Almost 1,000 kilometres from civilisation, the Galápagos Islands are a remote haven for wildlife. You may wonder what lies on the islands, aside from the roaming Galápagos tortoises and soaring albatross. The best way to find out is by embarking on a Galápagos cruise and seeing for yourself. To help you make the most of your journey to these faraway islands, we’ve created a handy guide to the Galápagos:
A brief overview of the Galápagos Islands
The Galápagos Islands are approximately 900km west of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean. Renowned for being instrumental in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, the islands and their surrounding waters are home to an abundance of wildlife, including many species only found on this archipelago.
We chatted to Clare Simm, Communications & Marketing Office at the Galápagos Conservation Trust, she told us: “Due to their isolation, the Galápagos Islands have an incredible array of both terrestrial and marine species, many of which are found nowhere else on earth. These species’ success is partly because the islands are situated at the meeting point of several large oceanic currents, bringing nutrients that support the eclectic habitats and mix of wildlife.”
In 1959, 97% of the land area of the islands was designated as a national park due to their uniqueness, according to Clare, and the waters surrounding the Galápagos have been protected since 1988 as the Galápagos Marine Reserve. “Observations made by Charles Darwin during his Galápagos visit in 1835 have also given the archipelago a special place in history and the development of modern science. The islands continue to be a ‘living laboratory of evolution to this day providing fascination for locals, visitors and scientists.”
A guide to the islands
A total of 18 main islands, 3 smaller islands and 107 rocks and islets form the Galápagos. The islands sit on the Nazca Plate, a tectonic plate, and sit on the Galápagos hotspot, where the earth’s crust is being melted from below by a mantle plume, creating volcanoes. Despite its idyllic beaches and vibrant wildlife, the Galápagos must not be mistaken for a typical tropical paradise. Due to its volcanic terrain, the islands can appear desolate and unforgiving in places but the opportunity to see some of the world’s most remarkable creatures more than makes up for this seemingly barren landscape.
Named in honour of Spain, Espanola Island is the oldest in the archipelago. Formed approximately 3.5 million years ago, this remote uninhabited island is the only place in the Galápagos where you can spot the waved albatross. Espanola is considered to be the best island for birdwatchers and divers and is home to species native to the island such as the Espanola mockingbird and the Espanola lava lizard.
Home to a shield volcano and a large population of marine iguanas, Fernandina Island is a popular choice for those on a Galápagos Islands cruise. The island is uninhabited but a haven for wildlife. Take a dip in the sea to spot Galápagos penguins, flightless cormorants and seahorses.
Floreana is the longest inhabited island in the Galápagos with 100 residents. The island is shrouded in mystery, as a series of disappearances occurred in the early 20th century, including an Austrian baroness and her three servants. The island was allegedly used by pirates and whalers for food and water in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, its white sand beach and saltwater lagoon draw visitors.
Genovesa is named after Genoa in Italy and is highly recommended for birdwatchers. The uninhabited island is home to a large colony of red-footed boobies, as well as Galápagos storm petrels, short-eared owls, many species of finch, great frigate birds and Galápagos mockingbirds.
Isabela is the largest island in the archipelago - it is bigger than all the Galápagos islands combined. It’s the third most-populated island - home to around 1,800 people - and the only one in the group to have the equator running through it. Puerto Villamil is the largest town.
Named after the captains of the Pinta and Nina boats on Columbus’ voyage to the New World, this island requires a special visitors permit. It is well worth the extra effort as the island is home to the Galápagos giant tortoise and a colony of sea lions.
San Cristobal Island
Charles Darwin first came ashore on San Cristobal Island in 1835. The island has a small lake which is the only freshwater source in the Galápagos. The town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is the capital of the Galápagos Province and even has an airport. Cerro Brujo is a pretty coral and sand beach on San Cristobal, perfect for snorkelling.
Santa Cruz Island
This is the second-largest island and the most populated with around 12,000 locals. Puerto Ayora is the main town with restaurants, hotels, shops, hospitals and schools, providing the best infrastructure on the Galápagos. A visit to Charles Darwin Station is recommended.
Santa Fe Island
Santa Fe Island, also uninhabited, is popular with tourists as it’s reachable for a day trip from Santa Cruz. One of the island’s most unique features is the Opuntia Cactus Forest, made up of spectacular cacti often named the Galápagos prickly pear. Look out for the Galápagos dove, lava lizards and the island’s native Santa Fe Land Iguana.
If you’re looking for the weird (but wonderful) Sally lightfoot crabs, head to Santiago Island. Its lava shoreline is home to many species and is an idyllic place to snorkel. This island is also uninhabited.
Wildlife of the Galápagos Islands
The clumsy-looking blue-footed booby is one of the Galápagos Island’s most distinctive birds. Their name derives from the Spanish word bobo, meaning foolish or clown. Although not so elegant on land, these birds soar comfortably and search for food in groups of around 200. Head to North Seymour to catch a glimpse of these delightful creatures.
As the only species of cormorant unable to fly, this peculiar bird is native to the Galápagos. According to the Galápagos Conservation Trust, natural selection led to the species no longer having functional wings as they had very few land predators. There are around 1,000 breeding pairs on Isabela Island and Fernandina Island.
With its impressive large red throat, the magnificent frigatebird is noteworthy. Named ‘the condor of the oceans’ by Charles Darwin due to their exceptionally large wingspan and ability to fly for days at a time, these remarkable birds nest on North Seymour, Floreana, San Cristobal and Genovesa.
With an average wingspan of 2.2 metres, the waved albatross is hard to miss. These beautiful birds are the largest in the Galápagos and get their name from the wave-like pattern on their wings as adults. One of the bird’s most fascinating behaviours is its courtship dance which, according to the Galápagos Conservation Trust, includes bill circling, bill clacking, head nodding, a waddle and a cow-like moo. You can spot these strange yet beautiful birds on Espanola Island.
Galápagos Fur Seal
On the western islands of the archipelago, Galápagos fur seals are often found resting in the shade along the rocky coastlines. Fur seals have large eyes so they can hunt at night and dive to depths of up to 50 metres. Sadly, these native creatures are classed as endangered due to their dwindling population and are fully protected under Ecuadorian law.
The Galápagos penguin is one of the smallest penguins in the world. It is also the most northerly occurring penguin. In 1982, a particularly strong El Nino event caused 77% of the population to die of starvation. There are only an estimated 2,000 birds left.
Galápagos Sea Lion
It’s easy to spot Galápagos sea lions sprawled on the beaches or swimming by the shore. Although they can dive to depths of 350 metres and stay underwater for 10 minutes, these cheerful seals spend a lot of time resting on the beach. Males are significantly heavier than females, at 250kg versus their 80kg.
Galápagos Giant Tortoise
Perhaps the most iconic creature in the Galápagos, the Galápagos giant tortoise can grow up to 1.8 metres long. The archipelago itself was named after the Spanish word for tortoises. These friendly giants arrived from mainland South America approximately 2-3 million years ago and the Galápagos Conservation Trust now believes there are 20,000 individuals on the islands. They spend around 16 hours a day resting and graze on grasses, fruits and cactus pads. The Santa Cruz highlands and Alcedo Volcano on Isabela Island have the largest populations.
Galápagos Green Turtle
If you’re snorkelling during your Galápagos cruise, look out for the Galápagos green turtle. They are the only turtle species to breed and nest on the islands and have a remarkable ability to swim at speeds of up to 35mph over long distances.
Galápagos Lava Lizard
One of the most abundant reptiles in the Galápagos is the lava lizard. Likened to miniature iguanas, these vibrant lizards can often be spotted warming up in the sun on top of lava formations, hence the name. There are seven species found across the islands and these unusual creatures display a unique behaviour. To ward off competitors from his territory, a male lava lizard can be seen performing push-ups to intimidate them.
Native to the Galápagos, marine iguanas are the only lizard in the world with the ability to live and forage at sea. For most of the year, the adults are black, however, during mating season, the males adopt vibrant colourations. The colours of the iguanas vary from island to island, with Espanola and Floreana iguanas being the most colourful.
Safely observing Galápagos wildlife
When visiting the Galápagos Islands, there are simple rules set out by Galápagos National Park that are designed to protect visitors and the delicate ecosystems of the islands. Clare told us, “The key is to listen to the guide you are with as they will tell you where to walk (stick to the path!) and how far away to stay from these animals. The rule is at least 2 metres from the animals at all times. Take only photos - please refrain from taking anything with you. If taking photos, avoid using the flash as this can disturb the wildlife. Finally, don’t try to touch the animals or feed them - they may seem tame but they are wild animals.”
Conservationists are working hard to protect this truly unique environment while helping visitors to enjoy the islands and learn about their importance.
Protecting Galápagos wildlife
One of the main reasons wildlife is thriving on the islands today is because of work undertaken by organisations such as the Galápagos Conservation Trust. Founded in 1995, the organisation supports, develops and promotes the conservation and sustainable development of the islands and their unique biodiversity.
“We support a wide range of projects in the Galápagos, including those that focus on endemic species, marine conservation and sustainability,” Clare told us. These projects include The Galápagos Tortoise Movement Ecology Programme which featured in BBC One’s Galápagos. The project started in 2009 and set out to find if Galápagos’ giant tortoises undergo long seasonal migrations, as little was known about them. Clare added, “We are also currently developing a plastics programme to address the damaging effects of disposable plastics in Galápagos alongside a practical campaign ‘Plastic Resposinble’ on San Cristobal Island and awareness-raising activities in the UK.”
Alongside these efforts, Galápagos Conservation Trust is also working with Galápagos National Park, Island Conservation and Massey University on a project to eradicate invasive species and restore the habitat on the populated island of Floreana. “If successful, the locally extinct species will be introduced and 55 other International Union for Conservation of Nature red-listed species will also benefit,” Clare told us. “More significantly, the project has the potential to act as a blueprint for other islands around the globe.”