A dream destination for any wildlife enthusiast, the Galapagos Islands are magical. Dedicated a UNESCO area of Outstanding Universal Value, the islands have a dynamic abundance of endemic animals. Best of all, the Galapagos wildlife does not have an inherent fear of humans. You can get incredibly close, which makes photographing these beautiful creatures very easy.
We went to the Galapagos in the shoulder season of October. The weather was perfect and allowed us relatively comfortable access to the land and water. Plus, it was the ideal time to see mating and nesting animals and birds.
Get to Know Galapagos Wildlife: Land Animals
Only found on the Galapagos, the giant tortoise is a symbol of the islands. In the early days of Spanish exploration, explorers named the islands galápago, meaning tortoise.
Making their way back from near extinction, twelve of the original fifteen subspecies survive today, largely with the help of conservation efforts.
Visit a research and breading center to see several subspecies in various life stages.
These centers now charge a small fee but include a guided tour. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to both centers and feel a guide would have been worthwhile. Plus, in our opinion, your money goes to a good cause.
- Charles Darwin Research Center, Santa Cruz Island – The Charles Darwin Research Station is free to visit, but it’s the Turtle Path that requires a fee and guide. The guides have mixed reviews, but it’s worth seeing these historic giants.
- Centro de Crianza Tortugas Gigantes Arnaldo Tupiza Chamaidan, Isabela Island – Not everyone makes it to Isabela Island. We found this facility much quieter and liked it a bit more.
It’s rare to see a giant tortoise in the wild, but not impossible. We were really lucky to catch this big fella walking out of the bushes. He found us along the Wall of Tears trail on Isabela Island. He’s living proof conservation programs work.
Galapagos Land Iguana
Probably the most interesting example of Galapagos wildlife evolution are the iguanas. There are two types of iguana, marine and land. Each have multiple species variations.
Endemic to six Galapagos’ islands, the land iguana varies in appearance from island to island.
Typically, land iguanas are herbivores. Feeding off the local vegetation, we watched the fellow pictured below eat a whole prickly pear in front of us, needles and all. It hurt watching it!
Santa Fe Land Iguana
Two other species of land iguana live in the Galapagos Islands.
- The Pink Land Iguana, found only on the slopes of Wolf Volcano. We didn’t get to see this one.
- The Santa Fe Land Iguana, only found on Santa Fe Island.
Though the Santa Fe Land Iguana closely resembles the iguanas found on other Galapagos’ islands, their snout is longer and more tapered. Their dorsal spines are more pronounced, and they are a paler yellow.
It’s worth noting, there is a rare marine-land hybrid iguana only found on South Plaza Island. Consider yourself very lucky if you see one.
Found throughout the Galapagos, these tiny reptiles sun themselves on the side of most trails. You’ll notice incredible variations in their colors and patterns.
Get to Know Galapagos Wildlife: Marine Animals
The Marine Iguana is definitely the most interesting creature on the Galapagos. It’s the only lizard in the world who forages for food in the sea. This unique specimen can not only swim, but they can also dive underwater for algae.
You’ll see them in various sizes. Some are slightly bigger than a common lizard. Others, like this big guy below, are the size of a pit bull.
Diving, snorkeling, and kayaking are all ways to expand what wildlife you can see in the Galapagos. Though, October is still too cold in the Galapagos Islands to get in the water without wet gear.
We saw various starfish, jellyfish, octopus, rays, and tons of colorful fish. None grabbed our hearts as much as the sea turtles. Large and gentle, these beautiful creatures are surprisingly hard to keep up with in the water.
Underwater Gear We Used
- AKASO Action Camera – This budget action camera works great for us. It comes with a waterproof case, remote, charger, and a ton of attachment accessories, including a helmet mount.
- Waterproof Selfie Stick – We wanted a self stick to extend our camera reach and give us a bit more control on what we filmed.
- Full Face Snorkel Mask – We were the envy of our cruise with these snorkels. No fog, no leaks, no spitting out salt water, no sore gums, and we could communicate underwater since we didn’t have a snorkel in our mouths. It also gave us a fuller view than a standard snorkel. We love them!
- Neo Sport Short Wet Suit – For being close to the equator, the water in the Galapagos is colder than you’d think. We were glad we brought our own wet gear.
Sea lions are one of the easiest animals to see in the Galapagos. They are literally everywhere. You’ll see them sleeping on the beaches, and benches or walkways in town and at the ferry terminal.
Though considered the shoulder season in the Galapagos, September and October are the best times to see newborn sea lion pups. We even had a few born right in front of us.
Head out on one of the uninhabited island tours to get a full dose of their cuteness.
If you manage to get in the water, you likely encounter even more sea lions.
Exhibiting lots of attention seeking behaviors, these lovable sea puppies were adorable and friendly as we snorkeled the clear blue waters. Be warned, they have no concept of personal space.
Sally Lightfoot Crab
Probably because they have more natural predators than most Galapagos wildlife, the Sally Lightfoot Crabs were the only skittish animals we found. Beautifully colored, these crabs decorate the shorelines of most islands.
Okay, these are not our favorite photos from the trip. However, we wanted to point out that you don’t need to be in the water to see the underwater wildlife.
After dark, go to the ferry terminal at Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. Peer into the lit-up water. You’ll find at least a dozen or more sharks feasting on the smorgasbord of fish attracted to the lights.
The most common type of shark you’ll see, especially while snorkeling, are the Galapagos Whitetip Reef Sharks.
On the other side of Santa Cruz is Caleta Tortuga Negra (Black Turtle Cove). These mangroves serve as a refuge and nursery to a variety of Galapagos wildlife.
In addition to baby hammerheads, we saw sea turtles, sting rays, and so many native birds. You must take a panga tour, large dinghy boat, to access this area.
Recommended Books on the Galapagos Islands
As the Galapagos are a once in a lifetime trip, we found having a guidebook essential for identifying all the birds and wildlife.
- Birds, Mammals, and Reptiles of the Galápagos Islands: An Identification Guide – The best guide we found on identifying the island’s vast wildlife.
- Lonely Planet Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands – We used the Lonely Planet Guidebook to plan our trip. Though it’s not full of photographs, its detailed information is wonderful for finding hidden gems.
Where to Stay in the Galapagos
If you’re going to the Galapagos for the wildlife, you’ll want to get on a cruise. However, we also spent a few days on Isla Santa Cruz and Isla Isabela. Both have many areas that don’t require a guide to explore. For us, Isla Isabela was a treasure trove of wildlife.
- Galapagos Morning Glory, Isla Santa Cruz – The rooms are simple but clean. Plus, we found the location perfect for exploring the island. The host was also amazing; he gave us great advice for booking a last-minute cruise, exploring the island, and getting over to Isla Isabela. We thought it was such great value, we stayed here both times we returned to Isla Santa Cruz.
- The Isabela Beach House – Just off the beach we loved this hotel’s location. It was an easy walk to the port and to get into town. We opted for a room with a balcony and sea view. Paradise!