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Wildlife in the Galapagos (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Galapagos Islands Animals: The "Big 15" and Where to Find Them

Wildlife in the Galapagos (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Executive Editor, U.S.
Chris Gray Faust
Assistant SEO Editor
Marilyn Borth

Last updated
May 28, 2024

Read time
11 min read

One of the main reasons that a Galapagos cruise tops so many bucket lists is that a majority of Galapagos Islands animals are found nowhere else on the planet. A cruise in the Galapagos puts those sea lions, blue-footed boobies, rare mammals and reptiles close at hand, all within just a few days.

There are 15 "must see" Galapagos Islands animals -- the so-called "Big 15" -- that make this place so special. While all visitors desire seeing the full 15 on their Galapagos cruise, it's more likely they'll see 10 or 11 of these animals, as some tend to inhabit certain islands over others.

Islands you visit on a cruise -- as well as the season -- often dictate what animals you see. On our sailing, for example, we never got to see the Santa Fe Land Iguana or Waved Albatross because they don't inhabit the islands that were on our itinerary, which were Santa Cruz Island, Isabela, Fernandina and Floreana. The Santa Fe Land Iguana can only be found on Santa Fe Island while the Waved Albatross can only be found on Española.

Here are some of the Big 15 Galapagos Islands animals you can likely see when visiting the volcanic archipelago and which islands they call home.

1. Galapagos Sea Lion: The Dog of the Sea

Sea lions cuddling in the Galapagos (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

Sea lions are ubiquitous within the Galapagos archipelago and are one of the main draws of most Galapagos cruises. Really, these animals are everywhere -- you'll see them on the boat docks, lying on park benches in the few towns on the islands and frolicking, napping and fighting on every beach you go.

It's true what they say -- sea lions in the Galapagos have no fear of humans, and they often display a curiosity akin to domestic dogs or cats. Don't get too close -- six feet or two meters is the recommended distance -- and never touch or feed them (this applies to all Galapagos animals).

Galapagos Islands Where You Can See Galapagos Sea Lions: Baltra, South Plaza, Santa Fe, San Cristobal, Española, andSanta Cruz

2. Galapagos Giant Tortoise: A Giant Privilege to Witness

Male (left) and female (right) Galapagos giant tortoises in the Galapagos (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

Here's the one you likely came to see. These reptiles are as massive as their name suggests, weighing up to 900 pounds. The Galapagos Giant Tortoise is also generally older than any human on the planet, with a lifespan of up to 177 years. It's actually a miracle that the Galapagos have as many giant tortoises as they do, considering the species dwindled to under 15,000 in the 1970s and there are types of giant tortoises that have gone extinct elsewhere in the world.

The conservation efforts to protect Galapagos Giant Tortoises on the islands are extensive. There are several conservation centers, including the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz. There, you can see how the Galapagos National Park Directorate protects this endangered species, from encouraging mating efforts to incubating eggs to raising young tortoises in a predator-free environment.

However, nothing compares to the thrill of seeing one of these massive animals munching on grass in the wild, like in the Highlands or even along the road on Santa Cruz Island. Long may they prosper.

Galapagos Islands Where You Can See the Galapagos Giant Tortoise: San Cristobal (in captivity); Santa Cruz (in captivity and in the wild)

3. Blue-Footed Booby: A Common Galapagos Joke, But a Beautiful Animal

Blue footed booby in the Galapagos (Photo/Chris Gray Faust)

You can't visit the Galapagos without hearing countless jokes about the various boobies -- T-shirt shops in particular make fun of the name, which comes from the Spanish word "boho," or clown. And indeed, these docile birds seem a bit clumsy as they walk around their rocky habitat.

The aqua-hued feet of the birds are unmistakable, and the bluer they are, the better fed the bird is (the color comes from carotenoid pigments found in the fish that they eat). Brighter-colored feet also help male blue-footed boobies in their mating rituals. In any case, the boobies do seem to show them off; these birds almost pose for photos on the rocks on some of the Galapagos islands.

Galapagos Islands Where You Can See Blue-Footed Boobies: Santa Fe, San Cristobal and Española

4. Marine Iguana: Godzilla Brought to Life

Grinning Marine Iguanas and Santa Cruz II in the Galapagos (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

You might have seen a lot of iguanas in your life, but have you seen one that swims? It's highly unlikely, as the marine iguana only lives in the Galapagos and is the only species of iguana that lives in the ocean.

Their unique qualities continue. Red and green algae make up the marine iguana diet, and they have sleek black appearance that changes color during mating season. Quite frankly, they reminded us of the more modern Godzilla.

Luckily, these "Godzillas" were far smaller and friendlier. We came upon marine iguanas swimming or gathered in large groups on hardened lava, particularly to keep warm in the morning before the sun was at full strength. The marine iguanas, too, have little fear of humans, and you can get close enough to hear them sneeze salt from their noses.

Galapagos Islands Where You Can See Marine Iguanas: Santa Cruz, South Plaza, Santa Fe, San Cristobal and Española

5. Red-Footed Booby: The Most Elusive Booby in the Galapagos

Red footed booby in the Galapagos (Photo/Chris Gray Faust)

The least seen of the three booby bird species is harder to find than their more famous blue-footed counterparts. We didn't see red-footed boobies, but heard they could be found in the windy hills of San Cristobal, a bit of crimson peeking out from the low-lying trees (other booby species nest on the ground).

Red-footed boobies only lay one egg, and one parent stands guard on it at all times, while the other goes out to hunt for fish. Once hatched and on their own, red-footed boobies can live up to 20 years.

Galapagos Islands Where You Can See Red-Footed Boobies: San Cristobal

6. Nazca Booby: Not as Colorful, But More "Darwinian"

Nazca booby in the Galapagos (Photo/Chris Gray Faust)

Nazca Boobies may not have the colorful extremities of their red- and blue-footed brethren, but their white feathers and black "mask" give them an elegant appearance. Don’t let their good looks fool you, though -- unlike the other two species, the Nazca boobies have been known to charge people who get too close.

This aggressive behavior shows up early: Nazca boobies lay two eggs, one of which hatches first. When the second egg hatches, the older chick kills its sibling by forcing it out of the nest, often while the parent birds look on. How positively… Darwinian.

Galapagos Islands Where You Can See Nazca Boobies: Española

7. Waved Albatross: A Treat to See in the Galapagos

Waved Albatrosses (Photo: Lindblad Expeditions)

The albatross carries a variety of superstitions with it, both good -- the birds were often used by sailors to help with navigation -- and bad if you kill one, as the protagonist of the Samuel Coleridge poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" found out when he had to wear one around his neck.

In the wild, it's a treat to see the Waved Albatross in its habitat. These strong and long-lived birds are especially spectacular if you're able to catch two of them practicing their mating ceremony. Two birds come toward each other with their bills, tentatively at first, then more confidently -- and clack them together in an odd and mesmerizing dance.

Galapagos Islands Where You Can See the Waved Albatross: Española

8. Galapagos Land Iguana: Not Like Your "Usual" Iguana

Wildlife in the Galapagos (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

The Galapagos land iguana isn't the same as those in, say, Florida -- and it's much rarer. Domestic animals that were brought into the Galapagos, such as dogs and cats, as well as pigs and rats, ended up almost decimating the land iguana population on certain islands. Conservation efforts are helping to restore the animals, which are crucial for helping keep different island ecosystems alive.

While not quite as mammoth as the tortoises, Galapagos land iguanas can grow up to three feet long and weigh 30 pounds. You'll find them sunning themselves during the day, often with a small finch on their back; the two have a mutual relationship where the birds feed themselves with ticks and parasites that they remove from the lizard.

Islands Where You Can See Galapagos Land Iguanas: Santa Cruz, Baltra and South Plaza

9. Flightless Cormorant: The Only Flightless Cormorant in the World

Flightless Cormorant in the Galapagos (Photo: Hurtigruten Expeditions)

While the Flightless Cormorant may not leap out to non-birders at first, they do have an interesting history and list of fun facts. Flightless Cormorants are endemic in the Galapagos; while other types of Cormorants do live in other areas of the world, these are the only flightless ones.

Why are they flightless today? They not only had very limited predators, but those who relied on fishing were more likely to survive. So, they evolved by becoming better divers and lost their ability to fly. It's really no wonder that the Galapagos inspired Darwin's theory of evolution, is it?

Galapagos Islands Where You Can See Flightless Cormorants: Isabela and Fernandina

10. Frigatebirds: Birds with a Unique Mating Ritual, Entailing an Inflatable Red Pouch

Frigatebird in the Galapagos (Photo: Lindblad Expeditions)

There are two species of frigatebirds found in the Galapagos: the Magnificent frigate bird and the Great frigate bird. What's so great about them, regardless of the species? Females are curiously larger than the males, and the male frigatebirds have a red pouch on their throat that fills up with air to attract females.

Galapagos Islands Where You Can See Frigatebirds: Throughout the Galapagos, but especially North Seymour, Floreana, San Cristobal and Genovesa

11. Galapagos Fur Seal: Adorable and Ubiquitous in the Galapagos

Wildlife at North Seymour Island Port

The Galapagos fur seal, which many visitors confuse with the sea lion, is undeniably adorable, often seen lounging on rocks along the shoreline. We even got the unique opportunity to see a mother feeding her pup on the rocks on Isabela Island.

In order to figure out which is a fur lion or fur seal, note that fur seals are notably smaller in size and have larger eyes and ears yet smaller snouts. Don't be scared when you see a fur seal, even up close when snorkeling in the water. They're just as curious about you as you are about them.

Galapagos Islands Where You Can See Galapagos Fur Seals: All Galapagos islands

12. Galapagos Hawk: The Most Feminist Bird Species of All

Galapagos Hawk in a tree (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

Much like the frigatebirds mentioned above, the Galapagos Hawks' females are larger than the males. But that's not all that's so interesting about the females. They not only mate with up to seven males in one breeding season, but all the males help in incubating the eggs and even assist in feeding them when they're young. Feminism, thy name is "Galapagos Hawk."

Galapagos Islands Where You Can See Galapagos Hawks: Isabela and Fernandina

13. Galapagos Penguin: The Tropics-Loving Penguin Endemic to the Galapagos

Galapagos penguin (Photo: Hurtigruten Expeditions)

When thinking of wild penguins, it's easy to automatically imagine them amongst a backdrop of snow, ice and glaciers. But, there is one species of penguin that doesn't live in the cold -- they actually live in the tropics: the Galapagos penguin.

The Galapagos penguins are endemic to the Galapagos and the second smallest penguin in the world, being an average of 20 inches in length and weighing six pounds. But how do they survive in the tropics? Fortunately, there is the Humboldt Current, which travels from Antarctica and along the equator that supplies them with the cold water they need to survive. They also live in small crevices and caves created from coastal lava, and have plenty of food sources in the Galapagos' waters.

If you're lucky enough, you might even get to swim beside these unique penguins -- and even luckier if you get to see them dive at a whopping top speed of 22 miles per hour.

Galapagos Islands Where You Can See Galapagos Penguins: Mainly Isabela and Fernandina islands, but can also be seen on Floreana, Santiago and Bartolome

14. Santa Fe Land Iguana: One of the Rarest Iguanas to See in the Galapagos

The least observed iguana in the Galapagos is the Santa Fe land iguana, who are close cousins to the Galapagos land iguana. They, too, are omnivores and burrowers for laying their eggs, but they are less likely to be seen because they only live on Santa Fe Island (which explains their name).

The Santa Fe land iguana is visibly different from the Galapagos land iguana, though, because they are slightly darker brown and have smaller dorsal spines. Charles Darwin himself put their appearance in a rather odd way, claiming they are “ugly animals, of a yellowish orange beneath, and of a brownish-red color above: from their low facial angle they have a singularly stupid appearance.” We hope that description from the man himself can help you spot them.

Galapagos Islands Where You Can See Santa Fe Land Iguanas: Santa Fe Island

15. American Flamingo: The Most Majestic and Vibrants of Birds

Flamingos on Floreana during the sunset (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

Who doesn't want to gawk at one of the most iconically vibrant and majestic birds on the planet? The American Flamingo roams these islands, often found in larger colonies on a handful of islands. We got the opportunity to see a larger colony in the brackish lagoon, called Cormorant Point, on Floreana Island.

This species of flamingo is notably smaller than the Caribbean flamingo; they even lay smaller eggs than the Caribbean flamingo.

Galapagos Islands Where You Can See the American Flamingo: Floreana Island, Isabela Island, Santiago, Rabida Island and Santa Cruz

Publish date December 22, 2021
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