For many travelers, the remote Galapagos Islands represent a pinnacle on their bucket lists. It’s a destination so remote that travelers dream for years to visit. At least it was that way for us. After years of hoping and planning, our own adventure was at hand. While the islands themselves are individually beautiful, it is really the animals of the Galapagos that we wanted to see – the wildlife that first inspired Charles Darwin.
It was on this remote archipelago that Charles Darwin first observed differences between various bird species. He noted how the Galapagos wildlife, particularly the birds, were so similar, yet so different to other species he was accustomed to. This led to theories on transmutation of animals and eventually the theory of evolution. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Like Darwin, we arrived in the Galapagos on the Beagle (our M/S Beagle to his HMS Beagle). Having recently been on safari in South Africa, we thought we knew what to expect in terms of proximity to the animals in the Galapagos Islands. We were wrong. Because of the tremendous isolation of the islands, the Galapagos animals are unafraid of people. They can be as curious about you as you are about them. There were times when we had to literally step over animals to get where we were going.
Here is our list of the 14 most unique Galapagos animals:
The Galapagos Tortoise: If you ask most visitors to the Galapagos, they would say that the animal they most want to see is the giant Galapagos tortoise. These majestic giants were almost hunted to extinction. Through efforts at Charles Darwin Research Station and the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center on Isabela Island, the tortoises are back. While all visitors can see the tortoises at the breeding centers, we were fortunate to see several giant Galapagos tortoises on Isabela Island in their natural habitats. They were as curious about us as we were about them.
The Galapagos Green Sea Turtle: Coming to Ecuador, the top item on Laura’s list was the Green sea turtle. She had never seen a sea turtle in the wild. She was not disappointed! We saw Green sea turtles at almost every single one of our snorkels, particularly at Punta Vicente Roca on Isabela Island where there were so many turtles you could almost walk across the small cove without getting your feet wet.
The Galapagos Land Iguana: The giant Galapagos land iguana is completely unique to the islands. They can grow to almost six feet long and can move remarkably fast. The iguanas are threatened and have been hunted to extinction on several islands. Unlike the abundance of marine iguanas, we only encountered the land iguanas twice, both times on Isabela Island.
The Marine Iguana: Unique among reptiles, the black and gray marine iguanas actually swim into the sea to and eat the red algae. We encountered the marine iguana in the ocean and they were kind of spooky. One swam straight at Laura and startled her. On land, the marine iguanas are so plentiful that we literally had to step over them to get where we were going.
The Galapagos Sea Lions: We were in the Galapagos at the time when all the pups were being born. We got to see lots of real cute little sea lions, particularly on Genovesa Island.
The Galapagos Fur Seal: These endangered seals were nearly hunted to extinction, which has resulted in them being one of the few species that is fearful of humans. We spent an hour with the colony on Santiago Island. We found that if we were really quiet and stayed far enough away them, they would tolerate our presence.
The Galapagos Penguin: The Galapagos penguin is the only penguin that naturally lives north of the Equator. They are an endangered species and are very rare to see. We were fortunate enough to spot several of them at Punta Vicente Roca on Isabela Island.
The Sally Lightfoot Crab: Our pick for the most colorful animal in the Galapagos is the Sally Lightfoot crab. These bright red and yellow crabs crawl over the black lava rocks, which makes for great photos. We found these crabs on nearly every island we visited.
Flightless Cormorants: The flightless cormorant has evolved by losing the ability to fly. The bird instead swims on the surface like a duck, dives under the water to catch fish and then comes up to waddle onto land. However, the bird still curiously spreads its stubby wings to dry them in the sun (just like other cormorants) when it comes on land. Once considered an endangered species, we saw lots of them on Fernandina Island and were extremely impressed with how quickly these birds could dive under the water.
Frigatebirds: The Magnificent Frigatebird and the Great Frigatebird make their homes in the Galapagos Islands. We were fortunate to be there during mating season. The males perch themselves on bushes and tree branches, inflate their bright red gular sac and make a loud warbling sound designed to attract the females that are flying overhead. It is one of the most impressive mating displays in the natural world. We were able to see the frigatebirds on a number of islands, but the most impressive displays were on Genovesa Island.
Blue-Footed Booby: The butt of many jokes, the blue-footed booby is named for its bright blue feet. We were in the Galapagos during mating season, but didn’t get the see the blue-footed booby dance. We did witness “sky-pointing” where the male points up into the sky to attract females. While the booby is located throughout the islands, we saw the largest concentration on Isabela Island.
Nazca Booby: The mating dance for the Nazca booby involves the male and the female bobbing their heads beside each other. From a distance, the display creates a heart shape between the two birds. Maybe this is where “love birds” comes from. We saw Nazca bobbies on almost every island of the Galapagos, but they were most populous on Genovesa Island.
Red-Footed Booby: Similar to other boobies, we noticed that the red-footed boobies were a bit clumsy. We saw one come in on landing and go tumbling on the lava landscape of Genovesa Island.
Flamingo: The flamingo is one of the most elusive of the Galapagos bird species and is one of the few animal species that takes notice of human presence. We were fortunate to see them several times on the trip, especially on Santa Cruz Island.