One of the most extraordinary discoveries you’ll make in the Galápagos Islands is to interact with animals that are remarkably unperturbed by human presence.
The Galápagos’ most famous reptile, these massive, prehistoric-looking giants are among the longest-living vertebrates on earth, able to live for several hundred years and achieving sizes as great as 550 pounds. Find them lumbering about on the islands of Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristóbal.
Galápagos Sea Lion
Marine iguanas and sharks may be the first sea creatures divers and snorkelers seek out in the Galápagos, but curious sea lions quickly become a favorite, if only for the ways they surprise and delight us under the water. Widespread across the islands, snoozing sea lions and their barking pups are also common at the beach.
Male blue-footed boobies put their spectacularly colored feet to work during mating rituals, high-strutting and dazzling potential mates by showing off the bluest feet around. The Galápagos are home to half of all breeding pairs, and some of the best places to find them here are on Española, Genovesa and San Cristóbal islands.
The only penguin in the world to live in the tropics and north of the equator, the endangered Galápagos penguin has seen its numbers decline by 77 percent as a result of past El Niño weather patterns. Look for these tuxedoed birds, now with a population fewer than 2,000, on Fernandina and Bartolomé islands.
The closest you may come to swimming underwater with a Godzilla-like reptile, albeit in miniature, can only happen in the Galápagos. Described as “hideous looking” by Charles Darwin, the endemic marine iguana, a crusty black creature with a “wig” of white salt, is the only seagoing lizard in the world. Find them all across the archipelago.
Hammerheads are a common sight in the Galápagos — one of the last remaining places to see schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks — where these odd-looking predators use their panoramic vision to hunt for stingrays, crustaceans and smaller fish. Divers enjoy close encounters at Gordon Rocks near Santa Cruz, as well as Wolf and Darwin islands.
Of the 15 species of rays that inhabit the Galápagos, the Manta is the largest, with a “wingspan” that stretches up to 23 feet. Typically black on top with a white underbelly, these highly intelligent and graceful giants appear to soar through the sea while feeding on plankton. Spot them in Canal Bolívar, deep underwater channels and even from the beach on Rabida Island.
The largest of any bird on the Galápagos Islands with a wingspan approaching eight feet, the exquisite, critically endangered waved albatross only comes ashore — to Española Island — for one reason: to find a mate for life. To do this, the birds engage in an elaborate and somewhat wacky courtship dance that involves fencing and clattering with their beaks.
The only flightless sea bird on the planet apart from penguins, the flightless cormorant with its shocking blue eyes is endemic to the Galápagos, where roughly 1,000 pairs remain on Fernandina and Isabela islands. Adapted to dive for a diet of eels and octopuses, the flightless cormorant is highly vulnerable to a changing climate.
Orca (Killer Whale)
A brilliant hunter that can reach 80 years of age, the orca (or killer whale) is the largest species of dolphin. Found all around the world and travelling in familial pods, orcas are drawn to the Galápagos abundant populations of sea lions. They are often found where the pinnipeds frolic, especially in the Canal Bolívar between Isabela and Fernandina islands.
Galápagos Green Turtle
The endangered Galápagos green turtle frequently shows up along coastlines throughout the archipelago, offering ample opportunities to swim in safe proximity of this incredible creature. It is the only species of sea turtle to breed and nest in the Galápagos, with May being prime time to view newborn turtle hatchlings as they set out for the open sea.
Only some 500 of this unique species of flamingo — the largest of the world’s five — are found in the shallow, brackish lagoons that are unique to the Galápagos. Observe them just beyond the coast on Floreana and Isabela islands, where they filter-feed on brine shrimp packed with the carotenoids that bring on the bird’s beautiful pink coloring.