In a rugged archipelago situated 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, there are more than 200 recorded species of Galapagos Islands animals on land. From a historical perspective, the islands’ remote location and harsh volcanic terrain played a huge role in their current status as a world-renowned nature sanctuary.
The Galapagos was a favorite spot among pirates (who pillaged the tortoise population for meat) and whalers (who plundered its waters for their ample bounty) in the 17th and 18th centuries. But all efforts to colonize the area ended badly, and by the late 1800s the Galapagos Islands were widely considered cursed.
Most of the 13 major and 7 smaller islands remain uninhabited today, with over 97% of the archipelago preserved as a national park. As a result of these conservation efforts, the Galapagos Islands remains one of the world’s most pristine and unspoiled UNESCO World Heritage Sites, with a remarkable array of mammals, reptiles, amphibians and bird species to be seen.
Here are some of our favorite photos of the myriad Galapagos Islands animals we saw during our trip with International Expeditions, including rare endemic species such as the Galapagos Flamingo, Galapagos Penguins, Galapagos Sea Lions, Galapagos Tortoise, Darwin’s Finches and more.
The three booby species rank among the most popular birds of the Galapagos Islands, and the Blue-Footed Boobies were easily our favorite. They feed close to shore, making spectacular dives into the sea to catch fish, and are widely distributed in small ground-nesting colonies. Their elaborate mating ritual, which includes a silly stampy-feet dance and a pose known as “skypointing,” is fascinating to watch.
The 14 species of Darwin’s Finches (a.k.a. Galápagos Finches) belong to the tanager family and are not closely related to true finches. They played a crucial role in Darwin’s theory of natural selection, as each species has a distinctive beak size and shape and specialized feeding behavior. Collectively, they fill the roles of 7 different families of birds found on mainland South America.
The Flightless Cormorant ranks among the world’s rarest bird species, with less than 1000 left. It’s definitely an odd bird, with black and brown feathers, turquoise eyes, growling voices, and wings about 1/3 the size that would be required in order for the bird to fly. Their feathers aren’t waterproof, so they spend a lot of time drying them in the sunlight. They’re found only on Fernandina and Isabela Islands, where you frequently see them diving in search of fish, eels and other small prey.
The Galápagos Flamingo is the world’s smallest. With around 350 left, they’re listed as Endangered by the IUCN and are one of the most endangered of all Galapagos Islands animals. They can usually be found in saltwater lagoons near the sea, feeding on the brine shrimp whose aqueous bacteria and beta carotene give them their pink color. Where populations elsewhere require large groups for successful breeding, Galápagos Flamingos can breed with just a few pairs present, producing chicks with grey plumage.
With few natural predators, the Galápagos Hawk plays a vital role in the archipelago’s ecosystem. Similar in size to a red-tailed hawk, they use their sharp beaks and claws to prey on lizards, snakes, rodents, marine iguanas and the occasional turtle hatchling. They also feast on carrion, even that which is too rancid for other animals to eat.
The long-tailed, long-legged, long-beaked Galapagos Mockingbird is a common sighting, with six endemic subspecies spread across the archipelago. The omnivore eats almost anything– seeds, eggs, fruit and more– and helps to distribute viable seeds across the islands after digesting them.
The Galápagos Penguin is mostly seen on Fernandina and Isabela, where fewer than 1,000 breeding pairs remain. Measuring just 19 inches long and weighing 5 pounds, these tiny penguins have genetically adapted to the heat (59º-82ºF), regulating their body temperature by stretching out their flippers, avoiding the sun, panting and swimming in the islands’ cool waters.
The Galapagos Sea Lion is listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as an Endangered Species. But you wouldn’t know it from touring the islands, where these curious cuties are practically everywhere. They seem awkward on land, with a lurching side-to-side gait, loud barks and an array of bizarre noises. But in the water– where we saw them nearly every time we snorkeled– they transform into elegant and engaging acrobats.
There are three species of endemic snakes found in the Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos Snake includes two subspecies– the Fernandina Snake seen above and the Isabela Snake– which are common on the islands for which they’re named. Measuring up to 39 inches, they’re either brown with yellow stripes or dark grey with yellow spots forming a zigzag pattern. Though mildly venomous, they’re primarily constrictors and relatively harmless to humans: One actually slithered over the feet of a fellow traveler without incident.
The prehistoric-looking Galapagos Tortoise can live over 150 years, and they’ve played an integral role in Galapagos history. They were almost hunted to extinction, with numbers dwindling to around 3,000 in the 1970s. But they were also a key influence on Darwin’s Theory of Evolution: Tortoises from different islands varied greatly in size and appearance, suggesting genetic adaptation to their respective environments. Fortunately, conservation efforts have proven effective, and the tortoise population today has risen to around 20,000.
The Land Iguana is arguably among my favorite Galapagos Island animals. Charles Darwin described them as “ugly animals, of a yellowish orange beneath, and of a brownish-red colour above: from their low facial angle they have a singularly stupid appearance.” But we love their ancient brand of oddity, from the punky yellow spikes atop their seemingly smiling faces to the razor-sharp claws at the end of their massive feet.
The lovely Lava Lizard is another reptile with a seemingly friendly face. There are six species endemic to the Galapagos, most of which grow to around 6 inches long and boast a beautiful range of colors, from mottled grey and green to speckled copper or black with gold stripes. They’ve got no fear of humans and lots of personality, and are frequently spotted close-up on most of the islands.
The Magnificent Frigate is not endemic to the Galapagos, but it is one of its most impressive inhabitants. With bodies up to 45 inches long and a massive wingspan, they soar aloft, never touching water. They feed by either snatching fish from the ocean’s surface or forcing other birds to regurgitate their meal so they can steal it. During mating season, males inflate their red throat pouches dramatically to attract females, which makes for dramatic, colorful photos.
I’ve always thought that Marine Iguanas look like little Godzillas, hissing and sneezing (in order to expel excess salt from their nasal glands) and tending to huddle together in clumps to warm themselves on the lava rocks. They vary greatly from island to island in terms of size and color, from teal green males on Española to the brick red colors of the subspecies on Fernandina, where there were so many marine iguanas that you had to watch where you walked for fear of stepping on one.
Nazca Boobies, which were formerly known as Masked Boobies due to their distinctive facial markings, are known for siblicide. They lay two eggs, but the oldest chick typically kills the youngest. Here, the surviving offspring encourages its mom to regurgitate a meal.
Endemic to every Galapagos Island except Español, the large Painted Locust can grow to nearly 3.5 inches long. Their vivid colors– yellow, orange, red and black– are intensely attractive, but don’t help much in terms of preventing them from being a favorite snack among Galapagos Hawks and Lava Lizards.
Red-Footed Boobies are the smallest and most abundant of the three booby species found in the Galapagos. They typically nest in huge colonies in trees and shrubs on the outer-most islands, because they prefer to feed far out to sea.
One of the most common crabs found along the western coast of the Americas, this “Red Rock Crab” is more commonly known as the Sally Lightfoot Crab. They’re a constant presence on the rocky volcanic shores of the Galapagos, skittering amongst the Sea Lions and Marine Iguanas to feed on algae. They also eat feed on dead animals: These two were apparently fighting over what looked like an Octopus tentacle on the rocks of Fernandina Island.
The endemic Swallow-Tailed Gull is the only fully nocturnal seabird in the world. Mating pairs nest on steep slopes, ledges, and beaches, frequently staying together and breeding year after year. Their red-ringed eyes are a striking, defining feature.
Classified as Critically Endangered due to their small breeding range, the Waved Albatross is only found on Española Island. Pairs mate for life, typically arriving in late March and doing an elaborate mating dance to ensure they have the right partner. During non-breeding season, they move to the waters off the coast of Ecuador and Peru. –by Bret Love; photos by Bret Love & Alex Love
Our Galapagos Island trip was sponsored by International Expeditions. But our opinions remain our own, and we will never compromise our obligation of integrity to our readers.
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The co-founder of Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media, Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 21 years of experience. He’s been published in over 100 publications, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, National Geographic, Rolling Stone and Yahoo Travel. He’s an in-demand speaker at travel conferences, covering topics ranging from branding and content marketing to responsible travel and how DMOs can work with bloggers. He’s also made a name for himself as a content and influencer marketing strategist, advising companies such as Discover Corps and International Expeditions.