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The 14 Most Unique Galapagos Animals

A Frigatebird in the Galapagos Islands.

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.

A Galapagos marine iguana sunning itself on Santiago Island.

Marine Iguana

“I am very anxious for the Galapagos Islands. I think both the geology and the zoology cannot fail to be very interesting.” – 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.

A pair of Blue-Footed Boobies nesting on Isabela Island.

The Blue-Footed Booby

“The natural history of this archipelago is very remarkable: it seems to be a little world within itself.” – Charles Darwin

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.

The 14 Most Unique Galapagos Animals

The most iconic of all the Galapagos animals:  The giant Galapagos tortoise on Isabela Island.

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.

Snorkeling with a Green Sea Turtle

The Green Sea Turtle

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.

A pair of giant Galapagos land iguanas on Isabela Island.

Land iguanas

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 most abundant of all Galapagos wildlife is the Marine Iguana.

The Marine Iguanas dot the landscape on many of the islands

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 sea lion pups in the Galapagos are surprisingly independent from a very young age.  We saw this one all alone on Genovesa Island.

Sea Lion Pup (cuteness overload)

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 playful sea lions in the Galapagos Islands would swim with us as we snorkeled.

Sea lions playing with us while we snorkeled

A Galapagos Fur Seal napping on Santiago Island.  The fur seal is one of the few Galapagos species that is fearful of humans.

Fur seal napping

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.

One of the most unique Galapagos animals is the rare Galapagos Penguin, the only penguin found north of the Equator.

The Galapagos Penguin

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 most colorful of all the animals of the Galapagos:  The Sally Lightfoot Crab.

Sally Lightfoot Crab

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.

The Flightless Flightless Cormorants are some of the most unusual of all Galapagos wildlife.

Flightless Cormorants

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.

Even though they don’t fly, cormorants 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.

A flightless cormorant diving underwater.

Flightless Cormorant diving underwater

A Frigatebird on Genovesa Island.

Frigatebird

Frigatebirds

The Magnificent Frigatebird and the Great Frigatebird make their homes in the Galapagos Islands. With their shining, iridescent feathers and red bellies, they’re a sight to behold.

We were fortunate to visit the Galapagos during mating season, so we got to see the mating ritual that frigatebirds are most known for. 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 saw the frigatebirds on a number of islands, but the most impressive displays were on Genovesa Island.

A male frigatebird in flight over Santa Cruz Island.

Frigatebird in flight

A Blue-Footed Booby perched on Isabela Island.

Blue-Footed Booby

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.

The heart-shaped mating dance of the Nazca Booby in the Galapagos Islands.

The mating dance of the Nazca Booby.

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.

Not as well known as the other boobies, the Red-Footed Booby is a clumsy bird.

Red-Footed Booby

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.

A pair of flamingos in the brackish waters of Santa Cruz Island of the Galapagos.

Flamingos

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.

“I never dreamed that islands about 50 or 60 miles apart, and most of them in sight of each other, formed of precisely the same rocks, placed under a quite similar climate, rising to a nearly equal height, would have been differently tenanted; but we shall soon see that this is the case. It is the fate of most voyagers, no sooner to discover what is most interesting in any locality, than they are hurried from it; but I ought, perhaps, to be thankful that I obtained sufficient materials to establish this most remarkable fact in the distribution of organic beings.” – Charles Darwin

A mother sea lion and her pup on Genovesa Island in the Galapagos.

The sea lion pup found her momma!

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What do you think about The 14 Most Unique Galapagos Animals?

  1. Shannon September 25, 2015 at 3:30 pm #

    I love this list! There are some pretty amazing creatures in the Galapagos, and while I was pretty excited to see the giant tortoise myself… those sea lions captured my heart. Suuuch cuties! I saw a few babies, too, but I love the photo of the one you saw. Adorbs. 🙂

    I couldn’t resist creating a few GIFs from some of our photos. I got a litlte shutter crazy, but that works just fine when you want to animate after the trip. Haha.

    Beautiful photos!

  2. Leigh October 9, 2015 at 12:27 pm #

    Great photos, especially the underwater ones! I love the diving bird! Galapagos is a truly unique, once in a lifetime opportunity – I loved it!

  3. Kristi Black December 15, 2015 at 4:11 pm #

    Thank you for sharing these beautiful photos and great insight on which islands to see these amazing animals! I am knee deep in planning our trip to Ecuador commencing in January 2016 and we definitely plan to spend about a week or so in the Galapagos. From what I’ve been looking at, we will likely fly from Quito to Puerto Ayora and then book a cruise from there. Did you enjoy sailing on the Beagle, would you recommend it to others? Also, did you go through a travel agency in Puerto Ayora, or did you book online? I wasn’t sure until reading this article which islands we should visit, but your article helped me immensely, thank you!

    • Lance Longwell December 15, 2015 at 10:20 pm #

      Thanks Kristi. There’s two ways to go: 1) You can book in advance and then your cruise will likely leave directly from Baltra/Puerto Ayora. If you do this, you can guarantee the boat you want. And this is what we did. 2) You can wait and fly into Puerto Ayora and book a last minute trip from there. We’ve had friends do this and they claim to have saved a ton of money. But you get almost no choices on the boats available.
      The Beagle is an older vessel. It will be going into dry dock soon, so confirm if it is even available. If we go back, we probably not do the Beagle again. I’d probably opt for a catamaran. In fact, we’ve just written a “how to pick a cruise in the Galapagos” post which will be publishing in a couple of weeks. We recommend checking back soon on that.
      We booked online in advance through the company Kuoda Travel, based in Peru. We’ve been on trips with them before and recommend them. They planned both our Ecuador land-based portion as well the Galapagos for us.

  4. fadiyah March 5, 2016 at 4:20 am #

    what a cute animal,, Frigatebird first time i see this animal. I wish to visit this wonderful place someday

  5. Carlos Soto September 12, 2017 at 2:44 pm #

    Hi,

    Nice to know that you have enjoyed your trip to Galápagos. I’m Ecuadorian and have been in the archipelago 3 times. Currently I’m designing a board game about preserving Galapagos wildlife, but still don’t have a name for it. What do you think would be a good name?

    Cheers,

    Carlos

    • Lance Longwell September 15, 2017 at 4:19 pm #

      Sorry. We’re not super creative that way and we don’t play a lot of games. Maybe “Darwin’s World.”

  6. Amanda October 16, 2017 at 2:22 pm #

    You saw so many animals! I am looking to plan a trip and can’t decide what time of year to go. What time of year did you go?

    • Laura Longwell October 16, 2017 at 9:46 pm #

      We were there in March because we wanted the warmer water. The good news is that there’s tons to see no matter when you go.

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