Go on a beach holiday, see penguins in their natural habitat: believe it or not, these bucket list items aren’t mutually exclusive. If you play it smart, you can have them both ticked off in one go.
The Galapagos Islands are one of the few places in the world where you’ll find penguins frolicking under the equatorial sun. With their entire population scattered across the archipelago – primarily on the islands of Fernandina and Isabela – Galapagos penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus) can’t be found anywhere else, not even in captivity.
The only tropical penguins in the world
It’s believed that storms and ocean currents carried over the first Galapagos penguins from Southern Chile to the islands. Despite being left stranded, they were able to survive and grow their population. Over time, they have adapted to their surroundings as well.
Today, Galapagos penguins are the only species of penguins which can be found in the northern hemisphere. To survive in the warm climate, they have evolved in a number of ways. They have far less body fat and feathers than their cold-weather counterparts. Additionally, they have bare patches of skin around their eyes and by the base of their bills. This helps them lose body heat and stay cool throughout the summer.
Due to a lack of food in the region, Galapagos Penguins have also evolved to be one of the smallest of their kind. On average, they only grow to a height of 21 inches and weigh between 1.7 and 2.6 kilograms. This allows them to get by on fewer calories and cope with periods of scarcity.
Predator or prey?
Although they are foraging predators, Galapagos penguins stay relatively close to the shore. Going further out into the waters could mean falling prey to larger marine animals which inhabit the Galapagos, such as whale sharks and sea lions.
Despite having a natural lifespan of up to 20 years, most Galapagos Penguins fall victim to food shortage or predation. Even on land, they face threats from animals such as sharks and sea lions.
The penguins spend the day hunting for small fish which are carried to the shore by currents. They are known for diving beneath schools of fish and snagging a meal on their way back up. This technique drives the remaining fish closer to the surface, which then allows pelicans and seabirds to feed off of them as well.
After a day of hunting, the penguins return to land at night, once the temperatures have dropped.
Guests aboard the Aqua Mare will have the opportunity to spot Galapagos Penguins on a variety of occasions. Those traveling through our Western Galapagos itinerary might see them during their visit to the volcanic Sombrero Chino Island. They’ll also be able to get up close while snorkeling during their visit to Bartolome Island. On the other hand, those guests traveling in the East will get to visit Fernandina Island, which boasts the largest colony of penguins inhabiting the archipelago.
Till death do us part
Like most birds, Galapagos penguins tend to be monogamous. They court a mate through rituals such as preening, flipper patting, and bill tapping. After finding the right match, the male and female penguins breed for life.
Galapagos penguins don’t have specific breeding seasons. Instead, they choose to breed – often twice or thrice a year – depending on the abundance of food at the time. The female penguins produce upto six eggs per year and both parents incubate the eggs for up to 40 days.
After the chicks hatch, the parents take turns watching them. One of the penguins stays back while the other goes off in search of food. The chicks stay in the nest until they’ve shed their downy feathers and grown waterproof plumage. After that, they’re free to head out to sea and forage for themselves.
Apart from their immediate family, Galapagos penguins also tend to live within colonies. Their groups are smaller than those of other penguin species, however they are well organised and often hunt in coordination. Living together also helps protect the penguins from predators. Through vocalizations and body movements, they are able to warn each other when predators are around.
Rarest of their kind
Galapagos penguins are the rarest of their kind, with as few as 1,800 left in existence. They can be distinguished by a narrow C-shaped band of white feathers which extends from the corner of their eyes and across their neck. This band only appears once the penguins have grown into adults.
Their population experienced a drastic decline during El Niño events in the late 20th century. These events cause a rise in water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean and lead to food scarcity, as a result of which, a significant proportion of the penguin population isn’t able to survive. In 1982/83, around 80 percent of Galapagos penguins were wiped out due to an El Niño event. The remaining population faced another reduction of 65 percent in 1997/98.
Today, the penguins continue to be affected by a variety of threats. Climate change and an increase in pollution levels have led to El Niño events becoming more frequent and severe. Along with this, Galapagos penguins also have increasingly limited nesting options.
In the past, the penguins would nest in caves or crevices created by lava flows, but many of these no longer exist. Among those which remain, some have been taken over by marine iguanas while others are susceptible to flooding.
In an effort to conserve the Galapagos penguin population, researchers have been actively working to tackle these threats. In 2010, Dr. Dee Boersma of the University of Washington began building artificial nesting sites along with her team.
These proved to be immensely useful a few years later, following the El Niño event in 2016. Although the penguin population was negatively impacted, the numbers didn’t take long to stabilize. The artificial nests allowed the penguins to have a successful breeding season. During their monitoring trips in 2017 and 2018, the researchers found a thriving colony, made up primarily of juvenile Galapagos penguins.
Book an expedition on Aqua Mare to discover the elusive wildlife and dramatic volcanic landscapes of the Galapagos Archipelago. Curated with exclusivity and personalized service enabled in mind, the yacht is the only one in the Galapagos Islands to have a one-to-one crew to guest ratio. Plan your trip now and feel free to reach out to our Expeditions Consultant with any questions you may have.