If wildlife is a big pull for you when you’re planning a holiday, then prepare to have your socks knocked off. Roughly 56 species call the Galapagos their home, and 27 of those can only be found on these islands.
Unlike other wildlife hotspots, such as The Amazon and some parts of Africa, what makes the Galapagos Islands really unique isn’t its wildlife diversity. Actually, it’s just the opposite. The Galapagos is a harsh, remote land, and the species that found their way here have survived by evolving to fit their environment.
It’s hard to believe that the flora and fauna that arrived at these islands by chance, had any hope of flourishing – and yet here they are. Although natural selection takes place all over the world, it’s most common and documented here. The Islands’ status is an evolutionary hub, thanks to the inspiration and work of naturalist Charles Darwin. Travellers often feel a genuine sense of wonder that such beautiful, unusual life exists here. And this is what makes the Galapagos so special.
Where you can see wildlife in the Galapagos
The Galapagos Islands are a twitcher’s paradise, so prepare to embrace your inner bird nerd. With easy access to the islands by air, is it any wonder that birdlife here is abundant and varied? Although most of the birds who make the Galapagos their home are based at sea and feed on fish, crabs, squid, and other marine life, there are lots of land-based birds too – with some amusing names to boot.
Galapagos sea birds
These whimsical birds are some of our favourite animals in the whole of the Galapagos. Not only do they sport the brightest feet here, but they’re pretty cheeky too. They’re not born with blue feet, but the colour develops as they mature. During mating season, the males do a fancy dance to attract the females. Imagine the equivalent of a Booby disco, where the men honk, hoot and generally show off to the ladies.
You might also see them ‘laughing,’ but this isn’t more flirting tactics. It’s actually a method they use to cool down when it’s hot, by opening their mouths and vibrating the skin on their neck. March is generally a good time to see them, and the chicks hatch in June-time.
The largest of the three Booby species is found in Floreana, Genovesa, and Espanola all year round. Not exclusive to Galapagos, they can be found in coastal regions of mainland South America and Central America, where they usually breed. Nazca Boobies are white with black feathers on their tails. The males have yellow or orange beaks, while the female’s beak is much lighter in colour.
The smallest of the Boobies, have distinctive, you’ve guessed it, red feet. They feed at sea, using their aerodynamic bodies to propel them deep into the water to catch a meal. Colonies can be found on Genovesa, Darwin, Wolf, Floreana and Punta Pitt on San Cristobal.
The Galapagos Penguin is the only penguin found north of the Equator. Like many of its wildlife neighbours, it has totally adapted to its environment, given the fact that it would normally live in arctic conditions.
Sadly, this little fella is now endangered. Not only are they the main prey for sea lions and sharks, but they’re also vulnerable to land predators, pollution and the effects of climate change. There are now just two thousand Galapagos Penguins left, with only six hundred breeding pairs. If you keep your eye peeled, you might spot them when you’re snorkelling. They’re super fast swimmers and are mainly found on and around Fernandina and Isabela island.
Espanola Island is where you can find these hefty, good-looking birds with their characteristic yellow bills. Graceful in the air, their huge wingspan comes into its own. They can reach a top speed of over sixty kilometres per hour and spend days out at sea, searching for food. On land? They’re slightly less graceful. Their size makes them a little awkward as they waddle about at a snail’s pace.
This rare avian takes its name from the wave-like patterns on its feathers and can live up to forty-five years. They disappear in January and return from April when they come to lay their eggs. They are monogamous and mate for life. Though sadly, they are also critically endangered.
There is something curious about these rose-coloured creatures. Not indigenous to the Islands, they’re popular with visitors, nonetheless. Because they’re very fussy about their meals – small crustaceans that live in salty lagoon water – there are only a few places you can find them. They live, nest and breed in the estuary areas on the islands of Floreana, Isabela, Santiago, Rabida and Santa Cruz.
The Magnificent Frigate bird of the Galapagos is unique in that it has its own genus – different to that of other frigates – meaning it hasn’t cross-bred for thousands of years. It’s a large seabird with dark feathers and a deeply forked tail which, alongside it’s two and a half meter wingspan, makes it easy to spot when it is airborne. The males also have a striking scarlet sac, that they inflate when trying to attract a mate. The female is slightly larger than the male and has a white breast and belly. Frigatebirds feed on fish from the surface of the sea and have been seen indulging in kleptoparasitism, which is as unpleasant as it sounds. They’re bullies in the Galapagos and are often seen harassing other birds; forcing them to regurgitate their food so they can eat it. They can be found on North Seymour, Floreana, Isabela, Genovesa and San Cristobal.
The Flightless Cormorant is one of the world’s rarest birds. With less than two thousand in existence, it’s the only cormorant that has lost its knack for flying. Thankfully though, it’s part of an ongoing conservation programme. This is another testament to how animals evolve on the Galapagos. Having no predators here has meant that it didn’t need to fly, so, over time, that skill disappeared.
Its wings are too short even if it wanted to fly away from the dogs and cats that now live here and act as predators for these ground-based birds. You can find the cormorants on Fernandina, as well as on the northern and western coasts of Isabela. Nesting tends to take place from July to October.
Galapagos land birds
Naturalists believe that the different types of finches found across the islands, all came from one common ancestor. Practical biology would tell us that this kind of genetic footprint doesn’t bode well in creating a healthy single species – let alone the thirteen that are found here. So, their evolution makes these tiny birds with their small pointy beaks, so fascinating. Some eat seeds, some insects, some feed on the ground, some on shrubs. Some look so similar that it takes a trained eye to tell them apart, while others look so different, it’s hard to believe they’re the same kind of bird. They’ve evolved to perfectly fit with their environment and not compete with one another.
Although his name will forever be associated with the finches, Charles Darwin was, at first, actually much more interested in the mockingbirds he came across.
There are four different species of mockingbird in the islands. Super smart, these birds are larger than finches and have grey and white feathers, a curved bill and long tail. Socially, they hang out in large groups and chase other birds from their turf. Their name comes from their ability to mimic other birds, but some can echo more human sounds too. The Española mockingbird has a nifty trick up its sleeve; it’s learned to ask humans for water and is the only one of its feathered friends to do so. But, as with all the animals here, it’s best not to encourage any kind of unnatural behaviour.
This wonderfully sweet owl is recognised by its tufts of feathers on its head, which looks a bit like ears. Keep your eyes peeled and you may be lucky enough to spot one, as they hunt during the day, rather than at night.
One of the top predators across the islands, this endemic hawk is pretty hardcore. It feeds on rats, mice and smaller birds and is capable of taking out a medium-sized iguana if they are hungry enough, or even a small tortoise. Gulp.
This pretty bird with striking blue eyes and distinctive red feet, can often be seen scurrying along the ground in brushy, rocky areas. They tend to be shy but if you hang out and lie low, there’s a good chance you’ll see them in the drier areas of land.
Its bill makes it look a bit of a bruiser and, controversially, it is not native to the Galapagos. This largish, blackbird arrived around half a century ago and there is an effort underway to eradicate it.
Take a peek at our wildlife itineraries in the Galapagos
Arriving somehow by accident, after what must have been some weeks at sea, the resilient reptiles that found a home on the Galapagos Islands must’ve thought they struck gold. It’s the perfect environment for lizards, iguanas, and tortoises. Thriving on the conditions, they’ve evolved in such a sophisticated way that they are now considered unique to these Islands. This is because they’re so different from the distant relatives that would have first landed here thousands of years ago.
Perhaps the most well known of all wildlife here, the Galapagos Giant Tortoise is hugely popular with visitors. The largest living species of tortoise, it can reach weights of over a whopping 400kg and nearly two metres in length. They can also live to well over one hundred years old – pretty resilient creatures! They’re very well matched to these lands, with plentiful vegetation and no predators.
You can see the Giant Tortoises in their natural habitat on the island highlands (generally on Santa Cruz). There are usually some there year-round, but the best time to see them is from June to December. The top places to guarantee a sighting is at any one of the three breeding stations. There’s one on San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Isabela Islands. On Santa Cruz in Puerto Ayora you’ll find them at the Charles Darwin Research Station.
Did you know?
The Charles Darwin Research Station was home to the most famous of all Galapagos Island Tortoises: ‘Lonesome George.’ George was the last surviving individual of the Pinta Island subspecies but sadly died in 2012, leaving that lineage extinct.
But in better news, a different subspecies thought to be extinct – the Fernandina giant tortoise – turned out to have some members of their gang intact after all. A 100-year-old female was actually found by very happy conservationists in 2019.
These guys look like something out of a Mad Max film with their gnarly textured skin and punk fringing. As a result, the Marine Iguana is one of the most striking and intriguing animals found on the islands. Adapting to the native ecology and resources, they look prehistoric, but are smart sea foragers and can swim down to fifteen meters to eat algae from underwater rocks. To warm themselves up you can find them sunbathing on the volcanic rock. They can be seen year-round at many Galapagos visitor sites. On Española you may also come across the “Christmas Iguana”, so named for its almost psychedelic red and green colouring. Mating season can vary but generally begins around November, egg-laying in February means baby iguanas towards the end of May. Not fluffy, but still cute and captivating.
Galapagos Land Iguana
These ancient herbivores are fairly large and can be spotted by their bright yellow colour and size – larger than the marine iguana. They tend to live more solitary lives and wander around the scrubland on the lookout for cactus which they have evolved to eat, spines and all. These prickly treats also provide a good source of water which can be scarce on land. They can be found on Fernandina, Isabela, Santa Cruz, North Seymour, Hood and South Plaza.
So not only are the Galapagos islands home to animals that are specially adapted to the environment, but the wildlife here often has a particularly beautiful feature or colour, that gives it something of an edge. The lava lizard is no exception. Females have flashes of red, making them a little more superhero than some of their relatives. They are plentiful on all of the islands and you’ll spot them hanging around on rocks or in the scrub, looking for an insect meal.
Other Galapagos reptiles
There is a species of land iguana known at the “pink iguana,” living in the highlands of Isabela: they’re unrelated to the regular, more common land iguanas found elsewhere.
There are also four types of snakes found in Galapagos, all of which are native and look mostly the same. Small, harmless brownish snakes. Shy constrictors, The Hood Racer is found only on Española, the Banded Galapagos snake is only on Fernandina, Isabela and Pinzon, the Striped Galapagos Snake is on Baltra,Seymour, Rabida, Santiago and Santa Cruz and the Galapagos Racer is on most of the islands.
Familiar to many travellers, you may also see geckos here, but most likely only in your hotel room.
While the land wildlife on the Galapagos Islands is pretty extraordinary, just wait until you see what’s under the waters that surround them.
The Galapagos Marine Reserve is fed by several ocean currents that supply the islands with either rich, arctic waters or warmer currents from the north. With this, comes food. Whales, sharks, fish, seahorses, manta rays and heaps of other creatures hang about in these waters to breed and feed on the crustaceans, plankton, and fish that populate the water thanks to these changing flows.
The Galapagos Islands are a world-class snorkelling and diving destination. So spending time in the water here is definitely one of our highlights.
Before strapping on a mask and snorkel, you’ll probably want to know what sort of fish you might encounter. Yet it’s almost impossible to say or predict as it varies throughout the year and in different locations. It’s estimated that there are nearly five hundred species of fish that inhabit or pass through these waters. However, there are some common fish that tend to be found in the relatively shallow, calm waters favoured by Galapagos snorkelers.
The King Angelfish is the only variety of angelfish found in the islands. It’s dazzling blue with orange/red fins and tail. You can also easily spot it by a long white stripe on its side. They live in monogamous pairs – ah, bless.
A very common tropical fish, the ubiquitous Sergeant-major is found at just about every snorkeling site in Galapagos.
They’re small, fairly rounded fish, often in large groups and easily identified by the military-style black stripes on their backs.
Parrotfish are long, colourful fish; often blue, green and orange. They feed on organisms that live in coral and have to crunch the coral up with their “beak” of a mouth – hence their name. In fact, you’ll probably hear a parrotfish munching on coral before you spy one.
This large Galapagos fish has an olive tinge about it and beautiful orange spots ringed in bright blue, which makes it easy to spot. Don’t be surprised to find one of these guys swimming playfully around you. They’re well-known for being friendly towards divers and snorkelers. With their knack for camouflage, they’re also fairly well hidden in very obvious locations.
This is one of the more dramatic and unusual-looking fish species. They’re grey with black speckles throughout and a vivid, neon yellow tail. They like to school along rocky reefs.
Also known as the yellow-bellied triggerfish, this reef species has a bony dorsal spine that cocks upward like a trigger when it is threatened. It can also be used to wedge itself into a rocky crevice to prevent predators from pulling it out. During the nesting season, you’ll have a good chance of spotting them out in the open.
Pacific Creole Fish/Five Spot Anthias
The Pacific Creole Fish is one of the Galapagos’ most common marine species. Look out for its distinctive white or dark spots lining its coppery pink skin back to its forked tail. They congregate in large groups to feed and end up being easy pickings for hungry boobies.
This distinctive fish has one of the most unique defense mechanisms in the ocean. Their scales hide porcupine quills that normally lay flat to allow them to swim efficiently through the water. When they’re frightened, they’ll “puff” into a sphere, transforming them into a spiky ball that’s pretty hard to swallow. Look for them around flat-bottomed areas.
Mola Mola or Ocean Sun Fish
These chaps look a bit like a childlike drawing of a face with a fin; a bit wonky but somehow endearing. Despite Mola Molas being the largest of the world’s bony fish – on average they can measure up to over four metres in height – they seem somehow unfinished, compared to some many sophisticated species here. They have a fused spine, rubbery skin (as opposed to scales) a short odd tail, and fused teeth. Often on a divers bucket list, keep your fingers crossed to spot these fish on the Islands of Fernandina and Punta Vicente Roca.
Galapagos or Red Lipped Batfish
This exotic creature always looks like it’s wearing lipstick for a night out under the sea with their pouty coloured lips. You’re more likely to find these if you’re scuba diving as opposed to snorkelling as they’re deep-sea fish and hang around at the 15-20m mark. They’re keen carnivores and use their adapted dorsal spine that secretes a chemical lure to attract prey. They also use their fins as bizarre imitation legs to amble across the ocean floor. And when they don’t fancy a walk, their fins are also adapted to let them “sit” on the sea bed. Pretty clever, eh?
Other marine wildlife
As well as the hundreds of fish species that call Galapagos home, there are heaps of other marine species often spotted by visitors, including sea turtles, sharks, rays, octopuses, crustaceans and more.
The Green Sea Turtle lives and breeds across the islands and is a fairly common sight for those in the water. They often feed on seaweed and algae in fairly shallow waters, close to the shore. Males never leave the sea, but females come ashore on beaches to nest and lay eggs from December to June. They can get quite large – almost as big as the famous Galapagos tortoises. You never know for sure where you’ll see one, but spotting sites include Rabida or Genovesa, Devil’s Crown and Bartholomew.
The waters that surround Wolf and Darwin islands are possibly the richest in the Galapagos Archipelago and are home to a wonderfully diverse array of marine species, particularly sharks. There are reportedly 34 shark species that live in or migrate through these waters, including the Galapagos whale shark.
The most commonly spotted is the White-tipped Reef Shark. About three to four metres in length, these guys are harmless and usually swim away from humans. They’re easy to identify by the white tips on their dorsal and tail fins – hence their name. You’ll see them in deeper waters at some of the top snorkelling spots, like the Devil’s Crown. There is also a small channel that fills up with them on Isabela Island, although there’s no snorkelling there.
The Galapagos shark – as you might have guessed from its name – is endemic, which means it can only be found here. It’s much less common than some of the other species, but you’ll have a better chance of spotting it near Puerto Egas.
The Scalloped Hammerhead can be found swimming in open ocean just along reef edges with drop-offs and walls. Their heads are known for having wide, rectangular structures with one eye and one nostril at the tip of each side. During breeding seasons, they offer a serious underwater wow factor, when you can see the school in numbers up to a thousand at a time. Incredible!
Did you know?
There are new “no-take” zone laws governing the Galapagos Marine Reserve. This means that any kind of harvesting from the sea is forbidden. This is particularly important for the near-extinct hammerhead shark and the whale shark. Most of the whale sharks that swim in this marine reserve are pregnant, so these islands are also a vital breeding ground for these animals.
Like sharks, rays are built from cartilage and use electroreceptors to find their food. In the Galapagos, there are four different sorts of rays that you may be lucky enough to see: Golden Cownose Ray, Stingray, Spotted Eagle Ray, and Manta Ray. It’s harder to pinpoint exactly where you can see them, as they are always on the move, so just keep your eyes peeled. Some of the smaller breeds like Stingrays will always be close to the seafloor or hiding under rocks, others like the Golden Cownose Ray are a dazzling golden shade and travel in groups so will be easier to find.
The Spotted Eagle rays are dark with white spots and are much larger, and the beautiful Manta Rays are impossible to miss being pretty enormous and feeding on plankton near the surface. They will often swim very close to people, swerving at the last moment. Hold your nerve for this epic experience. Nearly all rays are harmless and Stingrays only ever use their tail as a defense – not attack.
Take a peek at our wildlife itineraries in the Galapagos
More marine life to look out for
There are lots of other creatures in Galapagos waters. Keep watch for crabs, lobsters, octopuses and eels. Moray eels are especially common. And you may be visited by a Galapagos penguin around Bartholomew Island. Very fortunate snorkelers have even seen blue-footed boobies crashing into the water near them, as they dive to catch fish.
Some of the most amazing marine life lurks deeper underwater. So if it’s sharks you’re after then you’re much more likely to see them at Devil’s Crown. Guides are, of course, brilliant for spotting wildlife, so stick close. Octopus, for example, are extremely hard to see, as they blend into their environment. Your experienced guide may spot them more easily.
Sally Lightfoot Crabs
These beautiful brightly-coloured coastal scavengers, deserve a special mention. They’re rumoured to have been named after a Caribbean dancer, due to their agility in jumping from rock to rock, their ability to run in four directions and their capacity to climb up vertical slopes. This extreme agility makes them very difficult to catch, but very fun to watch.
Their diet of pretty much anything makes them an important part of the ecosystem, as they provide services such as keeping the shore clean of any organic debris and eating ticks off marine iguanas. Adult crabs are eye-popping indeed, with vivid blue and red colours on their shells, and a white or pale blue underbelly.
Other crabs that you might see here include Hermits and Ghost Crabs.
Galapagos Sea Lions
The smallest of the Sea Lion family, Galapagos Sea Lions are enchanting marine mammals, known as ‘Lobos Marinos’ or ‘sea wolves.’ The males have a bump on their head and are much larger than the females. If you’re lucky, some of the more curious ones will decide to play with you while you’re snorkelling. They like to swim towards you and turn away at the last moment. They’re mostly harmless, curious and fun, but, as with all wildlife, you should always keep a healthy distance.
Galápagos Sea Lions can make the longest, deepest dives of all their species. They can dive for over ten minutes and reach depths of almost 600m- that’s more than a third of a mile! Another example of smart adaptation, it’s thought this extreme diving ability, along with other traits, have enabled them to survive better in this environment where hunting productivity may be low and unpredictable. They can be found all across the archipelago. The best time to see them, however, is between June and November, when there are lots of adorable sea lion pups being looked over by watchful mothers. Seemingly endless in number, as well as spotting them underwater, you might also find them lounging around on benches in the towns too. Surprisingly, perhaps due to disease and climate events, they have been on the endangered list since around 2001.
Whales and Dolphins
While whale-watching in Galapagos is an all-year-round activity, it generally requires a bit of luck and is best in the cooler months of July to November.
Several species of whales and dolphins call the Galapagos their home. The whales most commonly spotted are the Bryde’s Whales, who like the channel between Isabela and Fernandina Islands. The Sperm Whale the largest of the toothed whales – also likes to hang out here. The male Sperm Whale can be almost three times as large as females and reaches around twelve meters in length, which is the same as a double-decker bus. Inside their giant heads – which is around the size of a car – they have the largest brains on earth. Sperm whales can dive deeper than a mile and hold their breath for two hours. Magnificent creatures! They particularly like to feast on squid but have even been known to eat sharks too.
Dolphins include the Common Dolphin, the Bottlenose Dolphin, the Risso’s Dolphin and the Striped Dolphin. The Bottlenose Dolphin is the one you’re most likely to see on a tour – especially around the islands of Bartolome and Española in July, August, and September. If your guide, captain or panga driver sees a whale or dolphin pod, they’ll usually try and bring visitors closer for a good look. But they should never chase the animals.
Unlike birds, most other mammals can’t fly, so they would have ended up in the Galapagos by complete chance. Today, many other more domestic mammals live in the Galapagos, such as goats, dogs, pigs, donkeys, and cows, which were all brought by humans. Sadly, all of these animals have had something of a devastating effect on the Galapagos’ ecosystem; eating birds and eggs, destroying habitats and interfering with local species. Lately, efforts to control them have been successful, with many domestic animals being removed altogether.
Galapagos Rice Rats
The endemic Galapagos rice rats have been hit hard by the accidental introduction of other rat species such as the black rat and brown rat when early ships visited the islands. This means it’s not likely that you’ll spot one today. However, vigorous preservation efforts are underway to save the species.
You’ll find two different species of bat in the Galapagos: the Hoary Bat and the Galapagos Bat. During the day, they nest in thick mangroves and are more commonly found on San Cristobal and Santa Cruz.
There are over one hundred and fifty species of spider found in Galapagos, over half of which are found nowhere else on Earth. Species include the Galapagos Black Widow (don’t worry, there’s no record of one biting a human here) and the Giant Huntsman (with a span of around 10cm) which can often be seen in hotels where they are welcomed as natural pest controllers. Yes, really. There’s also the Silver Aigrette – a web-building spider that can often be seen sitting in the middle of its web with its legs paired in the shape of an X.