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My Favorite Creatures in the Galapagos


When you think about a trip to the Galápagos what wildlife do you picture? There are so many endemic species and if that wasn't fascinating enough the wildlife is unafraid of humans, creating some of the most magical and intimate wildlife encounters you can find on the planet. Here are five of my favorite creatures in the Galápagos, each one bringing its own spirit to the Galápagos.

Blue-Footed Boobies
Although there are three types of boobies in the Galápagos (blue foot, red foot, and Nazca booby) I'm highlighting the blue-footed booby because they are perhaps the most famous of the Galápagos birds and often the first type of booby seen by travelers. This creature really does have electric blue feet, which helps them stand out during courtship. During mating, in the most dignified fashion they can muster, they slowly pick each up each foot in a bit of a wobbly fashion and then spread their wings and "sky-point" their beaks up to the sky. It is quite the spectacle, one that always brings a smile!

Mating and nesting occur year-round and boobies can have up to three chicks, all covered with fluffy white down. Like other boobies, blue-foots nest on land and make their "nest" by scraping a smooth spot in the ground and surrounding it with a ring of guano. Maybe not the most elaborate nest but it works for the boobies. Be prepared to step around carefully, because they are likely to nest directly on the visitor trails!

Something not a lot of people know is that although boobies look quite awkward on land they are exceptional divers and fishers. Climbing as high as 80 feet, they fold their wings back and plunge into the water for small schooling fish, such as anchovies. 

The Galápagos tortoise is perhaps THE flagship species, indeed, the Galápagos Islands get their name from these giants, "Insulae de los Galopegos" (Islands of the Tortoises).. There are currently 12 species, each found on a different island and biozones. For example, domed shells are found on tortoises living in verdant highlands while saddleback shells give tortoises on other islands more flexibility in stretching their long necks to reach sparse vegetation found higher off the ground. The tortoises are famous for a number of reasons but mainly due to the work that Charles Darwin did on the differences in adaptations between the tortoises on each island. It's estimated the giant tortoise arrived in Galapagos from mainland South America 2-3 million years ago and then nature took its course.

Galápagos tortoises are herbivores that typically eat prickly pear cactus, as well as leaves, flowers, and grasses. These tortoises are so adapted to the desert climate of the islands that they can go without eating or drinking for up to a year because their bodies can store food and water so well. That level of adaptation can lead to tortoises living up to 100 years and weighing over 800 pounds. 

Sea Lions
The Galápagos sea lion is a species of sea lion that exclusively breeds on the Galápagos Islands and is actually the smallest sea lion. They are often the "welcoming party" of the islands with their playful bark and carefree nature. There are about 50,000 sea lions in the islands and they can be found all around the islands. The males are called bulls while the females are called cows and pups live together in a 'Rookery'.

What makes seeing the Galápagos sea lion so special is the charismatic personality and playful demeanor they exhibit around humans. The best way to experience this is snorkeling with them, especially with the pups. You actually feel like you are interacting/playing with them, it is a connection that is almost unreal with wild animals but just another day of fun in the Galapagos. Our Marketing Director lights up every time he recounts his time snorkeling with them where the rookery he was playing with would mirror his behavior, if he waved right, they would wave right. He even did his own underwater barrel roll followed by a pup doing a barrel roll, "they just wanted me to play with them all day and even followed me back to the boat. It is a moment I will never forget." 

Penguins are another huge attraction due to their unexpected presence on the Equator. Like the sea lions, Galapagos penguins are the smallest species of penguins in South America. The mated pairs last for a lifetime, spending time preening one another and tapping their bills to strengthen that bond. And did you know - their sometimes awkward, hunched over walk is a way to keep their bare feet in the shade, preventing sunburns.

If you get the opportunity to snorkeling with these little feathered torpedoes you'll be in for quite the underwater acrobatics.
Marine Iguanas
Finally, marine iguanas – while perhaps the homeliest animals in the Islands - are another creature you will not see anywhere else in the world, and uniquely adapted to thrive in these remote islands. Marine iguanas are the only lizards on Earth that spend time in the ocean. They look like miniature dinosaurs and have the ability to remain underwater for anywhere from 15 minutes to a full hour, ingesting seaweed and algae in the cold, briny ocean. They also have an incredible array of colors that almost look like some of them fell into a tie-dye mix.

While traveling in the Galapagos a very common noise you will most likely hear is a sneeze, which comes from marine iguanas expelling salt from their deep-diving excursions. They are able to do this with specialized glands that remove the salt from their blood. Another astonishing fact about them is during times of reduced food availability they are able to shrink up to 20% of their size.

Marine iguanas evolved from land iguanas around 4.5 million years ago when they are thought to have arrived via "rafts" of vegetation from South America to the Galapagos where they adapted to a sea-faring life.

Ready for a wildlife adventure in the Galapagos? Here are three tips for planning a trip to the Galapagos.

1. Book Early: This is not a sales pitch, the reality is that the Galapagos is easily one of our most popular destinations and the National Park limits the number of travelers. If you want to have options that fit with your schedule, book as soon as you can or at least reach out and see if availability even exists. For example, during December trips sell out almost a year in advance, sometimes even earlier. Spring Break is the next most popular, and prime weeks are booked months in advance.

2. Responsible Operators: The Galapagos are some of the most fragile environments and traveling with a tour operator that promotes responsible, sustainable travel and also gives back to the destination is a choice you can feel good about! That will also mean you'll be in smaller group sizes which is not only a bonus for you, but also for the wildlife and environment.

3. Maximize Your Plans: There are a lot of different ways to see the Galapagos, by land, by boat, a mix… If you want to maximize your time you need to have your plans locked down, there isn't too much room to change dates or accommodations while or even close to your departure date.. In addition, there is, even more, to see in Ecuador so adding on a mainland extension is a great complement to the Galapagos. And one of our most popular combinations links the Galapagos with Peru and Machu Picchu.

I've been visiting and planning trips to the Galapagos since 2001, I love these islands and work with some of the best yacht companies and lodges! Please do not hesitate to reach out to me with your questions, I'm happy to help!

Keeping it wild,

Sherry Howland aka your Galapagos Guru 

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