Five Animals to Watch for on Your Galapagos Vacation

Posted by on March 2nd, 2021

Galapagos is one of the world’s best destinations for wildlife viewing. The Galapagos Islands are home to species found nowhere else on the planet, and most of the animals there are unafraid of humans, allowing you a close-up wildlife experience. Each island has its own populations, and the exact animals you spot will depend on the time of year and your exact itinerary. There are, however, some animals that you are basically guaranteed to see on a typical day during your Galapagos cruise vacation:

Galapagos tortoise enjoying some grass
Giant tortoise enjoying some grass in the Galapagos Islands

Giant Tortoises

One of the Galapagos Islands’ most iconic species, the giant tortoise is an impressive spectacle: These gentle giants can weigh up to 900 pounds. Now considered a vulnerable species, the giant tortoises of Galapagos were hunted nearly to extinction, as they were a primary source of meat and oil for early settlers and the pirates and whalers who passed by the Galapagos Islands. The clearing of habitat for agriculture, combined with the introduction of invasive species, caused further reductions in the numbers of giant tortoises.

Today, there are extensive efforts to protect these animals. Your Galapagos tour will likely include a stop at the Charles Darwin Research Station, a research and breeding center where juvenile tortoises are prepared to reenter the wild, or one of the natural protected reserves where these giants roam free: La Galapaguera, a 12-hectare reserve on San Cristóbal Island, or El Chato Tortoise Reserve, which spans a large segment of the Santa Cruz Island highlands. Tourism is a primary source of funding for these protection efforts, so your Galapagos Islands vacation contributes directly to the wellbeing of these beautiful animals!

Sea turtle swimming in the Galapagos Islands

Also watch for: Sea Turtles

Fun fact: All tortoises are turtles, but not all turtles are tortoises. Tortoises, like the Giant Tortoises of the Galapagos Islands, are land-based animals. The Galapagos Islands are also home to four species of water-loving sea turtles: the eastern Pacific green turtle (sometimes called the black turtle or tortuga negra), the Pacific leatherback, the Indo-Pacific hawksbill, and olive ridley turtles. Smaller than their land-based brethren, green sea turtles can still weigh up to 330 pounds. Sea turtles are also more solitary than their tortoise cousins, typically spotted swimming alone or in a small family group. They are not as common as the land tortoises, but keep an eye out for these lovely creatures during your snorkeling excursions, or cruising alongside your panga as you explore the waterways of the Galapagos Islands!

A tagged Galapagos finch looking for food
A tagged Galapagos finch looking for food


These tiny birds have had an outsized impact on our understanding of evolution. Charles Darwin famously studied these industrious little birds, noting the way finch populations on the different Galapagos Islands developed different beak shapes to adapt to their islands’ food sources. Darwin’s observations, which he shared and studied with ornithologist John Gould, helped solidify the theory of natural selection that Darwin would later write about in his book On the Origin of Species. Today, the islands are home to about 14 identifiable species of finch, including medium tree finches, large cactus ground finches, small ground finches, mangrove finches, and of course Darwin’s finches – which are, interestingly, genetically closer to blackbirds or mockingbirds than to the finch family! Keep an eye out for all the different variations of these busy little birds as your Galapagos cruise takes you from island to island.

A hopeful sea lion and pelican in the Puerto Ayora fish market

Sea Lions

Sea lions can be spotted all over the place in the Galapagos Islands – sunning themselves on the beach, zipping through the water in pursuit of fish, and even cuddling up to vendors at the Puerto Ayora fish market, hoping for a handout! Any unattended dock or bench in a sunny spot is likely to have a sea lion occupying it, and it’s not uncommon for playful pups to swim with visitors as they snorkel in the crystal-clear waters of the Galapagos Islands. Keep your underwater camera handy in case of a friendly face-to-face encounter with one of these curious animals.

Sea Lion saying hello
A Galapagos sea lion saying hello to a snorkeler
Blue-footed booby in the Galapagos Islands
Blue-footed booby in the Galapagos Islands

Blue-Footed Boobies

Another iconic species of the Galapagos Islands, blue-footed boobies are comical little fellows whose name derives from the Spanish word bobo, for fool or clown. Graceful while in flight or diving after a fish, boobies can be adorably awkward on land, and their mating dance is celebrated by bird watchers for its charming choreography: the male booby carefully lifts each foot to show off its blueness, flexes his neck, stretches his wings, and then – if the female booby is interested enough to join in – does it all again, this time in synch with his partner. June, July and August tend to be the top months for booby courtship, and the birds themselves are present year-round.

Marine Iguanas

Found only in the Galapagos Islands, marine iguanas can be spotted sunning themselves on the beach and swimming through the water. Marine iguanas are, admittedly, not the most aesthetic creatures in the archipelago; Darwin actually referred to them as “imps of darkness.” Their ferocious appearance is misleading, however – these scaly reptiles are actually gentle herbivores. Their sharp teeth are designed for scraping algae off underwater rocks, and their long claws help them cling to the shoreline in heavy currents. They have adapted to their life in the archipelago in fascinating ways, with a dark grey color that helps them quickly absorb the sun’s warmth after a chilly dive, and special glands to clean the salt from their blood after feeding. Watch out for the famous “salt sneeze” of these intriguing creatures, in which they efficiently clear out excess salt from their bodies. Just don’t get sprayed!

Galapagos Marine Iguana
Galapagos Marine Iguana chowing down on some algae

There are plenty of other species to watch for in the Galapagos Islands, including Galapagos penguins, sharks, rays, waved albatrosses, flightless cormorants, Sally Lightfoot Crabs, flamingoes, and more. The exact animals you see will always depend on the weather, courtship and spawning patterns, and other factors. Our recommendation for the best Galapagos Island vacation you can have is to go with an open mind and be prepared for anything!

Contact us today to get started planning the best Galapagos cruise vacation. We’re here to help you plan the perfect trip, whether you have limited time (Touring Peru and the Galapagos in Under 2 Weeks), want to travel with your family (Visiting the Galapagos Islands with Your Kids), or aren’t sure which Galapagos tour is the best for you (Top 10 Galapagos Cruises and Tours). Consider combining your Galapagos Islands cruise vacation with time in Peru and Machu Picchu, with our Machu Picchu & Galapagos Islands Tour. We’re here to help you pick the best Galapagos cruise ship and plan the best Galapagos vacation possible. We look forward to assisting you!

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