The Galapagos Islands are a volcanic archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. They are accessible by plane from Guayaquil and Quito in Ecuador. They are considered one of the world’s best wildlife watching destinations and support a huge diversity of plant and animal species. Many of these species are found nowhere else in the world. Some of the highlights include: Galapagos penguins, marine iguanas, hammerhead sharks, sea lions, giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies, green sea turtles, reef sharks, whale sharks, and manta rays. Charles Darwin famously visited the islands in 1835, and his observations of the wildlife helped to inspire his theory of natural selection. Over 180 years later and the Galapagos still have the same power to change the way you look at the world.
Average rating: 4.8 (very good)
Average spend per person: $2,206 ($12 – $7,000)
Number of reports: 6
Best time to visit: January – December
Typical activities: animal watching, bird watching, boat trip, kayaking, scuba diving, snorkelling
Wildlife in Galapagos
According to reports submitted to WildSide, the most popular species that can be seen around the Galapagos Islands are as follows:
Blue-footed booby – 100% of multi-day tours (3/3) reported sightings
The Galapagos Islands support a large population of blue-footed boobies. They are easily visible on many of the islands. North Seymour is one of the biggest seabird breeding grounds, and a great place to see them, However, there are also large breeding populations on Espanola, Fernandina, Floreana, Isabela, Pinzon, and Santa Cruz. While they are visible year round, the best time to see boobies is during the mating season (June – August). During this time they undertake a spectacular mating dance . Close-up sightings of large numbers of boobies are pretty much guaranteed on tours in Galapagos. WildSide recommends the Golondrina as an excellent and (relatively!) cheap tour of the islands. Prices fall significantly if you book last-minute – we paid $1,800 for an 8 day tour but even cheaper deals are available.
Galapagos penguin – 100% of multi-day tours (3/3) reported sightings
Galapagos penguins are endemic to the islands so you won’t find them anywhere else in the world. In 1982 there was a huge 77% drop in their population due to a severe El Nino event. However, there are now around 2,000 penguins on the islands. They are mainly found on Isabela and Fernandina islands but can also be seen on Floreana, Santiago, and Bartolome. They are present year around and sightings are pretty much guaranteed on tours of the islands. We saw them snorkelling off Bartolome. Being in the water while they are gliding past you is an incredible experience!
Giant tortoise – 100% of multi-day tours (3/3) reported sightings
Giant tortoises arrived in Galapagos around 2-3 million years ago and diversified into 15 species. After years of hunting and the introduction of predators, there are now only 10 species left. The Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz has a captive breeding facility to help the conservation of giant tortoises. It is free and an interesting place to learn about these animals. Close up sightings are guaranteed year round although they are kept in enclosures. If you want to see them in the wild, Santa Cruz and Isabela have the largest populations. They can also be found on Santiago, San Cristobal, Pinzon, and Espanola. WildSide recommends Las Primicias Rancho on Santa Cruz as a great place to see them lumbering through their natural habitat. Entrance is $5 and you can get there by bus from Puerto Ayora to Santa Rosa then a 1 hour walk or short taxi.
Green sea turtle – 100% of multi-day tours (3/3) reported sightings
Galapagos green turtles are a former subspecies of green sea turtle that are now recognised as a species in their own right. They can be found throughout the islands and are easily seen when snorkelling or scuba diving. They are present year round although December to March is when pregnant females can be seen around the shores waiting to lay their eggs. Sightings are pretty much guaranteed on tours in the Galapagos. Our most memorable encounter was swimming through a huge group of these beautiful, slow-moving creatures when snorkelling off Kicker Rock.
Hammerhead shark – 100% of scuba divers (2/2) reported sightings
The Galapagos Islands are one of the best places in the world to dive with hammerheads. Scalloped hammerheads gather in schools of several hundred making for jaw dropping diving. They can be seen year round but numbers are highest in January and lowest in May. Note, the TripAdvisor graph shows the number of reports not the number of sharks.
The best place to see hammerheads is around the northern islands of Darwin and Wolf which require a dedicated dive boat to reach ($7,000+). Sightings here are pretty much guaranteed. If you don’t have the time (or money) for a dive boat there are still relatively high chances of seeing them on day dives (~$160 for two tanks) at Gordon’s Rock (boats leave from Santa Cruz) and Kicker Rock (boats leave from San Cristobal). It is possible to see them when snorkelling although chances are much lower. We saw them when diving at Kicker Rock and (at a distance!) when snorkelling at Darwin Bay (off Genovesa). Both experiences were unforgettable!
Manta ray – 0% of scuba divers (0/2) reported sightings
The Galapagos Islands are home to a range of ray species – including giant oceanic manta rays. The greatest chances of manta encounters are from January – May. During this time the water is warmer and the skies are sunnier. This also coincides with high hammerhead numbers, although lower chances of seeing whale sharks. While it is possible to see them when snorkelling and even from boat tours (they breach like whales!), the best chance is when scuba diving. The best dive sites to see mantas are reported to be Cabo Marshall, Cousin’s Rock, Darwin Island, and Gordon’s Rock – so getting on a dive boat is your best bet.
Marine iguana – 100% of multi-day tours (3/3) reported sightings
Another species that can only be found in Galapagos. These fascinating creatures are hard to miss on the islands – basking in the sun in great piles or slithering through the water in search of algae. Seeing them in the water when snorkelling or diving is a singularly weird experience! They can be found on Isabela, Fernandina, Espanola, Floreana, Santa Cruz, and the other islets around them. There are actually several very similar subspecies on the islands – those on Isabela and Fernandina are the largest, while those on Espanola and Floreana are the most colourful – turning bright green and red during mating season. They live on the islands year round – with mating occurring between January and March.
Reef shark – 67% of multi-day tours (2/3) reported sightings
Sightings of whitetip and blacktip reef sharks are reported year round in the Galapagos Islands. Although they are somewhat overshadowed by the presence of hammerheads – views of these beautiful sharks are pretty much guaranteed when snorkelling or diving around the islands. They are also seen regularly on beaches and in mangroves – with juveniles often being found swimming in the shallows close to the shores. Sightings of reef sharks have even been reported from beach side bars and restaurants!
Sea lion – 100% of multi-day tours (3/3) reported sightings
Galapagos sea lions are the most abundant marine mammal on the islands and are widespread along the coastline (note, while this species is mainly found in Galapagos they can also be sometimes seen around Isla de la Plata). They can be seen year round on pretty much every beach – and even some bar stools. Close up encounters with sea lions are guaranteed on beaches, when swimming, and when snorkelling or diving. Coming face to face with a large, inquisitive mammal that stares directly into your eyes when you are under the water is a once in a life time experience!
Whale shark – 0% of scuba divers (0/2) reported sightings
Whale sharks are most commonly seen in the northern most Galapagos islands of Wolf and Darwin. As such you need to be on a dive boat to have a chance of spotting them. The Galapagos Whale Shark Project has tagged over 60 whale sharks in the area and found that Darwin island provides an important navigation point for whale sharks on their way to feeding grounds in the Pacific Ocean. Whale sharks are regularly sighted between June and November, with the earliest sightings in May. During this time the water is cooler and the skies are less sunny – and there are fewer mantas and hammerheads.