18 Galapagos Islands Animals You Can Actually See
Considered the foremost spot for wildlife viewing, Galapagos Islands hold an intricate ecosystem and a rich history. The archipelago is an exciting destination for naturalists and animal lovers because the animals in the Galapagos directly led Charles Darwin to come up with the theory of evolution after he visited it in 1835.
The island garnered international fame after being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 70s and has since accommodated hundreds and thousands of tourists yearly.
The Galapagos island is home to diverse species of animals, some of which do not exist outside the archipelago. This is because many animals evolved independently and carry unique characteristics endemic to the island. Here are 18 animals of Galapagos Islands you can actually see based on real travel experience:
Giant tortoises (20-25,000)
Long necks bearing signs of centuries, the Galapagos giant tortoise is a mighty sight to behold. The Galapagos island is home to the world’s largest tortoise species estimated to be 20,000 to 25,000 which is a shard drop compared to their numbers two centuries ago which was 100,000 to 200,000 tortoises.
The tortoises you will see here will be far more giant than anything you’ve seen before. The tortoises living on the Galapagos solely feed off the vegetation and live in their isolated environment. This allows them to have much better health than tortoises elsewhere, so many of them live longer than anywhere else.
“My favorite wildlife encounter on the Galapagos Islands was seeing the giant Galapagos tortoises in El Chato Tortoise Reserve,” says Marjut Jogisoo, a travel blogger from Smooth Escape. “Watching these gentle prehistoric-looking creatures peacefully roam around in their natural habitat was an unforgettable experience. As the reserve is home to many tortoises and the local guides know where to look for them, you can be 100% sure you’ll see them. A guided tour of the reserve costs only 10 USD, which is excellent value for money, especially if you’re visiting the Galapagos on a budget.”
Yellow land iguanas (4,000)
Those hoping to glimpse the evolutionary changes that inspired Darwin can find them in the Galapagos iguanas. The animal, though not unknown, is strikingly different from the lang iguanas that roam worldwide.
The Galapagos Islands have three land iguana species: Pale Land Iguana, Yellow Land Iguana, and Pink Iguana, the latter with only around 350 individuals.
Yellow land iguanas have a yellowish tint in their hide, and their sheer size overpowers non-endemic iguanas. They can mostly be found on Fernandina, Isabela, Santa Cruz, North Seymour, South Plaza, Santiago, and Baltra Islands. Their current population is around 4,000.
Marine iguanas (200-300,000)
An iguana scuttling from land into the ocean’s depths is an unusual sight, but its actions become even more special. This is because the Galapagos marine iguanas are the only species in the world that can dive into the water and feed on algae, a direct proof of the theory of evolution.
Marine iguanas are an exciting observation for biologists and animal lovers, but their unique appearance and distinct feeding habits make them a wonder to witness for everyone else. They can be found on Isabela, Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, and Fernandina Islands.
“I noticed that Iguanas are everywhere in the Galapagos! The land iguanas climb around on rocks and in the grass. The marine iguanas were along the beach, in the water, and on the rocks in the water. I also spotted the iguanas underwater while snorkeling, as they can hold their breath for a long time. It’s not uncommon to be swimming with them! Iguanas travel alone, but they also spend time together in groups, especially in shady areas near the water”, says Eleanor, a travel blogger from Elevate Your Escapes.
These turtles love to explore, so you’ll find them along many Galapagos islands, although they’ll typically crowd in Espanola and Santa Cruz Island.
Tourists are strictly forbidden from touching the turtles, but luckily, these soft-hearted species will easily approach tourists as long as they keep a healthy distance. This is a rare chance to observe the species up close and soak in their gentle, beautiful nature.
“When I visited the Galapagos Islands, I was so excited to see my first marine iguana or sea lion that I took dozens of blurry photos. By the end of the trip, I had seen so many that another couldn’t phase me. Sea turtles, on the other hand, never get old. They swim peacefully throughout the shallow water near shore or by rock formations. I was mesmerized by the green sea turtles in the lava tubes of Santa Cruz, where you can snorkel with these graceful animals for an unforgettable experience”, says Laura Blanford, a travel blogger from Hi Friends It’s Laura.
Sea lions (50,000)
If you love sea lions, you’ll be delighted to learn they are the most abundant mammals that walk the archipelago. The sea lions at the Galapagos islands are not shy creatures, so they will frequently hop out of the water, startling tourists.
Friendly and cheeky, these sea lions love to chase around people and nestle on the rocks to make it obvious they’re in charge. The Galapagos sea lions are one of the only animals that openly approach humans and even tempt them for petting. But do not give into their dreamy eyes because the interaction could affect their lifestyle.
“One of the easiest animals to see. After all, they are frequently spotted lazing around the piers of Puerto Ayora, especially the fish market. However, my most magical experience during my Galápagos trip was on a snorkeling trip to Santa Fé. As you enter the water at Barrington Bay, you are almost certain to encounter some of the local sea lions, frolicking around you in the water”, says Shandos Cleaver, a travel blogger from Travelnuity.
A natural anomaly, the gorgeous blue-footed boobies are the only creature in the world with blue-tinted feet. There are two more booby species live on the Galapagos Islands: Nazca Boobies and Red-footed Boobies.
“You always hear about the Galapagos islands’ unique animals that differ from other islands, such as visiting Mallorca. One of these is the Blue-Footed Booby. I am happy to report that you will see them in abundance as long as you go on an organized tour! We saw these adorable little birds on the side of all our walking paths! It is so hard not to smile when you see them – their blue feet are just so unique!” says Taylor Kiser, a travel blogger from Culture Craving Couple.
This delightful bird is only found surrounding the archipelago and other secluded spots of the Pacific Ocean, so it’s truly a rare sight. Despite being isolated, blue-footed boobies are pretty confident, especially during mating seasons showing off their vibrant feet to win over their mates. Sadly their numbers are declining, but among the many supporters there are two young brothers who plans to save this species by selling vibrant blue socks.
Galapagos hawk (150 pair)
Back home, seeing a hawk or a similar raptor soar to the sky against the blaring sun is a common sight. But at the Galapagos islands, seeing one in the day is a rare and unique experience because the Galapagos hawk is the only raptor species active during the day.
“As we trekked around Rabidia Island, our guide was quite excited when he spotted a juvenile Galapagos hawk circling around above us. This hawk is endemic to the Galapagos, but it is listed as endangered. It is thought that there are only 150 pairs left, so to see a baby was an encouraging sight. A hush came over our group as the hawk settled itself in a tree right near us and visited for a while. It was a magical moment as we sat and watched him in quiet appreciation. Definitely in the right place, at the right time”, says Kim Gervais, a travel blogger from Explore Your Bucket List.
The hawk stands out quickly because of their dark, intimidating plumage. Tourists are advised to keep their distance because while the hawks are shy, they are privy to defensive pecks, which can be injurious. They mainly feed on lizards and insects, so they might surprise tourists when they nosedive to the ground and immediately rise, leaving a dust storm in their wake.
Frigatebirds (several thousand)
Frigatebirds are large seabirds that are a unique sight to behold: their plumage is entirely black save for a bright red throat pouch, which is present solely in the male. Their pouch inflates when the birds chirp or intimidate predators, making it a fascinating sight during mating season. Several thousand pairs are estimated to breed on Galapagos Islands.
Frigatebirds’ intimidating looks speak for their tenacity to overpower others; with a swift dive, they can grab food from other birds’ beaks, showing their impressive appearance. This is also why they’re called frigatebirds; the word is derived from the French word La Fregate, matching them to ferocious warships.
Sally lightfoot crab
Tourists might confuse this creature for a patterned spider, but their long legs make the Sally Lightfoot Crabs a fast scuttler. They typically live near the shore where they can feed on smaller fish, but when not looking for a bite, they will dart across the jet-black volcanic rocks, making them easy to spot.
“Some of the creatures I was most excited to see on our Galapagos trip were the vivid red Sally Lightfoot Crabs. I’d researched the best places to spot them to ensure we had a good chance of seeing them. In reality, they’re everywhere, so I needn’t have worried. Most beaches we visited were flanked by rocks, and these were often carpeted with these crabs. We saw hundreds of them up close – it was one of the easiest wildlife-viewing experiences ever,” says Heather Cole, a travel blogger from Conversant Traveller.
These crabs have a light brown shell, with legs spotted in light red and yellow. Their unique coloration makes them an easy target for local birds, but they can dodge an attack with surprising swiftness.
Land animals in Galapagos are what most people think first, but the islands have a large marine reserve with just as many interesting species. The highest concentration of sharks in the world is here.
If you want to dive hundreds of protected hammerhead sharks, head to Galapagos Islands during January. You will easily identify them from the shape of their heads. Download the Sharkcount app from Galapagos Conservancy where you can see where is the best spot to dive.
“When we visited the Galapagos Islands in May, we stayed on Santa Cruz Island and got the chance to go on a few dives. We visited the dive sites of Gordan Rocks, Little Daphne, and North Seymore and were blown away by the wildlife we saw. The most memorable experience was at Gordon Rocks.” says Callie Flack a travel blogger from Counting Our Footsteps.
She continued: “As we held on to the rocks in the strong currents, we looked down and saw a group of around 15 Hammerhead sharks slowly swim past us. It is possible to see them all year round, but May is supposed to have some of the lowest chances, yet we still saw them. I can only imagine how incredible it is to go in January when there is the chance to see hundreds at a time. We were also lucky enough to see a couple of large eagle rays gracefully swim by us on the same dive. The Galapagos islands are known for being abundant all year round, and they did not disappoint.”
The brown pelican is found in several areas worldwide, but the species residing on the island is endemic. Their mousy brown plumage makes them a beautiful sight, but the best sighting is when they hunt.
The brown pelican nosedives into the water and grabs a large fish, which it often swallows in one go. While this hunting strategy is shared with pelicans, seeing it up close makes it an impressive sight.
Amazingly, the brown pelican isn’t shy, so it approaches humans frequently.
Flightless cormorants (1,000 pairs)
If you didn’t know flightless cormorants existed, this is because they only live on the Galapagos island. This alone makes them unique, but the exciting history makes them one of a kind.
The Galapagos cormorants evolved over centuries, changing their DNA structure so they’re born flightless. This is why the bird is seen scuttling across rocks.
Amazingly, their small flightless wings give them an edge while swimming; they’re much stronger and more efficient swimmers and hunters than flight cormorants.
There are an estimated 1,000 breeding pairs living in Isabela and Fernandina Islands.
Galapagos penguins (2,000)
The Galapagos islands are home to an exceptional species of penguins because they are the only ones found outside Antarctica and in closer areas. This fantastic feature is another testament to the theory of evolution; the Galapagos penguins evolved over centuries to bear warmer climates and, ironically, might not survive if they were to move to Antarctica. Luckily for penguin lovers, they are a common sight, especially if you are close to the shore. More than 90% of their population lives around Fernandina and Isabela Islands.
Galapagos fur seal
Galapagos fur seals are the only subspecies to adapt to warmer climates. Their thick fur doesn’t affect their time in the warm ocean, so they often splash around.
Their adorable eyes hide a cheeky and slightly aggressive behavior, the latter observable when they hunt for fish or occasionally fight each other.
Fur seals are often spotted tanning on the rocks close to the shore. Depending on where you see them, they might warm up to strangers.
These unique birds are the direct cause behind Darwin’s theories. Those interested in learning about their unique characteristics will be able to do so from a single glance.
Darwin’s finches are 13 finch species, each distinct from the other, although closely related.
Darwin’s finches drastically differ from finches worldwide because their beaks have evolved to suit the island’s isolated environment. They also adapted to their food preference, so finches that feed on nuts and hard-shelled foods have blunt beaks, while those eating insects have flatter, longer beaks.
Bird watchers have a field day spotting Darwin’s finches, but animal lovers and naturalists enjoy the sight too.
The Vermillion flycatcher, also called Darwin’s flycatcher, is one of the easiest birds to watch, thanks to its distinct bright red plumage. The back of the vermillion flycatcher’s plumage is deep black, making it even more mesmerizing.
The vermillion flycatcher is endemic to the Galapagos islands, so bird watchers might utilize the rare opportunity. It is easier to spot when hunting because it feeds on insects and worms, so the vermillion flycatcher will roam the grounds as much as the skies.
Most tourists are lucky enough to capture the bird’s stunning beauty on camera, but once it realizes it’s being watched, it takes flight high up in the trees.
Many islands in the Galapagos archipelago come alive with the warbles of the six subspecies of mockingbirds that live there.
The Galapagos mockingbirds are omnivores, so they will swoop in on an insect and pluck it from the ground or even go for the smaller rodents running around the island.
Those hoping to interact with the birds will be delighted. Despite living on these isolated islands, the Galapagos mockingbirds are among the few species that are not shy of humans and willingly approach them. However, do not feed them anything because they’re used to a specific diet, and changes could affect their lifestyle.
A bright yellow glint that quickly flutters by, the yellow warbler might be confused for the rays of sunshine that typically peek through the trees. Although not endemic to the Galapagos, the species that strictly stays here has evolved.
The Galapagos yellow warblers are easy to spot once you focus on their tweets, a sweet, low-sounding melody that echoes in the skies.
Yellow warblers may or may not approach tourists, but it’s best to give them space so you can observe them at their finest.
Best places to see Galapagos animals
Island hopping in the Galapagos is an ideal way to see the animals. However, some of the 13 Galapagos islands offer better chances of seeing the wildlife. Some animals can be seen in multiple Galapagos Islands, while others may be populated on a specific island.
It is home to multiple Galapagos animals, but you will find most of the marine iguanas resting here. Fernandina Island is also where you will spot the flightless cormorants.
Isabela Island and Bartolome Island
If you are a penguin lover, then these islands are perfect for you. However, you might have to choose one or the other because they are two hours apart. Unless you are fine with making the trip.
Espanola Island and Gardner Bay
It is one of the most isolated in the Galapagos, so you will find plenty of wildlife, most of which is endemic. A part of Espanola island, Gardner Bay, is where you will find fur seals and green turtles in abundance.
This island is home to countless wildlife, but you will find blue-footed boobies, Galapagos mockingbirds, and Galapagos hawks here.
The Vermillion flycatcher is endemic to Floreana Island.
Genovesa or Tower Island is ideal for bird lovers because they will find the short-eared owl, Galapagos petrel, and frigatebirds here.
South Plaza and Santa Fe Islands
The Galapagos land iguanas frequently roam South Plaza Island and Santa Fe Island.
San Cristobal Island
For tortoise lovers, San Cristobal Island is the perfect spot to spot giant tortoises.
Santa Cruz Island
You can also head to Santa Cruz Island to see giant tortoises. The yellow warbler is also a frequent dweller here.
North Seymour Island
Blue-footed boobies and frigatebirds surround North Seymour Island.
WHERE TO STAY – The most sustainable eco-lodge you can find in the Galapagos Islands is Pikaia Lodge. It is on Santa Cruz Island.
Best time to visit Galapagos
You can visit the Galapagos any time of the year because of its diverse wildlife. However, some tourists are interested in specific animals, so they might benefit from visiting in particular months. Animal observation will depend on the breeding/nesting season, so it is best to confirm with a tour guide to plan your trip.
The ideal time to visit the Galapagos Islands if you are keen on bird-watching is between April to July. This is when you will spot albatrosses, blue-footed boobies, petrels, and frigatebirds.
Marine animals are typically visible year-round, but those hoping to witness nesting can visit between December through March.
Land animals are present year-round, so you can visit the Galapagos anytime to get a glimpse.
How to be an eco-tourist in Galapagos?
You must remember the animals at Galapagos stand out from the rest because of their unique and fragile ecosystem. You should not forget these animals deserve respect and protection. There are many ways to act like a true eco-tourist. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Do not indulge in activities or behaviors that could harm the animals and their well-being. Many species are endangered, so it is important to let them roam around safely.
- Respect their boundaries. It is important to remember these animals are isolated from the rest of the world, so they will not open up to visitors. Most animals will be too shy to appear if you are being disruptive. It is essential to follow the tour guide’s instructions.
- Do not step outside the path or leave anything behind. Minimize your footprint while you are there to keep these wonderful places intact for the future.
Please note that the breeding seasons for animals vary, so you might have to witness some animals in courtship. While this can be an exciting sight for many, parents are advised to confirm with their tour guide if they do not want to expose their children to such displays of affection.
More animals to see around the world
Emese Maczko is a travel blogger behind Eco Lodges Anywhere. Having explored several destinations around Europe, the US, Indonesia, and Australia, and resided in Germany, the United Kingdom, and Luxembourg, Emese possesses a keen understanding of diverse cultures and an appreciation for the beauty of each destination she visits. She advocates for sustainable travel and ecotourism.