TOP 10 GALÁPAGOS WILDLIFE SPECIES

Although many of the animals endemic to the Galápagos can be found all-year-round there are also migratory species that can only be seen in certain season. Courtship, spawning and weather all contribute to the best viewing months; however, the best advice is just to go and be amazed at everything and anything rather than holding out for a particular favourite. Here are our top 10 Galápagos wildlife species that includes where and when to see animals.

1. Blue-footed boobies

Distinctive, comical and brilliantly named – bobo is Spanish for fool or clown – blue-footed boobies are one of three native booby species on the Galápagos. Although awkward and ungainly on dry land, boobies in flight are quite the opposite, with high-speed dives at dawn a thrilling pleasure to watch – unless you're an unsuspecting anchovy. A front row seat for a mating ritual is a privilege, and, as boobies pair for life, you might want to save the anniversary date for years to come.
Where to see them
One of the best islands is North Seymour. The rocky crags and shoreline are well known for their seabirds and provide an ideal environment for breeding. Española, Santa Cruz, Floreana and Isabela are also hot properties for blue-footed boobies.
When to see them
The best time to see them on dry land is when they commence courting in the June, July and August mating season. Outside of these months, blue-footed boobies spend the majority of their time fishing at sea.

2. Galapagos finches

Few birds that have had quite as great an impact on the theories of evolution as Galápagos finches. With more versatility in their beaks than a Swiss Army knife, these finches vary in size and shape with around 14 species inhabiting the islands. Although their ancestral roots are still up for debate, one thing is for sure: when you can identify different species yourself you'll start to understand where Darwin was coming from.

Where to see them
Different species favour different islands. Floreana is a favourite of medium tree finches whereas Española and Genovesa are where you'll see large cactus ground finches. Small ground finches are prevalent on practically every Galápagos island, but mangrove finches only live on Isabela. The Galápagos Conservation Trust has lots more information on identifying Darwin’s finches.

When to see them
Galápagos finches can be observed all year round.

3. Giant tortoises

When you discover that an ancient Spanish word for tortoise is galapágo you'll grasp just how iconic these wandering megaliths are to the islands. Although the last Pinta tortoise, Lonesome George, died aged around 100 in 2012, 10 tortoise species remain with a population of about 20,000. As Galápagos tortoises spend more than half the day resting they're not hard to spot, and watching the symbiotic relationship with finches is fascinating.

Where to see them
Giant tortoises on the Galápagos can be found on the larger, more humid islands where there's plenty of vegetation to eat. The highlands of Santa Cruz and the volcanic slopes of Alcedo on Isabela are always a guaranteed giant tortoise hang out as are sections of Cristobal, Santiago and Española.

When to see them
All year round. Midday in the cooler season is when they're most active, or dawn and dusk in the hotter months.

4. Lava lizards

These lizards are, as the name suggests, most at home on lava and can often be found in groups making the most of the sun all across the archipelago. There are seven species here and they're one of the islands’ most prevalent reptiles. They look like mini iguanas although, there's no mistaking a male defending his territory as he undertakes a push up routine, the likes of which hasn't been seen since Brian Jacks competed with Daley Thompson in the 1980's series, Superstars.
Where to see them
They're basically everywhere, on every island, especially on lava, but they’re fond of gate posts, fences and sign posts, too. Coastlines and low lying areas across the 10 central islands are always a safe bet.
When to see them
All year round, especially when the sun’s out.

5. Marine iguanas

You've not lived until you've witnessed a double-barrelled salty sneeze from a marine iguana, and they’re only found on the Galápagos Islands. Agile in the ocean but not so mobile on land, these are the only lizards on the planet that can live underwater. Six sub-species are found on separate islands and, as if it needs to be said, steering clear of their talon-like claws is just as sensible as side-stepping the snot – you have been warned.

Where to see them
Coastal areas, especially at low tide where rock pools are algae-abundant. The majority of marine iguanas are found on the islands and surrounding islets of Isabela, Fernandina, Española, Floreana and Santa Cruz.

When to see them
All year round. Sunbathing brings marine iguanas onto rocks around the coast during the daytime. The courtship season in January to March sees the male turn his skin from black to a variety of greens and reds.

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6. Manta rays

Although a mask, snorkel and flippers is the best way to experience the underwater world of the Galápagos there are some marine creatures that also appear above the waves. To watch a manta ray breach is breathtaking. The rise, flip, splash; amazing. Manta Rays are the largest of the ray species that you might be lucky enough to see in the Galápagos alongside spotted eagle rays and golden rays. All are as graceful, fluid and slightly unnerving as anything else you’ll observe in the ocean.

Where to see them
Dive spots include: St Philip’s Steps, Genovesa, and Devil’s Crown, Florena; manta rays can also be seen from the cliffs around South Plaza Island and just offshore from Rábida Island. Gardner Bay, Española, is a great snorkel spot for sting rays whereas Black Turtle Cove on Santa Cruz is where spotted and eagle rays tend to hang.

When to see them
Warmer weather from December to May is ray watching season as all types of ray swim closer to the surface in great numbers.

7. Sally lightfoot crab

These red and blue beauties can be found scuttling and dancing in and around the rock pools and beaches of the Galápagos, often in quite large numbers. Their wonderful name is thought to have stemmed from an equally agile dancer from the Caribbean although it’s not known whether she also had the ability to scale vertical rock faces with quite the same capacity as the crab. Colourful, nimble, abundant – Sally Lightfoot crabs are easy to see but quite tricky to catch for perplexed predators.

Where to see them
Rock pools, beaches and shallow water around all of the Galápagos Islands.

When to see them
All year round, mainly during daylight hours.

8. Seal lions

You’ll be hard pushed not to see a Galápagos sea lion, either gliding through the water or lolling on the shore. Unlike seals, sea lions have external ears and can also twist their back flippers to move with more agility on land, sometimes reaching speeds of up to 16km/h over a short distance. They can dive to 600m and stay immersed for up to 10 minutes. Swimming and snorkelling with playful pups is an absolutely unforgettable experience.

Where to see them
Bull males will try to dominate their own stretch of beach and attract as many females as possible. Coastal areas, around all of the islands, are where you’ll find pups playing in the surf.

When to see them
You can see sea lions all year round, but July to December is mating season, with pups born nine months later.

9. Sea turtles

Green turtles are the only species of sea turtle to have made the Galápagos their home, and females return to the same nesting site year on year. Super speedy swimming – up to 48km/h – allows adults to evade capture in water but baby turtles aren’t so well equipped and have to run the gauntlet with a plethora of predators as they make their way from nest to sea. Green turtles can live for many decades but it’s those first flipper strokes to survival that are the most perilous.

Where to see them
Around the shores of nearly every island. Females lay their eggs at night on beaches above the high tide mark.

When to see them
Nesting season for green turtles is in December to May, with hatchlings breaking free from their shells about two months later. Adult green turtles can be seen in the water all year round.

10. Whale sharks

The largest fish in the ocean shouldn’t be too hard to spot and whale shark visits to the Galápagos will often coincide with spawning season and when plankton is at its most prolific. An adult whale shark can grow to almost 18 metres, nose to tail, and weigh a whopping 20 tons – that’s about three to four heavier than an African elephant. As whale sharks often swim close to the surface they provide an incredible sight for passengers on small ships – and quite a fright for snorkellers and divers.
Where to see them
For some reason that is still being researched, nearly all of the whale sharks that swim close to the northern Galápagos Islands of Wolf and Darwin are pregnant females.
When to see them
June to December.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: pantxorama] [Land iguana: Vince Smith] [Blue-footed booby: Vince Smith] [Lava lizard: Mikko Koponen] [Sally light footed crab: A. Davey] [Whale shark: Michael Liao]
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