Large yellow reptile looking at camera
Animals,  Galapagos Islands,  Lens-Artists,  Sunday Stills

Spotting wildlife in the Galápagos Islands

For many years I wanted to visit the Galápagos: to walk on these remote islands where unique species thrive, where Darwin first developed the ideas that would change our understanding of nature, and where animals have never learned to fear humankind. In 2012 I realised my dream; and fortunately, it more than lived up to my expectations!

The Galápagos Islands are located 600 miles from the Ecuadorian coast in the Pacific Ocean. There are 14 large islands and 120 smaller islets and rocks. Their isolation from any other place has resulted in the evolution of many unique species of flora and fauna, endemic to the archipelago or even to just one island within it.

View of low mountains, beaches and coves
View from the highest point on Bartolomé

The islands have been formed through volcanic activity, due to a ‘hot spot’ just west of the group. Eruptions here cause an island to form from the lava and rock emitted from beneath the sea bed. But rather than create one ever-growing island, made larger by each new eruption, the slow south-eastward movement of the tectonic plate on which they sit means that by the time of a subsequent eruption the island created by the previous one is some miles to the east, and instead a new one forms. Thus each island is on a slow journey south and east (moving at a rate of seven cm/year). Those furthest on that journey, such as San Cristobal and Espanola, are the oldest; and those in the west, such as Fernandina and Isabela, much younger (in geological terms).

A keen geologist will be fascinated by the details; but for the rest of us the attraction lies in the vivid scenery that results from all this activity, and for me, above all the colours. A jumble of black lava boulders, the backdrop to a white coral beach. Or a black lava beach washed by a turquoise sea. Or again, on Rabida, dark red cliffs with dusty green opuntia clinging to them.

Pale sand with a sea lion and boat offshore
Sea lion on the beach at Chinese Hat, with the Angelito offshore
Looking down at red beach with small boat offshore
The red sands of Rabida, again with the Angelito offshore
Black rocks by the sea
Lava rocks on Santiago ~ the red dots are Sally Lightfoot crabs!
Bay with a dark beach and small white boat offshore
Lava beach on Santiago and again with the Angelito offshore

And this dramatic scenery is the set for a multitude of living dramas, as the various animal species play out their lives under the gaze of mesmerised visitors. For the islands’ isolation has not only led to the large number of endemic species being present; but also to their tame and inquisitive nature. The Galápagos were never attached to any continent; the island chain’s remote location made it impossible for large land mammals that usually dominate the food chain to make the journey here. The giant tortoise became the dominate animal on the land, and he is a herbivore, so no threat to the others.

With this lack of natural predators, the wildlife of the Galápagos thrived in an Eden-like environment and never learned to be fearful of other species – even our own. Meeting these animals and interacting with them in their own environment is the true joy of a Galápagos holiday; so for this week’s Sunday Stills theme of wildlife I want to share some of our most memorable encounters there.

Galápagos sea lions

The first animals to greet us on almost every island were the sea lions. And I do mean ‘greet’. It often seemed that they had been lolling around on the beach or even the landing jetty just waiting for our arrival! This isn’t a scientific distinction, but for me they fell into four groups: adorable pups; languid and photogenic females; lively bachelor males; and the occasional bolshie alpha male throwing his weight about. The latter are best avoided; but all the others will allow you to come pretty close and will often come closer still to you.

The Galápagos sea lion is a distinct species, but closely related to the California sea lion. They are found on all the islands and number in the ten thousands. The females usually have just the one pup a year, though our guide Fabian said twins are not unusual and he has once seen triplets! We saw several new-born pups, for example on Sombrero Chino and Española. The babies are nursed by their mother for about six months until old enough to fish for themselves. Most of those we saw were still at this stage, so stayed quite close to mum. Some were more adventurous though and were venturing along the beach or across the rocks. One such followed a few of us for some time at Gardner Bay on Española, apparently mistaking us for family; so cute!

In addition to these large nursery groups we saw several of bachelor males (including on Isla Rabida and South Plaza). Male Sea Lions sometimes retreat to these so-called bachelor colonies to take a rest from the aggro of the alpha male. Once refreshed they may try themselves to take on one of the latter and to try to establish their own beach territory with several females. This they will then have to defend continuously from other bulls. These fights take their toll; most alpha males we saw were battle-scarred. Fabian told us that their reign is often short (sometimes only a few weeks) as they grow weaker with each fight and are then more easily vanquished.

Memorable encounters with the sea lions

On Santa Fe we had a ‘David Attenborough moment’! Soon after landing there we spotted one female who was further up the beach, almost among the salt bushes that line the beach. Moving closer we saw that she had a new-born sea lion pup; she was still blooded from the birth and the placenta was lying on the sand nearby. As we watched, we spotted a couple of juvenile Galápagos hawks circling the area and landing in the nearby trees, and more soon arrived. They sat there for a while, eyeing up this ‘treat’; they were perhaps each waiting for another to make a move, or for the mother to be sufficiently distracted. Eventually one of the hawks dived in to grab the placenta, and they were soon all fighting over it, devouring it with great relish.

Bird swooping down near sea lion
Hawk snatching the sea lion placenta
Close up of bird's face with blood on bill
Galapagos hawk with bloodied bill

Once the meal was over they retreated to the trees, presumably to rest and digest. Now we were able to get very close for more photos, even capturing the blood that still lingered on their hooked beaks. They seemed totally unfazed by their human audience, even seeming to pose for photos with us. Definitely one of my most memorable Galápagos experiences!

It was also at Santa Fe that I enjoyed my best snorkelling session with the sea lions. We were joined in our swim by a group of Galápagos sea lions. The females were happy to play with us while the watchful alpha male who patrolled among them tolerated our intrusion but disdained to join the fun. They stayed with us for a long while, and I was really pleased to be able to capture some of their antics on my waterproof camera, both on video, and these stills, just before its battery ran out! The sea lions seemed almost to know what I was doing; they repeatedly swam towards me, peered at the lens and flipped gracefully away again.

I’m sharing this and my ‘David Attenborough moment’ for this week’s Lens Artists challenge theme of memorable events. You can’t get much more memorable than this!

Upside-down sea lion in water
Sea lion underwater

The video below isn’t perfect but it really captures the essence of the experience. The clicking noise you hear in it is the sound of the sea lions communicating with each other; or possibly with us! Watch it full screen if you can, to get a fully immersive experience

Land iguanas

One of the largest animals you can see in the Galápagos are the land iguanas, which on some islands can reach over a metre in length. There are actually two species to be found here: Conolophus subcristatus on six of the islands, and Conolophus pallidus only on Santa Fe. The latter is often a paler yellow than the main species (hence the name, ‘pallidus’), and has more spines on its back. Charles Darwin described the land iguanas as

‘ugly animals, of a yellowish orange beneath, and of a brownish-red colour above: from their low facial angle they have a singularly stupid appearance.’

However I have to say that I disagree with the famous naturalist; I found them sort of cute, although probably only their mothers would consider them beautiful!

All the marine and land iguana species in the Galápagos are thought to be descendants of a single species, the green iguana, which is native on the South American continent. Arriving probably on vegetation rafts to the isles, the green iguana had to adapt to a new and different environment. It did so by evolving into two very distinct new species.

One of these descendant species, the land iguana, adapted to feed on the vegetation of the islands. Surprisingly perhaps, they prefer the prickly pear cactus or opuntia. This in turn has evolved, growing much taller than elsewhere in the world to be out of reach of the iguanas; but the latter simply stand on their hind legs to reach the pads and fruit. They have a leathery, tough tongue and don’t need to remove the spines from the cactus before eating. The cactus forms about 80% of their diet and ensures that they get plenty of water even in the arid dry season such as when we visited.

Tree with cactus-like leaves by the sea
Opuntia on Santa Fe
Tree with cactus-like leaves by the sea
Opuntia on Santa Fe

Marine iguanas

The other main species of iguana that live here are the marine iguanas. Darwin wasn’t too impressed with them either:

The black lava rocks on the beach are frequented by large most disgusting, clumsy lizards. They are as black as the porous rocks over which they crawl & seek their prey from the sea. Somebody calls them ‘imps of darkness’. They assuredly well-become the land they inhabit.

Black and red reptile on a rock by the sea
Marine Iguana, Espanola

I’ve written about these bizarre-looking creatures in a previous post, so I’ll pass quickly over them now.

Giant tortoises

This is the animal that perhaps most symbolises these islands, and indeed gave them their name; Galápagos is derived from the Spanish for saddle, referring to the shape of the tortoise’s shell. And their huge size (they can weigh over 250 kilos, and their shells measure up to 150 cm) makes them the dominant species on the islands; dominant that is until man arrived.

These lumbering but strangely mesmerising beasts have captured people’s imagination through the centuries. They played a part in developing Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, when he heard the vice-governor of the Islands’ assertion that he could identify from which island a tortoise came simply by looking at it:

The inhabitants…state that they can distinguish the tortoise from different islands; and that they differ not only in size, but in other characters. Captain Porter has described those from Charles and from the nearest island to it, namely Hood Island, as having their shells in front thick and turned up like a Spanish saddle, whilst the tortoises from James Island are rounder, blacker, and have a better taste when cooked.

Giant tortoises are endemic to the Galápagos, with 15 subspecies having been recorded around the archipelago. Not only do we find a different subspecies on each island where the tortoises live; on Isabella there is a different subspecies for each of the four volcanoes. To a tortoise these volcanoes might just as well be islands; they are unable to travel the distances between them, being too slow to cross large areas devoid of suitable vegetation for their diet.

But man very nearly wiped these animals from existence. When he arrived in the Galápagos there were hundreds of thousands of giant tortoises; but as the quote from Darwin above indicates, the tortoises were found to be a valuable source of meat for sailors who had been long at sea, and were hunted accordingly. They were also threatened by the arrival of alien animals introduced by man: pigs, goats, horses and cows whose existence in the islands threatened young tortoises. These ate the little vegetation that was available in the islands; and their hooves crushed tortoise eggs and the soft shells of the young ones.

Fortunately the danger was recognised, although not before several of the subspecies had been wiped out. In the 1970s the Charles Darwin Research Station established their tortoise-rearing project, collecting eggs from islands where the species had become endangered, and bringing them to the station where they are incubated and hatched. The young tortoises are raised until their shells become strong and they can withstand the threat of the introduced predators; then they are released back into the wild.

Large tortoise with his head up
Super Diego

At the research centre we met ‘Super Diego’ (above), considered to be their most sexually active male (and therefore very useful to the breeding programme!) He is a saddleback tortoise, and his shell shape differs from that of his cousins, as described by Darwin. On the larger islands, such as on Santa Cruz, the giant tortoises thrive in the highlands where there is plentiful ground vegetation. There the domed shell is the norm. But on some of the smaller islands, where most vegetation is above ground and harder to reach, the tortoises have evolved to have this cut-away area of their shell, behind their heads. This enables them to stretch upwards to reach more food. Our guide told us that Stephen Spielberg had been inspired by seeing the tortoises on a visit to the centre to come up with the image of ET; look, you can see him, can’t you?

Large tortoise looking up at camera
Super Diego

One inhabitant we did not see however was Lonesome George, arguably at one time the most famous tortoise in the world. Sadly he had died a few months before our visit, in June 2012. George was thought to be the sole surviving member of the Pinta subspecies (chelonoidis abingdonii). Scientists had tried for many years to persuade him to breed, with no success. Hence the nickname of Lonesome; although Fabian maintained that his failure to find success with the ladies was down to his own cantankerous nature!

Around the time of our visit however it was reported that scientists have identified at least 17 tortoises that appear to be closely related to George’s subspecies; and that they might even have found one purebred Pinta tortoise. Maybe George was not totally lonesome after all! Meanwhile his pen had been left as it was. A plaque had been placed beside it in memory of one who undoubtedly did a lot to draw people’s attention to the importance of preserving as much of the wildlife of these special islands (and indeed of the world) as possible.

Elsewhere on Santa Cruz we were able to see some giant tortoises in the wild and in a reserve. We had a walk through the latter where we saw quite a few, including one enjoying a mud bath and several munching on grass and leaves. One came straight towards a small group of us, and we had to step aside and let him pass; he was clearly the boss, and nothing was going to stop him reaching his destination. Sharing a narrow path with one of these enormous reptiles really gives you a sense of their size and strength!

I hope you’ve enjoyed meeting these iconic animals and some of the other inhabitants of these amazing islands. There are plenty more that I left out rather than make this even longer a post than it is already; so I may add a sequel at a future date!

I visited the Galápagos Islands in 2012

59 Comments

  • Sam Hankss

    What incredible experiences Sarah. I cannot start to imagine how beautiful the islands are and how amazing it felt to live your dream of visiting them! Thank you for sharing!

  • Christie

    Such a memorable trip, Sarah, I think you loved every minute of it! A wildlife paradise, the ultimate dream for wildlife lovers. Galapagos was on my bucket list awhile ago, not sure what happened with my list in the past couple of years LOL The sea lion pups are such cuties🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Christie – yes, totally memorable and very special 🙂 I know what you mean about bucket lists! My travel wish-list has grown in the last couple of years as I’ve been adding to it but not ticking anything off 🙁 Hoping that will change very soon!!

  • SoyBend

    What a memorable trip, Sarah! I hope to visit there one day. I like your first photo – the texture of the scales and the lemon yellow color. Wow! The sea lion pups are so cute. I have three kinds of Opuntia in my yard but didn’t realize there was a tree form. Cool!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Siobhan, I do hope you get to visit! These opuntia are unique to the Galapagos, having evolved to try to avoid being eaten by the land iguanas. Isn’t nature clever?!

  • rosalieann37

    As you know, I went to the Galapagos last year. I was only able to see what I could from the water (so no giant tortoises). I was happy to see what I could even though I couldn’t do everything. You don’t have to give up, just modify your goals a little bit.

    When my son went snorkeling the sea lions chased one of the snorkelers and tried to take off his fins. I had wanted to snorkel and see the hamerhead sharks, but there were none of those on the snorkeling that they did.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, I enjoyed reading your blog posts about your trip (as you know!) I agree, we can always find lots to do even if we can’t do everything. If Chris wants to hike up a mountain I leave him to it and go off taking photos somewhere 🙂 If it’s any consolation, I snorkelled on four occasions during our trip and didn’t see any hammerheads, and the one snorkel I decided to skip I learned later the water was so murky no one saw anything much!

  • rkrontheroad

    You have had some stunning encounters with the Galapagos wildlife and you have filled in with the unique history of the place. I’m feeling inspired to look for the photos of my visit, but they won’t compare to these!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Actually I was disappointed with my photos from this trip as many weren’t sharp enough! I realised my camera was rather too light for me – it was great to carry but made it too easy to wobble a bit on full zoom. It was after this trip that I swapped to my Panasonic Lumix bridge which I love!

  • bushboy

    This is a wow post Sarah. I would love to get there. The opener with Iguana made me smile. Great photos and wonderful writing.
    I have just read about the Rangers taking a number of Tortoises bound up and carried on the ir backs from the breeding facility to a secret location. Amazing photos

  • sheetalbravon

    What an incredible post, Sarah! I was whisked away on the Galapagos trip with you right from the word go. In fact your post has been my morning dose of awe and wonder. Loved the video you attached too and honestly, going green with envy. I hope someday to walk in your footsteps and see these marvels for myself.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Ah, that’s wonderful Sheetal! I’m happy to have taken you along with me and I hope you do get to visit in person one day. It’s a real ‘bucket list’ experience 😀

  • JohnRH

    Wowwwwww. INCREDIBLE. The land iguana is a ‘singularly stupid’ that I wouldn’t want to mess with. I love the video fullscreen. Amazing. Definitely a ‘forever memorable’ experience.

  • Manja Maksimovič

    Astonishing, all of it. So glad that you could experience it. My favourite would be snorkelling with the sea lions. <3 We have opuncia cactus here but it's not a tree like these. Also – I HATE Darwin's descriptions!! Who did he think he was! 😀

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Haha – Darwin was ‘of his time’ I guess and would never have seen anything remotely like these! I admire him; to come to such a place, see and learn about these creatures, and from that to develop his theory as he did, was an amazing achievement 😀 And yes, these opuntia are unique to these islands, an evolutionary response to the land iguana’s taste for them. With no land iguanas to threaten them yours have no need to evolve in such a way. I wonder if over time they will grow even higher as the land iguanas also evolve to reach higher?

  • maristravels

    Another enthralling post Sarah, and vivid illustrations to go with the story. I’ve never managed the Galapagos and too late now I’m afraid, so I’m equally glad that you’ve posted this as your description fits what I imagined it to be like. Your close-ups are superb and although can’t magine what it would be like to swim with sea lions( I can’t even swim!) I have got the imagination to realise that it must have been something very special indeed. Did you need special footwear to negotiate the terrain or was it easy?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Mari. I do understand what you mean about ‘too late’ 🤗 I’m still up for a fair bit of travelling but I’m passed my sell-by date for some adventures I know 🙁 As to footwear, it varied according to each island and our guide made recommendations for the next day at an evening briefing. Almost always he said ‘I recommend you tennis shoes’ which became a bit of a mantra for the whole trip! I wore trainers most of the time. Sometimes we had wet landings (wading ashore) and he suggested waterproof sandals but I found it easier to go barefoot and dry off and put the trainers on, as I walk better in them. Occasionally we were on a beach all the time and could go barefoot. A few islands were very rocky and a bit tougher going but trainers were still OK – however I found my hiking pole invaluable on a couple of them 🙂

      • maristravels

        Ah yes, the hiking pole, invaluable. I stick to trainers as a rule too but my last hike in France (two years ago) over the battlefields, they were frowned on by the tour leader who said I should have brought my hiking boots for the muddy and slippery terrain of the Somme. My trainers were fine I found, slip-on, Velcro ties, and I no longer have a pair of hiking boots as I can’t bend down to tie the laces due to spinal arthritis! Like you, I would favour barefoot over wet shoes.

  • Tina Schell

    Wonderful post Sarah. Your images are wonderful, but your closeup of the giant tortoise and the iguana are superb! I’ve heard mixed results from others on journeys there and suspect it’s due to which of the islands their ships were allowed to visit as I understand they are controlled. Looks like you were especially lucky with the islands you were able to visit!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Tina, I’m glad you liked this! I’m surprised at anyone not being happy with a trip here. Yes, you can’t visit every island but you would see these or equally as good sights wherever you went. I did choose our cruise very carefully, looking at all the different itineraries, but I read that everyone does that and in the end it doesn’t matter, as every island has its unique special experiences! Still, I’m glad ours included Española as that’s the only place you can see the albatrosses, and even then only at certain times of the year. Maybe the people you spoke to went on larger boats, as I don’t think that would give you such a great experience. Ours was small, just 16 passengers 🙂

  • Terri Webster Schrandt

    What a wonderful experience you had, Sarah, David Attenborough moments indeed!. Your photos show us the amazing-ness that IS the Galapagos Islands. It is such a unique place on the planet. You really got in tight with so many shots letting us all see an amazing glimpse into their world. I love how the whole area is home to such a variety of species all interwoven in their cohabitation. I imagine those giant tortoises live well over 100 years. An ever-changing environment and unique object of study. I hope the wildlife can continue to thrive and are not threatened by humankind. Probably the most wild and unique for Sunday Stills this week! Bravo!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Terri 😀 I think you’re right, the Galapagos has to be one of the ultimate wildlife experiences! And because the animals are so unafraid of us it’s easy to get those tight images. My only regret is that I didn’t have such a good camera back then so some of my shots were disappointing.

Do share your thoughts, I'd love to hear from you!

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