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 Galapagos Islands animals we saw during our trip with International Expeditions. They include endemic species such as the Flightless Cormorant, Galapagos Flamingo, Galapagos Penguins, Darwin’s Finches, Marine Iguanas, 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 typically 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. I actually missed the unusual display due to a serious bout of seasickness, but Mary captured this incredible shot.
READ MORE: Birds of the Galapagos Islands
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 Charles 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 some seven different families of birds that are found on mainland South America.
The Flightless Cormorant ranks among the world’s rarest bird species, with less than 1000 left in the Galapagos Islands.
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.
READ MORE: Flightless Cormorant Mating Dance Video
Also known as the Red-Lipped Batfish, this freaky-faced fish can be found only in the Galapagos Islands, usually at depths of anywhere from 10 to 250 feet.
In addition to its red lips, the fish (a terrible swimmer) is distinguished by its ability to “walk” on the ocean floor using its pectoral fins.
Once they reach maturity, their dorsal fin evolves into a single spine-like projection that they primarily use to lure prey, including crustaceans and other small fish. The illicium on its head is used for the same purpose.
The Galápagos dove isn’t the most rare or endangered bird in the Galapagos. They’re pretty common, especially in the archipelago’s arid lowlands.
But they are endemic and intriguing: Whenever their nests are in danger, the adults will feign injury in order to lure the would-be invader away. They also perform a unique bee-like function, helping to pollinate the Opuntia Cactus upon which they like to feed.
In terms of appearance, they’re not unattractive either. They have reddish-brown upperparts, pink neck and breast, buff-coloured belly, and brown wings streaked with white and black. They also have a distinctive downward-curved beak for feeding on ground fruits and seeds.
Galápagos Fur Seal
Often confused with the plentiful Galapagos Sea Lions, the Galapagos Fur Seal is smaller and much less commonly seen. Their thick fur ranges in color from dark brown to light gray color, and males are much larger than females.
Much like Galapagos Penguins, these Fur Seals are experts in thermoregulation. Research has shown that these animals sweat if they get too hot, but they can control their body temperature by instinctively regulating the flow of blood to their flippers.
While the Sea Lions seem to love the water more than just about anything, Fur Seals diving their time on land and in water fairly equally. You won’t often see them on the sandy shores of Galapagos beaches, so look for them lazing about on rocks near the water.
The Galápagos Flamingo is the world’s smallest flamingo species.
With around 350 left in the wild, 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.
READ MORE: Exploring Santa Cruz & Espanola Islands
Also known as the Large-billed Flycatcher or Papamoscas, this beautiful bird is the smallest species in its genus. It’s also the only Flycatcher found in the islands.
It measures around 6 inches long, with a slight bushy crest and drab grey plumage offset by yellow bellies. They’re commonly seen on the main islands in the archipelago, living in tropical dry forests and arid scrub near cacti.
This is a bold, curious bird that’s known for perching on visitors and/or their cameras. Some experts believe they are attracted to the reflection of themselves in the lenses, believing it to be another bird.
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.
READ MORE: Exploring Genovesa & Fernandina Islands
Galapagos Hoary Bat
The Hoary Bat can be found widely throughout much of North and South America. But the ones you’ll see in the Galapagos are a disjunct population, which means they’re related but also separated.
It’s a fairly large bat, measuring up to 5.7 inches long, with a 15-inch wingspan. It’s named for its dense, dark brown coat of fur, which has frosty white tips on the hairs.
They usually roost alone on trees, hidden by foliage, but can occasionally be found in cave colonies with other bats.
The long-tailed, long-legged, long-beaked Galapagos Mockingbird is a relatively 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.
Galápagos Island Penguins are 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).
They regulate their body temperature by stretching out their flippers, avoiding the sun, panting and swimming in the islands’ cool waters.
READ MORE: Secrets to Swimming With Galapagos Penguins
Galápagos Pink Land Iguana
Situated on the north end of Isabela Island, Wolf Volcano is the area’s tallest peak (5,600 feet), and erupted in 2015 after 33 years of inactivity.
What’s most interesting about the volcano is the fact that the wildlife around it is incredibly unique. Not only from that of other islands in the archipelago, but from that of neighboring volcanoes on Isabela Island.
Among its most unique resident is the critically endangered Pink Land Iguana, which was first discovered in 1986 and identified as a distinct species in 2009.
With its pink body and dark stripes, this species is the only example of ancient diversification in the genus Conolophus (whose Latin name means “spiny crest”).
Galápagos Sea Lion
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 really 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.
READ MORE: Swimming with Galapagos Sea Lions Video
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 right over the feet of a fellow traveler on our latest trip without incident.
The prehistoric-looking Galapagos Tortoise can live over 150 years, and they’ve played an integral role in the history of the Galapagos Islands.
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 vividly colorful Land Iguana is arguably among my favorite animals of the Galapagos Islands.
Charles Darwin once 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.
READ MORE: 60 Weird Animals Around the World
Also known as the Dusky Gull, the Lava Gull is currently considered the rarest gull in the world, with an estimated 300-500 individuals left.
Part of the “hooded gull” group, it is most closely related to the Franklin’s Gull and Laughing Gull. It measures around 20 inches long and weighs 13 ounces, with dark grey wings whose white lined edges are believed to help with camouflage.
The highly territorial, solitary nesters are most commonly seen on the islands of Genovesa, Isabela, San Cristobal, and Santa Cruz.
This gorgeous grey-green guy, also known as the Galápagos heron, is one of the archipelago’s endemic bird species.
It was formerly lumped in with the Green Heron, and is considered by some experts (including BirdLife International) to be a subspecies of the Striated Heron. But it is officially considered a distinct species, Butorides sundevalli.
I had an excellent time watching this one on the shores of Fernandina Island as it stalked fish and Sally Lightfoot Crabs, spearing them with his sharp beak at lightning speed. They’ve also been known to eat flies buzzing around the islands’ cacti.
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.
The come in 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.
READ MORE: Exploring North Seymour & Bartolome Islands
The Magnificent Frigate is not endemic to the Galapagos, but it is one of its area’s most impressive inhabitants.
With bodies up to 45 inches long and a massive wingspan, they can usually be seen soaring aloft (often on wind currents created by boats), never touching the 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.
READ MORE: Exploring San Cristobal & Genovesa Islands
I’ve always thought that Marine Iguanas look like little Godzillas, hissing and sneezing in order to expel excess salt from their nasal glands.
They tend to be found huddling together in clumps to warm themselves on the lava rocks.
They vary greatly from island to island in terms of size and color. You’ll see everything from teal green males on Española to the brick red colors of the subspecies on Fernandina. There were so many iguanas there that you had to watch where you walked for fear of stepping on one!
But my favorite memory is of snorkeling the Galapagos, and seeing Marine Iguanas feeding on algae on rocks 20 feet below us.
READ MORE: Marine Iguanas of the Galapagos Video
Nazca Boobies, which were formerly known as Masked Boobies due to their distinctive facial markings, are known for committing siblicide.
They lay two eggs, but the oldest chick typically kills the youngest.
Here, the surviving offspring encourages his mom to regurgitate a meal of fresh fish, which they catch by diving into the water with incredible speed and velocity.
Endemic to every Galapagos Island except Española, the large Painted Locust can grow to nearly 3.5 inches long.
Their vivid colors– yellow, orange, red and black– are intensely attractive.
But they don’t help much in terms of preventing them from being a favorite snack among Galapagos Hawks and Lava Lizards.
The Galapagos Red Bat is a subspecies of the Southern Red Bat, which is found in North and South America. But where the Southern Red Bat migrates with the seasons, its Galapagos cousin is believed to remain relatively sedentary.
The Red Bat is the smallest of the Galapagos bat species, with rusty orange fur, red-frosted hindquarters, and a short, blunt head. They’re nocturnal, spending most of the day roosting under leaves in the forest.
At night they come out to hunt a variety of insects, including moths, flies, true bugs, beetles and cicadas.
Red-Footed Boobies are the smallest and most abundant of the three different booby species that are found in the Galapagos Islands. As you can see from the photo above, they come in both a white and brown morph, but both have the characteristic colored feet.
They typically nest in trees and shrubs on the outer-most islands, because they prefer to feed far out to sea. There, they make spectacular dives to prey on small fish or squid spotted on the water’s surface.
The best place to see them is near the horseshoe-shaped beach on Genovesa Island, which is aptly nicknamed “Bird Island” for the huge colonies you’ll find there.
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Sally Lightfoot Crab
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.
READ MORE: Exploring Isabela & Santiago Islands
These birds of prey are named for the tufts of feathers they have, which look a bit like the ears of mammals. The ears aren’t usually visible, as they’re displayed only when the owl strikes a defensive pose.
Measuring around 13-17 inches long, the Short-eared Owl boasts beautiful plumage, mottle tawny and brown with a barred tail and wings. Their flight pattern is oddly irregular, more like a moth or bat than other birds.
They’re most often seen in open country and grasslands. But our guide was delighted to spot this one resting in the crevice of a seaside cliff formation on the island of Genovesa.
The endemic Swallow-Tailed Gull is the only fully nocturnal seabird in the entire world.
Mating pairs of these beautiful birds will 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 Galapagos Waved Albatross is only found on Española Island.
Pairs usually 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 Allie Love, Bret Love & Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted
Our Galapagos Islands trip was sponsored by International Expeditions. But our opinions always remain our own, and we will never compromise our obligation of integrity to our readers.
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 International Expeditions and Zegrahm Expeditions.