• John Hasse

Tripping Over Wildlife in the Galapagos

One of the most unique places on earth due to its isolation and a destination on many a traveler’s bucket list, the Galápagos Islands, located just over 600 miles off the western coast of Ecuador in South America have some of the highest levels of biodiversity found anywhere in the world. From lush, green highlands, to rugged volcanic craters to mangrove-lined white sand beaches, the Galápagos islands, which were declared a National Park in 1959, have a timeless and ancient quality, which is only accentuated by the plethora of wildlife that call these islands home. In fact, many call this amazing archipelago composed of 13 major islands a “living museum and showcase of evolution,” as colorful birds of all shapes and sizes swoop over the massive giant tortoises slowly meandering through the verdant green highlands. Meanwhile, a whole other world of fish, crabs, sharks, marine iguanas, manta rays and seals exist just beneath the surface of the turquoise waters surrounding the islands. Read on to learn a bit more about our favorite animals on these mystical islands made famous by Charles Darwin’s 1839 publication “Voyage of the Beagle”.

Snorkeling with Marine Life

Because of the island’s geographic location at the confluence of three ocean currents, the Galápagos Islands are a melting pot of marine species as well as one of the richest ocean ecosystems in the world. Best described as an “underwater wildlife spectacle,” the waters of the Galápagos are abundant with life ranging from bright corals to graceful manta rays to massive and majestic sea turtles grazing on bits of floating kelp. Not only this, but when snorkeling, one is often greeted by an array of vibrantly colored fish - including parrotfish, butterflyfish and the stunningly blue damselfish, just to name a few. At night, groups of jellyfish, which look surprisingly similar to translucent party streamers, as well as small, black-tipped reef sharks can be seen circling the lit areas bordering the islands’ many piers, in search of their evening meal.

Meanwhile, small Galápagos penguins - which are endemic to the islands and the only penguin found north of the equator - along with plump sea lions and massive, black marine iguanas can be seen sunning themselves on the nearby sandy shores of white sand beaches, such as Tortuga Bay. And the best part, because all of the marine life on the islands is so comfortable with people, many of them barely bat an eyelash when approached. This is especially true for the sea lions, as they can often become your favorite swim buddy to splash around the shallows with if you’re lucky. So grab your bathing suit, some flippers and your snorkel and head out to see for yourself!

Hiking with Giant Tortoises

Back on land, the Galápagos Islands don’t disappoint. Comprised primarily of reptiles, the land-based wildlife on the islands is a mix of lizards, iguanas and the Galápagos’ most notable inhabitant, the giant tortoise. Weighing up to 600 pounds, of which their shell accounts for approximately 25%, giant tortoises are truly amazing creatures, as scientists believe they arrived on the islands 2-3 million years ago by drifting some 600 miles across the Pacific Ocean from the mainland of South America on a combination of vegetation rafts and their own power.

Enjoying a relaxed pace of life and their fair share of guavas, which grow abundantly in the nearby highlands the tortoises call home, these hundred-plus year old creatures are truly something to behold. Not only does it take them up to 2 weeks for them to digest each meal, but they can also go a whole year without any food and water at all! While there are giant tortoises on many of the main islands of the Galápagos, Santa Cruz and San Cristobal Islands are home to the greatest variety, as it is possible to see 13 out of the original 15 separate types of giant tortoise species still living. In even better news, places like the Chato Giant Tortoise reserve on Santa Cruz Island, make for a beautiful viewing environment, as one is able to meander through the rolling green highlands with a delicious organic coffee in hand while enjoying a look at these marvelous creatures. So grab a cup of joe, your camera and your hiking boots for this once-in-a-lifetime island adventure!

Put a Bird On It

Birds, birds, birds - so many amazing varieties and types. From impressive red-breasted frigates, to dazzlingly pink flamingos to the famous finch (of which there are 13 varieties), the Galápagos Islands have a bird for everyone! Some of the best bird watching can be done on foot via urban exploration, as much of the winged wildlife, including the large brown pelican, can be found in close proximity to the local fish markets where locals bring in their daily catch, which ranges from the exotic-looking orange, spotted scorpion fish to fresh lobster depending on the season.

Or if you’d rather, head to the shoreline to catch a glimpse of the famed blue footed booby, which can often be found dive bombing the water for a tasty fish snack. Easily recognizable by its distinctive bright blue feet, the male bobbies display this evolutionarily selected trait in an elaborate mating ritual that involves lifting their feet up and down while strutting in front of their prospective female mates. And fortunately, approximately one half of all breeding blue footed booby pairs nest on the Galápagos Islands, so the odds are high you’ll see one, even if from a distance, during your visit!

For those who are more musically inclined, keep your ears attuned to the notes of the islands’ many warblers and mockingbirds, especially when making your way through the mangrove-tree-lined path to Tortuga Bay. These lovely yellow and grey birds have a wide range of singing melodies, all of which are quite pleasant to the ear. So when you visit the Galápagos next, don’t forget to bring your binoculars and your bird book, as the islands’ winged fauna will be sure to provide a feast for your eyes and ears!

A Plethora of Life

As you can likely tell, the Galápagos are one of the most amazing set of islands for wildlife viewing, as they represent an almost unique example of how ecological and biogeographic processes can influence the evolution of flora and fauna. From the land iguana to the giant tortoise to the blue footed booby and the many types of finches that inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, these isolated islands are chock-a-block full of unusual animal life. Not only this, but the islands’ ongoing seismic and volcanic activity, which began more than 4 million years ago during the formation of the Galápagos, make for a wonderful and stunning landscape to house this great variety of creatures, as numerous smoking craters and ancient lava flows abound throughout the islands. Almost no other site in the world offers protection of such a complete continuum of geological and ecological features, so what are you waiting for - come see the wonders of the Galápagos for yourself!

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