Top 10 Animals to Spot in the Galapagos Islands

1 year ago Galapagos

In the Galapagos Islands, animals have lived and evolved for millions of years without any human interaction. Unlike other parts of the world where creatures have built-in instincts of fear, many of the species found here have never had to worry about predators. As a result, a visit to this region allows for up-close encounters which you’ll never forget. 


From sea lions curiously approaching you while snorkeling to marine iguanas being utterly unbothered by your presence, the Galapagos Islands are a haven for spotting animals in the wild. Here’s our ultimate list of ten animals to spot while sailing on Aqua Mare.


1) Galapagos Giant Tortoise

IUCN Status: Vulnerable

One of the most renowned animals in the Galapagos archipelago, the region’s giant tortoises are some of the biggest in the world. The average size of a Galapagos giant tortoise is 1.5 meters, growing to a maximum of 1.8 meters and weighing up to 400 kilograms. These animals have a life expectancy of over 100 years, with the oldest tortoise on record living to an age of 175.


Galapagos Wildlife - Aqua Mare


It is believed that giant tortoises live so long courtesy of their lean diet of grasses and leaves, a healthy sunbathing regime, and nearly 16 hours of rest a day. The tortoises can survive for up to a year without eating or drinking because of their slow metabolism and ability to store large amounts of water.


Once numbered at over 250,000, the Galapagos Tortoise population has dwindled to less than 15,000 today due to exploitation by whalers, buccaneers, and fur sealers. While sailing on Aqua Mare, guests will have the opportunity to visit Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center, a long-term program run by the Galapagos National Park to help with conservation and restoration of the giant tortoise population.


2) Galapagos Penguin

IUCN Status: Endangered

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. 


galapagos penguin


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.


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. Find out more about Galapagos penguins here.


3) Magnificent Frigatebird

IUCN Status: Least Concern

The largest of the frigatebirds, this remarkable species is endemic to the Galapagos archipelago. Magnificent frigatebirds are renowned for their bizarre courting ritual wherein the males inflate their bright red chests, almost like a balloon. They proceed to drum on their chest with their bills in order to attract females. 


magnificent frigatebird


Unlike most other bird species in the Galapagos Islands, magnificent frigatebirds can’t land on water or hunt for food in the ocean. In order to survive, they’re forced to steal food from other birds. They’re often seen chasing after blue-footed boobies and shaking them by the tail until they throw up. 


Due to their lack of hunting skills, magnificent frigatebirds have evolved to require very little amounts of food. Their bones are extremely light, and they barely need to move their wings when flying high. In fact, magnificent frigate birds can remain in the sky for weeks at a time, while hanging onto the wind currents. 


4) Flightless Cormorant

IUCN Status: Vulnerable

Owing to centuries of evolution and natural selection, flightless cormorants have lost the ability to fly.  Being an endemic species in the Galapagos Islands, they’ve never faced much threat from land predators. This removed the need for them to have functional wings. 


flightless cormorant galapagos


However, due to the scarcity of food in the archipelago, it was important that the cormorants knew how to swim. Surviving mostly on eels and octopus, those which were more adept at swimming were likely to live longer and contribute to the genepool. 


Today, there are around a 1000 breeding pairs of flightless cormorants, which can mostly be found on the islands of Isabela and Fernandina. They make their nests on land, using materials – such as seaweed – that can be found in the ocean. These birds can be spotted all-year-round, however, to witness their courting rituals, a visit between May and October is recommended.


While sailing on Aqua Mare’s West Galapagos itineraries, guests will visit Punta Espinoza which is home to a large population of flightless cormorants.


5) Darwin’s Finches

IUCN Status: Vulnerable

Named after biologist Charles Darwin – whose famous theory of evolution was founded on his research studies in the Galapagos Islands – Darwin’s finches refer to 14 species of small land birds, 13 of which are endemic to the archipelago. 


darwins finches galapagos


Although they’re generally similar in shape and size, different species of Darwin’s finches have distinguishable characteristics such as their habitat and diet. 


For example, common cactus finches and green warbler finches are among the most prevalent and can be found on most of the islands in the Galapagos archipelago. The mangrove finch – which is now critically endangered – can only be spotted near Isabela island. 


The finches are said to have evolved into different species over time, as they developed characteristics to help them survive better on the different islands. Observing these differences allowed Darwin to conceptualize his theory of evolution. 


6) Scalloped Hammerhead Shark

IUCN Status: Critically Endangered

An unmistakable group of sharks, scalloped hammerheads can be distinguished by the wide shape of their heads. The ridges in their head have earned them their name and separate them from other species of hammerhead sharks.



Scalloped hammerheads can be found near the shores of Darwin and Wolf island in the Galapagos archipelago. They are one of the region’s rarer animals, however, if there are any in the nearby waters, Aqua Mare’s expert naturalist guides will be sure to help you spot them. Usually, scalloped hammerheads swim over rocky reefs or along walls. They tend to be solitary, but might be found in packs on occasion. 


Their wide-spaced eyes and nostrils are adaptations which help these sharks track down nearby prey easily. Along with this, scalloped hammerheads also have special sensory cells which allow them to detect the electrical fields of the small fish which they feed on.


7) Galapagos Land Iguana

IUCN Status: Vulnerable

Perhaps the closest living relatives of mythical dragons, Galapagos land iguanas are striking creatures. They’re one of the largest lizards in the world with sharp claws and blotchy yellow skin. Being cold-blooded reptiles, land iguanas spend most of their time basking in the sunshine. While sailing on Aqua Mare, guests can expect to be welcomed by these stress-free creatures relaxing on the volcanic island rocks. 


south plaza island | Aqua Expeditions



Galapagos land iguanas tend to live by themselves. Male iguanas are especially territorial and often become aggressive while fending off other males. They may thrash their tails, head-butt, and even bite other iguanas which try to invade their space. Female iguanas are not quite as hot-headed. They can be spotted living in groups – at least when it’s not breeding season. These dynamics change when it comes time to lay eggs. Female iguanas search far and wide for an ideal nesting place, and they may travel as far as nine miles to find it.


Due to the lack of fresh water in the Galapagos Islands, cactus is an important source of nutrition for Galapagos land iguanas. The iguanas have a leather-like texture to their skin and tongue which protects them and allows them to feed on spined cactus. This makes up for up to 80 percent of their diet.  


8) Galapagos Marine Iguana

IUCN Status: Vulnerable

Galapagos marine iguanas are the only seafaring lizards in the world and one of the islands’ most peculiar-looking species. They are endemic to this region and scientists believe that they shared a common ancestor with land iguanas. Over the course of millions of years, marine iguanas have evolved to survive on food found under the sea. 


Galapagos Wildlife - Aqua Mare



They have developed a flattened snout to feed on algae found on underwater rocks. Their claws allow them to grab onto the rocks, and their tail is shaped to help them move efficiently through the water. Marine iguanas can hold their breath for up to thirty minutes while feeding in the ocean. 


Green and red algae are the primary source of nutrition for marine iguanas. At times, they can also be seen eating grasshoppers and small shrimps and krill. On a select few islands, marine iguanas have been found feeding on land-based plants as well. 


9) American Flamingo 

IUCN Status: Least Concern

Although American flamingos are found across the Caribbean as well, their population in the Galapagos Islands displays a number of genetic differences. Most notably, they’re smaller in size and have a different body shape.


american flamingo galapagos


American flamingos can mostly be found in brackish lagoons. While traveling on our Galapagos cruise, guests will be able to spot them on a hiking trail in Dragon Hill, which begins with a wet landing and continues inland through mangroves and sand dunes to a flamingo lagoon.


The flamingos feed on algae, crustaceans, and microscopic plant materials. These contain carotenoid pigments which contributes to their remarkable pink coloration. Along with feeding, American flamingos also perform their courtship ritual in shallow water. This comprises a synchronized dance, following which mating pairs nest, and the female lays a single egg.  


10) Bryde’s Whale

IUCN Status: Endangered

One of the most elusive creatures to inhabit the Galapagos Islands, Bryde’s whales are solitary animals which spend most of the day around fifty feet beneath the water’s surface. They venture deeper when searching for food, reaching depths of up to 1,000 feet. Bryde’s whales can dive for a maximum of 20 minutes at a time. 



Measuring up to 15 meters in length, Bryde’s whales can be distinguished by the three lateral raised ridges on top of their heads. Although they’re smaller than their cousin species such as Blue whales and Sei whales, Bryde’s whales can still weigh over 20,000 kilograms. 


While sailing on Aqua Mare, the captain is always on the look out for whales which might be swimming nearby. Guests are told about any sightings and are welcome to see for themselves from the panoramic lounge or sun deck.


Interested to discover the Galapagos Islands’ wildlife with our experienced naturalist guides? Join us on board our luxury superyacht, Aqua Mare.