As a devout nature-lover, the Galapagos Islands had been on my travel bucket list for years before I finally took a week-long, small ship eco-cruise through the archipelago. Made famous by Charles Darwin (who concocted his Theory of Evolution based on his groundbreaking scientific discoveries there), the chain of islands is located 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, and 97.5% of their land is devoted to a national park. As a result, the remarkably bio-diverse ecosystems feature a vast array of wildlife that seem to have no fear of humans.
Here are just a few of the incredible animals you might see while on a Galapagos Islands tour.
A tour of the island of Genovesa introduced us to a stunning variety of birds, from Galapagos doves and tiger herons to Nazca boobies, red-footed boobies and magnificent frigates. The myriad species all seemed to coexist peacefully– often within a few yards of each other– and many (like this lava gull) had baby birds in tow.
While visiting Fernandina Island, we got our first glimpse of marine iguanas, which Darwin referred to as “imps of darkness.” It was incredible to see hundreds sunning themselves along the lava-strewn shores. To me, they looked like little Godzillas, hissing and sneezing (to expel excess salt from their nasal glands) and cluttering en masse.
Sea Lions are everywhere in the Galapagos, from the docks and public parks to every beach in the archipelago. On land they seem awkward, but in the water they’re playful and curious, with a surprisingly graceful elegance. This little fella was our favorite, posing as if to invite a hug (despite the rule that demands visitors stay six feet from all wildlife).
Among the most rare bird species in the world, flightless cormorants have rebounded from near-extinction thanks to conservation efforts. We were privileged to witness a rare mating dance between this pair on Fernandina. They circled one another in an elegant courting waltz, shaking their heads dramatically as two other females tried to cut in on the action.
Sally Lightfoot Crabs (a.k.a. red rock crabs), one of the most ubiquitous and colorful species in the Galapagos, live among the rocks by the shore. Though they mainly feed on algae, they’ve also been reported symbiotically eating ticks from the bodies of marine iguanas.
We were a little obsessed with the boobies, not only because their name is fun to say but also because of the crazy colors of their feet. This pair of blue-footed boobies on North Seymour Island is engaging in a mating ritual, with the male “sky pointing” as the female parades to show off her fancy footwork.
As impressive as the sights on land were, there are also amazing wonders to behold in Galapagos waters. Penguins dashed and darted amongst the waves of Tagus Cove; sea turtles feasted on vast schools of medusa jellyfish; seven white-tipped reef sharks congregated in a shallow cove. After a memorable week of snorkeling in the Galapagos, we found ourselves regretting our need to come up for air.
There are many different types of lizards and iguanas in the Galapagos, but the vibrant red, yellow and orange hues of North Seymour’s land iguanas made them my favorite. They looked like a wacky cross between Godzilla and Pikachu, and this one’s curved mouth almost made him appear as if he was smiling.
We’d seen frigates nesting near the ground on Genovesa, and hovering in the air nearly everywhere we went in the Galapagos. But it wasn’t until we explored North Seymour that we finally saw the brilliant red inflated pouches of magnificent frigate birds hoping to impress potential mates. The tiny black feathers sticking out only made the rich color that much more striking.
The islands’ unofficial mascot, the Galapagos Tortoise was a key influence on Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, as genetic variations suggested they had adapted to their respective environments. They were nearly hunted to extinction in the 19thand 20thcenturies. But on the island of Santa Cruz, we paid a visit to Rancho Primicias, where many of them live in the wild.
Lonesome George, who passed away earlier this year, was the Galapagos’ most famous celebrity. But Professor Diego (pictured here) is a close second. Returned from the San Diego Zoo in the ‘70s, Diego ultimately produced 1700 offspring. He also taught other males how to mate, and thousands of captive-bred juveniles tortoises have since been released onto their native islands, now protected by law.
On our last night in the Galapagos, we went to shore at Gardner Bay on Española Island. Here, on a white sandy beach, hundreds of sea lions live in large colonies. There were small pups nursing, juveniles frolicking in the surf, and massive male bulls battling for dominance over their harems. It was an incredible way to end our once-in-a-lifetime Galapagos Islands experience.
Photos courtesy of Bret Love.
Read more about the diverse wildlife of the Galapagos Islands
– Bret Love