in the powerful Humboldt Current and wound up in the Galapagos, where they genetically adapted to the heat (which ranges from 59º-82ºF on average) over time. People occasionally see these gorgeous Galapagos Islands animals while snorkeling in the chilly waters of Tagus Cove. During my last visit, I was lucky enough to swim with a pair for 20+ minutes!
There are four species of Racer snakes found in the Galapagos, all distinguished by geographical location. The slender Hood Racer is found only on Española Island, with dark brown backs and two yellow stripes running back from the snout. There are three Galápagos Racer subspecies, all dark brown with striped or spotted patterns. The Eastern is primarily found on San Cristóbal; the Western on Isabela and Fernandina; and the Central on Baltra, Bartolomé, Santa Cruz, Santa Fé and Santiago. Though harmless to humans, these constrictors showed their hunting prowess against baby Marine Iguanas in a recent viral video from Planet Earth II.
Galápagos Sea Lion
Galápagos Sea Lions are on the endangered species list, but Discover Corps travelers will see them almost everywhere: On the docks, swimming near the shore, and on every beach of every island.
On land they appear awkward and clumsy, lurching side-to-side and barking belching loudly. But once they reach the water, they transform into something magical. They’re incessantly playful and curious: The rule of staying 6 feet from all Galapagos Islands animals is impossible because they swim right up to you. With their huge eyes, cute faces and funny flippers, the Galápagos Sea Lions’ charms proved utterly impossible to resist.
Land Iguana populations were nearly decimated by invasive species during the 20th century, but breeding efforts in the 1990s led to a successful reintroduction campaign. Nearly 10,000 iguanas roam the islands today, living 50-60 years and feeding primarily on prickly-pear cactus. These ancient-looking iguanas are among the most colorful of all Galapagos Island animals. Growing 3-5 feet long and weighing up to 25 pounds, they come in colors ranging from vivid yellow and rusty orange to red. The rare Pink Land Iguana, native to northern Isabela, was officially declared a separate species in 2009.
Charles Darwin was repulsed by these miniature Godzillas, referring to them as “large, disgusting, clumsy lizards” and “imps of darkness.” But after spending enough time around Marine Iguanas (and if you visit the Galapagos Islands, you will!), you’re likely to find them oddly endearing, if not downright adorable. You’ll see them on nearly every island you visit, swimming down to feed on algae at the bottom of the sea or sunning themselves for warmth on rocks by the shore. Look for the Christmas Iguana subspecies (pictured above) on Española, which are named for their gorgeous green and red coloring.
Sally Lightfoot Crab
Found along the Pacific coast from Mexico to South America, the Sally Lightfoot Crab is arguably the most frequently spotted of all Galapagos Islands animals. With their vivid red, orange, blue and yellow colors standing out dramatically against the dark volcanic rock that lines the shore, they’re impossible to miss. As Darwin documented during his voyage, they’re also nearly impossible to catch, with remarkable speed and agility that helps them evade predators. –Bret Love; photos by Bret Love, Allie Love & Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. He is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.