No matter where you are going, when you travel, the focus always is on what you will be seeing. You may prefer city breaks or nature holidays, but whatever your preference usually is, a holiday in the Galapagos is sure to conquer your heart. From its pristine landscapes to its unique wildlife, and remote location – it is difficult not to fall in love with it all.
The Galapagos is so rich in natural beauty, and there will never be enough time to see everything in one go. Before landing in the Galapagos and exploring the islands, you should inform yourself about all the different options available on the islands, so that you can better prioritise what you would like to see and do. Our Galapagos Travel Specialists will be able to help you create the most incredible Galapagos holiday, truly individual to you.
All that said, are you ready to start digging into all the Galapagos' wonders?
Galapagos Tortoises have a lifespan of over 100 years and are among the most famous animals on the islands. The islands themselves take their name from the animal, 'galápago' being the 16th-century Spanish word for tortoise. They can be found throughout the archipelago and can weigh up to 417 kgs in the case of one tortoise aptly named Goliath. You can view different tortoise populations on each island; each community features a different size, shape and shell. The tortoises inhabit most of the islands in the Galapagos, but the largest populations live in Santa Cruz's highlands and on Alcedo Volcano on Isabela island. San Cristóbal, Santiago, Española and Pinzón are among our favourite spots to view them in their natural environment. With the death of Lonesome George and the extinction of the Pinta Island tortoise in 2012, there are just ten species of Giant Tortoise left in the Galapagos.
When in the Galapagos another animal that you will keep crossing paths with is the Galapagos land iguana. These can be found on the central and western islands, excluding the endemic Santa Fé land iguana, which can naturally only be seen in Santa Fé island. Even though Charles Darwin 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”, not everyone agrees, and tourists are always happy to take a few snaps of these peculiar looking animals. Another interesting fact about of this land iguanas is that they share a symbiotic relationship with the islands’ birds, who find a food source in the parasites that live on the iguanas’ skin. You will also almost always find them near prickly-pear cacti as this plant makes up about 80% of the iguanas' diet, it also serves as their primary source of moisture, as water is a scarce resource on the islands. This changes slightly in the rainy season when iguanas find water in the standing pools that form around the islands. Other than the cacti, you might also find Galapagos land iguanas eating fruits, flowers, pads, or even spines. Like the Giant Tortoises, the land iguanas live the longest, with lifespans of 50 to 60 years old.
These fierce looking animals are probably one of the most peculiar creatures in the entire archipelago. Even though they may not seem like the friendliest of animals, they have a calm demeanour and are known as 'gentle herbivores'. Marine iguanas mainly feed on algae and seaweed in the shallow waters around the island. If you are not sure why they look the way they do, know that everything about their appearance comes with a specific purpose. Their short and pointy snouts and their sharp teeth, help them to pull algae off rocks; while their long, razor-sharp claws, help them to latch on to a surface and avoid being swept out to sea during rougher weather. Their colour pattern is also not by chance, in fact, the black/dark grey of their bodies is what helps them better absorb sunlight after coming out of the cold Galapagos waters. But their peculiar traits don't end here, and it is also extraordinary what their bodies can do on the inside. They have special glands that are responsible for cleansing their blood from extra salt absorbed while feeding. Even though as many as 300,000 marine iguanas live in the Galapagos, this species is threatened, by many non-native predators like rats, cats and dogs who will feed on their eggs and young. Their lifespan is also not the longest when compared to their cousin land iguanas, as marine iguanas usually reach no longer than 5 to 12 years old. Last but not least, you can find the largest colony of this strange looking, but fascinating animals on Fernandina island.
'Darwin’s finches' refers to a group of 15 different species of small birds, each featuring similar body type and colouring, but completely different beaks. Obviously, it is not by chance that they are called 'Darwin’s finches' as this bird species was first collected by Charles Darwin on the Galapagos Islands during the second voyage of the Beagle. Darwin was highly fascinated by these birds as they helped him develop his natural selection theory. Darwin speculated that the 13 species of these cute little birds had evolved from a single species on the mainland, providing him with all necessary information that led to his breakthrough. This makes it fair to say that you cannot be in the Galapagos and forget about these small little birds. You can find them throughout the islands, excluding some species, which are restricted to certain parts of the archipelago. When you see them don't forget to capture the moment as you will want to remember it later.
These large, dark coloured seabirds have very long, pointed wings, forked tails, short legs, and their feet are connected by a membrane. When the males are breeding they have a bright red gular pouch which inflates when they are trying to impress a female. Their beaks are long and hook-tipped and they are known to be clumsy on land. When they attempt to take off they have to run downhill to start flying. They are also not able to land on water as they do not have the oil-secreting gland which is responsible for keeping seabirds feathers dry while they are in the water. Because of this, they have to soar for days or even weeks while picking food from the surface of the sea. Still, what they lack in swimming abilities, they make up for in their parenting skills. These nomadic birds are devoted parents who lay one single egg per mating season. They are also known for being monogamous as they have to care for their offspring for much longer than other bird species do. While you are in the Galapagos, you will be able to see them throughout. An interesting fact about this birds is that they often ride the front of a weather system, so if you ever witness a sudden influx of frigatebirds, this can mean that a storm is on its way.
Even though the most famous of the booby species is the blue-footed one, there are several more variations of this bird present on the islands. The name “booby” comes from the Spanish word 'bobo', which means “clown” or “fool.” They were given this name years and years ago when the Spanish explores saw them waddling clumsily on land, and used the word “bobo” to describe their movements. Truth is blue-footed boobies have developed an elaborate courtship ritual in which the male dances for the female in a somewhat funny and clumsy way. If you happen to be one of the lucky ones who is able to witness their mating dance, then you will understand that their funny and clumsy ways, are quite endearing. Another interesting fact about this blue-footed birds is that they usually lay their eggs in small groups on the ground and defecate all around them to make their nests. When their offspring is born, they use their large, webbed feet to cover the young and to keep them warm and protected. This is all done by both male and female and the pair usually cares for one or three blue eggs at a time. If it happens that the food is not enough for the entire offspring, one of the chicks becomes dominant as they grow and takes all the food leaving the weaker ones to starve. When on the islands if you spot blue-footed boobies you won't be able to distinguish the males from the females as they are almost identical. Ask your guide for some help and he will be able to identify them for you. Last but not least, baby blue-footed boobies have very fluffy feathers and often seem larger than their parents when they are actually not.
The Flightless Cormorants (or also known as Galapagos Cormorants) are one of the rarest birds in the world as they are fewer than 2,000 of them in total. As their name suggests, these birds lack the ability to fly. If you wonder why the answer is simple – this species is endemic to the Galapagos and has evolved in isolation. Since the islands offer lots of food and no predators, the ability to fly in these birds, has become irrelevant as they don't have anything to escape from predators. Excluding their inability to fly, these animals have kept all the other common bird-like features such as a beak, feather, and the same cardiovascular system. As they usually feed in the sea, they also have developed a sleek body for diving as well as wide, webbed feet, that enable them to swim and search for food under water. They usually feed near the bottom and no more than 100 metres offshore. They are also known for their unusual appearance which features long hooked beaks, and beautiful turquoise coloured eyes. The males are usually bigger than the females but other than that both are similar. The youngsters tend to be similar to the parents and the only differences are their glossy black as well as black coloured eyes. To see this animal's breeding, you will have to head to Fernandina or Isabela islands as they can't be found anywhere else in the Galapagos.
Sally Lightfoot crabs (also known as the red rock crabs) are a feast for the eye. They are among the most colourful inhabitants of the Galapagos and also some of the most famous. Their name definitely helps their fame and if you are wondering where it comes from know that its origin is still in debate. Some say that this colourful and agile crab has been named after a Caribbean dancer, which is not surprising, as the Sally Lightfoot crab can run fast, leap, jump, and pretty much avoid any predators that comes their way. While others believe that the name comes from the simple fact that these crabs are light on their feet. Still, you don't to be able to agree on any of this to appreciate these beautiful Galapagos creatures. Their colour scheme is stunning and ranges from dark red to bright orange (sometimes nearly brown), and also have an underside that can be light yellow, white, blue, or in some cases a mixture of all three colours. When you see them, you might want to try to grab one, but this will be nearly impossible as they are extremely quick and agile at the slightest “threat” or danger. This characteristic has given them the title of one of the fastest crabs in the world. Another curious fact about these crabs is that they maintain a symbiosis relationship with marine iguanas. Don't get surprised if you ever see these two animals together - the sally lightfoot crab will be eating the iguana's skin parasites as well as any dead skin, while the iguana will be enjoying a little exfoliating treat. It's a win-win!
The waved albatross is the biggest seabird on the archipelago with an impressive wingspan of 2.5 meters. Known as the great fliers, these birds migrate and tend to split their time between the South American coast, where they hunt for food, and in the Galápagos, where they spend their breeding season, from April to December. One of the most impressive characteristics of the waved albatrosses is that they can fly for hours. This is possible due to a phenomenon called 'dynamic soaring' that enables albatrosses to travel for many thousands of miles while using very little energy. This way they can fly very long distances without tiring. Once in the Galapagos, they will engage in lovely mating rituals that consist of mimicking each other. They are also one of the few birds that mate for life. To see them breeding, you will have to head to Punta Espinosa in Espanola. As there fewer than 35,000 left in the wild, the waved albatross is usually quite hard to spot. This, however, completely changes when you are in the Galapagos. You will be able not only to see one but several of them!
The Galapagos penguins are the smallest of the banded penguins, and they have no subspecies. They live mainly in the westernmost islands such as Pinnacle Rock, or Bartolomé, but usually breed on Isabela and Fernandina islands. The biggest population of Galapagos penguins can be found in Tagus Cove in Isabela island, where find them surrounded by huge rocky shores with cavity formations that provide them with shelter and protection from the sunlight. These small penguins are very easily recognisable as they have mostly black feathers all over their bodies, except for some white marks, sometimes on their face, beak, or chest. They sedentary species so they won't be going on adventures too further away from their usual habitat. Their young have dark grey or dark brown plumage on the back and white on the chest and belly and won't be having any white marks up until they reach adulthood. Lastly, some of the Galapagos penguins go through a period of moulting twice a year. This period usually begins two to four weeks before the actual moulting so that they can increase their body weight a few grams. The most curious part of this period is that in total, the actual moulting process only takes 13 to 15 days, but during this time they can lose up to 40% of their body mass.
Galapagos sea lions are a favourite among tourists and for good reason. These sweet looking creatures are probably the friendliest species in the entire Galapagos islands. They are known for their curious personality and positive attitude towards humans, making them completely unafraid of tourists and easy to interact with. This is mainly due to Galapagos sea lions being an endemic creature that has no predators other than sharks, killer whales or dogs, and therefore with no reason to be afraid of humans. In terms of appearance when dry they tend to be brown coloured some shades of grey. The males are generally bigger than the females and also have a distinctive bump on their foreheads. Their young are usually dark brown and as they grow their colour will also change into a lighter shade of brown, sometimes, even into a tan. All sea lion pups stay in shallow water until they are around five months old waiting for their parents to bring the food. They won't mature until they are 4 or 5 years old, so at 12 or 24 months they are only half independent. Because of this, it is very common for the mother to continue nursing them till she has another pup (sometimes even till after that). Sea lions are definitely a must on the islands so make sure not to miss on your Galapagos trip. They can be found throughout the archipelago, but one of the best places to snorkel with them is Santa Fe islands where the waters are the calmest. If you are travelling with children, this will be a guaranteed highlight for them.
If you want to see some Galapagos fur seals, all you need to do is head over to Santiago as this is the best place in the entire archipelago for you to view them up close. These animals spend most of their time on land so it should be easy to spot them once you are on the island. They only go to the water when they need to feed (they eat mainly fish and molluscs), but in breeding season the fur seals can stay hours without going into the water so that they can better defend their territory. Galapagos fur seals are also known to be polygynous so a single male can be found defending a group of females and establishing his dominance over other males. The breeding period goes from August to November. Females will usually give birth to a single pup at a time. These seals also have the lowest reproductive rate within their species which is being caused by sibling rivalry. At 6 months the youngsters will begin their first sea experiences but will only become independent at the age of 2 or 3 years old. Females and males also mature differently, while females will become sexually mature at 3 to 5 years, males only reach sexual maturity at 7 to 10 years. When looking for them you will recognise them immediately by their fur, tanned on the stomach, mouth and ears; and grey in all the rest. Male and females can be distinguished by their fur, as male seals tend to have a mane of slightly longer hairs from the top of the head to their shoulders. In general, the Galapagos fur seals also stand out due to their short, pointed muzzle and small, button-like nose.
The Charles Darwin Research Station is another big attraction of the Galapagos and a must do, especially, if you have an interest in science. Here you will be able to learn more about Charles Darwin's observations as well as understand how his work continues on the islands today. The Research Station is located in Santa Cruz island and during your visit here you will be seeing lots of tortoises as well as all the different stages of their growth starting with the unhatched eggs all the way till the moment they are fully grown adults. You will also be hearing more about Lonesome George who is a famous tortoise known for being the face of the Galapagos Islands as well as conservation symbol all over the world.
Unfortunately, you won't be able to see him anymore as Lonesome George was the only known living individual from his specific subspecies until his death in 2012. At the research station, you will also be learning more about the efforts to preserve the unique species. Giant Tortoises are not all that you will find at the research station as you will also be able to see Galapagos Land Iguanas. Contrary to what you might think, the first land iguanas that came to the centre were the result of a rescue done back in the 1970's. At the time the Research Station rescued about 60 survivors to rebuild their population. From that moment on an iguana breeding program was initiated, and it has been so successful that it is still active to this day.
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