Nowhere in the world offers quite as immersive a wildlife watching experience as the Galápagos. No matter whether you’re staying on land or at sea, these creatures always steal the show, and sightings of sea lions and manta rays are just as thrilling as giant tortoises and land iguanas. Read on to find out more about penguins, finches and blue-footed boobies – no tittering at the back, thank you.


Giant tortoises

The name for this archipelago is attributed to the tortoise – known in old Spanish as galapágo – which gives you some indication as to why the Galápagos Conservation Trust and the Charles Darwin Foundation have adopted the giant tortoise as their emblem. The most famous tortoise – Lonesome George – died in 2012. In his century-long lifetime George did much to raise the profile of the species which is currently endangered despite the Galápagos boasting an estimated population of 20,000. Although Pinta Island has lost its solitary resident a further ten sub-species remain with the largest communities to be found in the highlands of Santa Cruz as well as on the remote slopes of Alcedo Volcano on Isabela Island. Galápagos tortoises have a symbiotic relationship with finches; the birds eating the ticks to be found within the folds of the neck and the rest of their skin.
Andrés Salazar, from our Galápagos holidays supplier Rebecca Adventure Travel:
“Seeing turtle hatchlings make their way to the ocean for the very first time and learning about giant tortoises and seeing them in the wild are just a couple of my most memorable experiences with reptiles on the Galápagos.”

Marine iguanas

As the only lizards that have adapted to swimming, diving and foraging in the sea, marine iguanas are a big deal on the Galápagos. Although they can be found hanging out around the rocks and beaches of most islands, there are six separate sub-species that can be attributed to specific islands. Colour and size is what differentiates one colony from the next, with the largest to be found on Isabela and Fernandina, and the most colourful favouring Floreana and Española. Although slightly gawky on dry land, marine iguanas are excellent underwater with strong claws enabling them to hold on tightly to underwater rocks so as to eat algae even in strong swells. Due to their saltwater diet, the marine iguana expels excess salt crystals through its nose once back on dry land. Snotty sneezes are quite a sight for the uninitiated.

Land iguanas

Believed to have first arrived on the archipelago on floating vegetation, land iguanas are almost as iconic to the Galápagos as giant tortoises. Over the next 10 million years islands emerged and submerged and, in turn, iguana species evolved, with one pink and two types of yellow iguana, all herbivores, living on land. Land iguanas can grow to about a metre in length and weigh up to 13kg; their extremely sharp claws are used to gain a good grip on rocks. Pink iguanas are rare and only known to inhabit the volcanic slopes to the north of Isabela Island. Santa Fe’s endemic land iguana is slightly paler than the darker yellow Galápagos land iguana. Fernandina, Santa Fe, Santa Cruz, South Plaza, Baltra and North Seymour islands are where you’ll find the majority of land iguanas sunning themselves in the dry lowland areas.

Lava lizards

Lava lizards in the Galápagos have split into seven sub-species with variations in colour, including between males and females, depending which island they inhabit. Darker lizards tend to live on darker landscapes and are usually male; females are light yellow and green with red cheeks and chest. They’re relatively small – adult males grow to about six inches – and females are even smaller. When threatened they can change colour and allow their tail to detach – a new one grows back soon after. Lava lizards can be found on most Galápagos Islands and the best time to see them is in the warmer months during courtship. Males become very territorial and often begin a ‘push-up’ routine to display their strength to females and ward off other males.

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Green turtles

Green turtles are the only species of sea turtles to nest on the Galápagos and females typically return to the same beach where they hatched in order to lay their eggs. Although the journey from infant to adult is fraught with danger – sea birds, crabs, hawks, sharks, humans – Galápagos green turtles can actually live for up to 80 years but it’s those first perilous flipper strokes that are often the most painful to bear. Nearly every coastline around the Galápagos Islands has seen a green turtle at some point or another with snorkelling one of the best ways to watch these ancient underwater beauties in full flow. Santiago, Santa Cruz, Baltra and Isabela Islands are safe bets for snorkelling and sea kayaking a safe distance from the turtles, especially where sea grass and algae is at its most plentiful.

Snorkelling in Galápagos

Other marine creatures to keep your snorkel mask clean for are rays, manta rays especially. Mantas are the largest species of ray in the Galápagos with an unnerving flipper – although it’s more like a wing – span stretching up to four metres across. Water around South Plaza Island and Rábida Island are well known for manta rays but chance encounters can occur pretty much anywhere. Spotted eagle rays are also an amazing animal to observe. They are effortlessly graceful and exhibit beautiful dappled skin. Black Turtle Cove and other spots close to Santa Cruz are well known hangouts for spotted eagle rays. Golden rays can also be observed around Black Turtle Cove; their distinctive tail and gold coloured skin are stunning, despite their relatively small size.

Andrés Salazar from our supplier Rebecca Adventure Travel:
"Getting up close to Galápagos shark as you snorkel in the pristine waters, encountering the renowned whale shark as you dive in Darwin or Wolf Islands, catching a glimpse of a penguin torpedoing through the ocean right next to you or just spotting dolphins as they jet by your cruise ship or speedboat – these are moments to cherish on a trip to the islands.”


Although somewhat understated in colour – generally drab with a few yellow and olive hints – Galápagos finches are held in high regard, not least of all by Charles Darwin. After studying several sub-species of finch, Darwin realised that they had in fact evolved over time to adapt to their individual environments. There are now 14 sub-species in the Galápagos, ranging from ‘sharp beaked’ and ‘vampire’ to ‘mangrove’ and ‘common cactus’.
Andrés Salazar from our supplier Rebecca Adventure Travel:
“Being able to spot and differentiate the various finch species and understanding where Darwin got his idea for his renowned theory of evolution is an incredibly worthwhile thing to do whilst visiting the Galápagos.”
Blue-footed boobies are, of course, always a crowd pleaser, and the brighter the boot the more attractive the bird, in the eyes of females, and photographers. Española and Seymour are where you’ll find the largest colonies but they also pop up on several other islands, too. The two other types of booby that you’ll see on the Galápagos are Nazca – the largest – and red-footed – the smallest. Genovesa and San Cristóbal islands are favoured hang outs for red-footed boobies but keep an eye out for them zipping across the ocean in search of flying fish. Top speeds for a flying red-footed booby can reach over 140mph and they can also dive up to 30m – quite an impressive sight both above and below the water.
Thanks to the cold sea temperature, brought from Antarctica via the Humboldt Current, Galápagos penguins are our friends in the north and primarily found on Fernandina and Isabela Islands, although some may be seen swimming around Santiago, Bartolomé and to the north of Santa Cruz. Galápagos penguins have adapted to warmer climes by using their flippers as sun shades to ensure their feet don’t overheat. They also use cool crevices in rocks and solidified lava as egg refrigerators. The near catastrophic effects of climate change, especially during warm El Niño seasons, have hit the Galápagos penguin population hard with only 1,000 breeding birds thought to be alive today.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: pantxorama] [Giant tortoise: Peter Swaine] [Green turtles: Peter Swaine] [Galapagos finch: topol6]