Iconic species of Galapagos
To be among birds and animals unafraid of man is an experience unique to the Galapagos Islands providing rare insights and memories to cherish.
Witnessing the courtship dances of waved albatrosses and blue-footed boobies for ourselves in the wild felt very special - particularly as we had seen them so many times on TV.
Wildlife, including many species unique to the archipelago, has been attracting visitors to the Galapagos since the arrival of Charles Darwin in 1835. In this remote location species have evolved and adapted in unique ways so you encounter creatures not found anywhere else on earth. With such a diversity of birds and animals it’s hard to single any out but here are a few key species iconic to the Galapagos.
- Giant tortoise: The animal most closely associated with the Galapagos. Indeed, ‘galapago’ means tortoise in old Spanish, so the islands are named after these giants. They are gigantic: males are often over 1.5m in length and almost as wide and weigh in excess of 200kg. Once common, they are now classed as endangered having been targeted by pirates and non-native species, but thanks largely to the breeding programme at the Charles Darwin Station the population is now reviving and you can have the pleasure of watching these gentle creatures in the wild.
- Marine & land iguanas: Descended from a common ancestor, these iguanas are very different in appearance, habitat and behaviour.
The marine iguana, which is found only in the Galapagos, is the only marine lizard in the world and can spend up to an hour beneath the water. Its colouring is quite dark, it has a flat, square nose and a distinctive crust of salt on its head, expelled as it ‘sneezes’ excess salt consumed while eating. It is often seen on a rock basking in the sun.
The land iguana is shy in comparison and seeks shade rather than sun. It is paler than the marine iguana and has a more pointed nose. Santa Fe Island has its own species of land iguana, paler still in colour.
- A trio of boobies: Boobies are large seabirds, excellent flyers which dive down into the water to catch fish with their long sharp beaks. Their rather comical name, which translates as clown, is due to their clumsy bearing on land. The three species in the Galapagos are easily distinguished.
Blue-footed boobies do indeed have blue webbed feet which are used to great effect in the males’ mating dance.
Red-footed boobies are the smallest and the only ones to nest in trees. They have blue bills and, yes, bright red feet. They are less widespread than the other two, found only on Genovesa and San Cristobel islands.
Nazca boobies have grey feet and orange beaks. The female lays two eggs several days apart, aiming to ensure that one survives. The older, stronger chick usually pushes the other out of the nest but should something befall the first chick the second survives to ensure continuity of the species.
- Waved albatross: The largest of the seabirds of the Galapagos, these are a marvellous sight when soaring overhead. They spend part of the year at sea returning to Espanola around March. The female lays a single egg in April and both parents are involved in raising the chick. Parents and fully-fledged juveniles leave in January, the latter spending the next six years away until they are ready to mate. The waved albatross is known not only for its size and longevity, up to 45 years, but also for the courtship ritual when the male and female clash their long beaks together as they dance around each other prior to mating for life. The name derives from the wave-like pattern on their wings.
- Sealion & fur seal: These can look similar, but here are some tips to tell them apart. Sea lions are far larger (lions are large), fur seals have a thicker pelt (they are furry) which dries to a golden-brown colour and fur seals have bigger eyes and ears (they hunt at night). Sea lions are sociable, inquisitive, playful and noisy. Each colony is headed by a bull, with immature males in separate bachelor colonies. You are likely to encounter them on beaches, at landing sites and swimming alongside you in the water. Fur seals prefer rockier shaded areas often away from visitor sites. They also live in colonies and in the breeding season each female has her own territory where she raises her single pup. They are best seen at Puerto Egas on Santiago.