Unique species by island
Formed as a result of volcanic activity, the Galápagos archipelago consists of 13 larger islands and more than 40 smaller islands, islets, and rocks (many of which are unnamed). Only certain spots on specific islands can be visited by tourists—and then, only under the watchful eye of a naturalist guide keeping you all vigilantly on the marked paths. Every island sounds wonderful and special in its own right, but you just can’t get to them all unless you have the time and resources to do a 15-day tour. (And if you do, would you consider adopting my husband and me?) If you have specific wildlife you’d really like to see, check out this Web page. You can click on reptiles, mammals, seabirds, or land birds and get a sense of the presence of species on each of the major visitor islands. Keep in mind, though, that you of course are not guaranteed to see any particular wildlife at any particular spot. But you might as well increase your chances!
Deciding to eliminate visits to particular islands is kind of like having to choose your favorite pet. Here’s are some of my personal opinions on the wildlife that is especially iconic in the archipelago.
- If you’re interested in seeing unusual bird species, you may be confused by the boobies and the frigatebirds. You will see Blue-footed Boobies (left) around many of the islands. They are shallow-water feeders, so they fish off the coast of many of the inner islands. You won’t be able to miss their flamboyant feeding style as they fly above the water, pivot, and spear themselves head-first into the waters after fish. For the same reason, you’ll also see Magnificent Frigatebirds (right) around the inner islands, harassing other birds mid-air to give up their fish catches. However, you will only see Red-footed Boobies (left) on Genovesa; that is also one place we saw Great Frigatebirds (right) up close. (We also saw a few breeding pairs on North Seymour on our 2nd trip in May, 2013.) Both of these species are deep-water feeders and will be found at this northernmost island.
- Also, you will see Galápagos Sea Lions on almost any sunny beach; one even hopped onto our boat one evening for a snooze (and perhaps to get away from her kid for a while). However, if you’re interested in Galápagos Fur Sea Lions (left—also called fur seals, although they’re not true seals), we saw them lounging on the cool, rocky cliffs near Prince Philip’s Steps, Genovesa. But the best spot to get close to them is at the beautiful grottoes at Puerto Egas, on Santiago.
- If your itinerary doesn’t get you to the western islands (Isabela and Fernandina), your best chance for seeing the world’s only equatorial penguin species—the unbelievably adorable Galápagos Penguin (right)—will probably be off Bartolomé, on the rocks around Pinnacle Rock. You might even get to snorkel with them there! (The small group there moves between that island and Sombrero Chino, so a stop at the latter island might get you a viewing also.) The view at the top of Bartolomé after the climb up the 300+ steps is really lovely—and allegedly the most photographed spot in the archipelago.
- The Waved Albatrosses will only be found at Punta Suárez on Española—and typically only between mid-March and December (although I have heard an occasional report of a non-breeding sighting in January). The vast numbers start to thin out in December, as breeding season comes to a close; so keep that in mind. They spend January through late March or early April soaring 24/7 off the coast of Perú. By mid-April, the numbers should be increasing again here. Punta Suárez is pretty much the only place on the planet you can see these birds on land (except for a small breeding colony on an island closer to the coast of Ecuador). I sincerely believe they should not be missed, if at all possible. Even if you think you’re not a bird person, they are gorgeous and magnificent creatures. The scenery is quite spectacular at Punta Suárez too, even without those magnificent birds.
- The westernmost islands (predominantly Fernandina, but also the western coast of Isabela) are the only ones that host the Flightless Cormorants. The elusive Mangrove Finch can be found only on Isabela, but good luck with that…
- North Seymour is known for its nesting colonies of Magnificent and Great Frigatebirds and Blue-footed Boobies; although you’ll see them harassing other sea birds for their food many places, North Seymour is the only place we got close views of the courtship rituals. Since it’s close to Baltra, it receives a lot of day-trip traffic; it’s probably better if your itinerary gets you there earlier in the day or toward the end of the day, rather than mid-day.
Other island specialties
- Devil’s Crown off Floreana is one of the best snorkeling spots in the archipelago (as reported by many people). The wildlife on Floreana and the scenery in general weren’t quite as interesting as on other islands, in my opinion. But the human history around Post Office Bay is unique and the nesting Greater Flamingos at Punta Cormorán were a surprise when we were there.
- On Santa Cruz, I recommend an itinerary that goes not just to the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) in Puerto Ayora but also to the highlands. In the highlands, you have the chance to see the Galápagos Giant Tortoises in the wild. It’s a much more interesting and satisfying experience than just seeing them in the breeding program at the CDRS. I don’t mean to say anything negative about the breeding program; it offers a unique chance to see baby tortoises of many different ages.
- Isabela and Fernandina are the youngest islands and, as such, they have had more recent volcanic activity than the other islands you can visit. They also have some great snorkeling spots—some say the best snorkeling in the archipelago. Isabela has the largest number of Giant Tortoises; however, they live in the calderas, which are challenging to get to. It also has a captive tortoise breeding program; but as I noted above, seeing them in the wild is much more amazing. You might see some wild tortoises if you stop at Urbina Bay (Isabela), because the bay lies at the base of Volcán Alcedo where the largest population of tortoises lives.
- Although the red beach of Rábida is funky, I think you could skip it (assuming you have to skip something!). The snorkeling there was also the least interesting, at least when we were there (Sept., 2009). I also would rank South Plaza and Santa Fé a bit lower, at least from a wildlife perspective (although Santa Fé has a unique species of Land Iguana, if you’re interested in that). The scenery is nice on both, though.
The choices are hard, but no matter what—you’ll have a marvelous time. After all, you’ll be in the Galápagos Islands!