Wildlife spotting in the Galapagos Islands
Ever since they were made famous by Charles Darwin’s seminal 1859 book On the Origin of Species, the Galápagos Islands have been widely regarded as one of the most extraordinary wildlife habitats in the world. A wildly diverse range of land-based, water-based and airborne creatures, many endemic to the area, all inhabit the archipelago. A harmonious and evolutionary system of co-habitation has been developing for millions of years.
After the first peaks of the volcanic islands appeared above the surface of the Pacific Ocean an estimated five to ten million years ago, the ancestors of their current inhabitants each made their way there by air, sea, or by floating on natural rafts of tangled vegetation.
Because of this population by ‘long-distance dispersal’, there is an abundance of land and sea bird species, but very few mammals on the islands. Also, many of the animals (including sea lions, sea turtles and penguins) are very strong swimmers – a hereditary trait passed down to them by their ancestors who managed to swim to the islands. The raft theory is supported by the fact there are no native amphibians, few mammals and a huge variety of reptiles. Reptiles are best suited to harsh sun and salt-water conditions that would have been endured by weeks drifting at sea on vegetation before it washed up on shore.
This great variation of animal and plant life that co-exist on the islands is the result of the unique and equally varied environmental conditions in which they live. The island’s warm, sunny position on the equator contrasts with the cool Humboldt and Cromwell ocean currents that flow past.
What’s more, because the animals have lived for such a long time on islands without being disturbed or hunted by man, they have a calm and fearless nature. Visitors can get up close for some truly unique photo opportunities.
Here are just some of our favourite creatures on the islands that aren’t to be missed…
Easily recognisable by their distinctive bright blue feet, these unusual looking birds perform an elaborate mating ritual whereby the male dances before the female, lifting its feet up and down in a seductive strut.
The largest living species of tortoise and amongst the heaviest of all reptiles, weighing in at up to 250kg. These slow movers often sleep up to 16 hours a day and can live to well over 100 years old. The Spanish explorers who discovered the islands in the 16th century named them Galápago (meaning tortoise) and their variations in shell size and shape contributed to Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Endemic to the islands, these Jurassic-like lizards are unique in that they forage in the sea and can dive to over 10 metres. They can be found on every island of the archipelago and live mostly on the warm, rocky shores.
Slightly smaller than their Californian relatives, Galápagos sea lions are social and playful and can be found sun-bathing on the islands’ sandy beaches, rocky shores or gliding gracefully through the surf. They welcome visitors ashore and are not afraid to pose for a photo as they glisten in the mid-day sun.
The largest bird in the Galápagos, with a wingspan of up to 2.5m, this fascinating creature spends almost all of its life at sea but returns to Española Island each year from the end of March – May to find its life-mate and breed. The breeding process begins with an elaborate ritual of circling and bowing, after which the pair mate and produce a single egg. At only five months old the chick will then depart to spend six years at sea before returning to find a mate of its own.