10 Amazing Animals to See in the Galápagos Islands

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A trip to the Galápagos is a chance to see some of the world’s weirdest animals.

Meet 10 of the world’s most fascinating wildlife species. Animals in the Galápagos Islands don’t fear humans, so travelers of all ages and physical capabilities can enjoy an unforgettable up-close-and-personal experience with wildlife in one of the world’s most dreamy destinations.

Visitors are required to stay six feet away from all wildlife for their protection and yours, but sometimes that’s hard when Galápagos sea lions kiss you while you’re snorkeling, or you have to step over lounging marine iguanas that bask in the middle of island trails. Many of these strange creatures can be found nowhere else in the world, making a trip to the Galápagos an enchanting wildlife experience of a lifetime.

PHOTO: Jennifer Berry
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Galápagos Penguin

Cruising along the rocky edges of Bartolomé Island in a motorized panga, searching for a small colony of the northern hemisphere’s only penguin will excite adventurous travelers. Round the corner toward Pinnacle Rock and you’re likely to find small groups of Galápagos Penguins on the edge of volcanic rocks that jut into the sea. Cut your motor, look them in the eye, and watch them swim, preen, and hug one another.

INSIDER TIPFor a chance to swim with these penguins, consider snorkeling from the north shore of Bartolomé Island and near Pinnacle Rock.

PHOTO: Jennifer Berry
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Blue-footed Booby

A hike through rocky terrain to the top of a volcanic tuff at Pitt Point on San Cristoból Island leads you to a nesting site of the famous Blue-footed Boobies. They breed year-round when conditions are good, so you’re likely to find eggs, young birds wobbling out from beneath their parents with gaping beaks, and juveniles covered in pure white downy feathers. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the courting dance and mating, one of nature’s most comical and magical displays.

INSIDER TIPMale and females look alike, but you can tell them apart by the size of their pupils. Males have small, pinpoint pupils, while females have dilated, large pupils.

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PHOTO: Jennifer Berry
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Waved Albatross

These giant birds court each other with an elaborate ritual that involves synchronized displays, honking, and battling with their bills like swords. Wander along a meandering trail at Suarez Point on Española Island to reach the world’s largest colony of Waved Albatross during mating season, April through December. Standing before a sea of nesting albatross will take your breath away. They’re so close you could reach out and touch them … but that’s illegal, so don’t.

PHOTO: Jennifer Berry
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Marine Iguana

Charles Darwin thought these salt-snorting, spiny-backed lizards were hideous, stupid, and sluggish. He was wrong! He didn’t realize marine iguanas, which only live on the Galápagos Islands, are evolutionary wonders and the only sea-faring lizard in the world. Find them basking in the sun on island trails, volcanic rocks, and sandy beaches interlaced in piles of arms, tails, and heads to warm themselves before they plunge into the sea to forage for algae growing on rocks. They’re the most mystical creatures of the islands.

PHOTO: Jennifer Berry
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Sally Lightfoot Crab

Countless Sally Lightfoot Crabs decorate the islands’ black volcanic rocks. Take a seat—they’ll share their rocks with you—and get lost in their world as these colorful expert climbers navigate the terrain and scavenge on algae and debris. Watching them eat up close is comical and delightfully entertaining. If you’re lucky, you’ll see why they’re named lightfoot—these normally relaxed crabs can run across the top of water at lightning speed from one rock to another.

INSIDER TIPJuvenile Sally Lightfoot Crabs are dark in color and camouflage with the volcanic rock, so be careful where you place your feet and bum. 

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Blacktip Shark

Enter the tranquil world of Black Turtle Cove on the north shore of Santa Cruz Island, a lagoon embraced by mangroves with water smooth as glass. Your guides will cut the engine and paddle your panga quietly through the cove as sharks swim around you. It’s a birthing ground and nursery for rays and three species of sharks—the blacktip shark, the white-tipped reef shark, and the Galápagos shark—providing an up-close, peaceful experience with young sharks (about three feet long), far removed from Hollywood’s portrayal of these ancient swimmers. Mating sea turtles, hawksbill turtles, and rays can be seen swimming with the sharks as well.

INSIDER TIPOne of the best ways to see sharks, including large ones, is to wait until nightfall and watch them swim around your boat. The lights from the boat attract sharks and illuminate the water, making great viewing as they hunt.

PHOTO: Jennifer Berry
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Galápagos Mockingbirds

The most inquisitive animals of the islands, mockingbirds will often approach people and perch on them, looking for food and water. (Kneeling next to a whale skeleton on shore, an Española Mockingbird walked up my back and hopped on my head!) They’re incredibly competitive and combative with one another. Watch as they search the sand by spinning their bills, creating tiny tornadoes that last for a second.

INSIDER TIPThere are four species of mockingbirds in the Galápagos, some of which are endemic to individual islands. See if you can identify the slight differences between them.

PHOTO: Jennifer Berry
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Great Frigatebird

Great Frigatebirds are one of the wonders of the Galápagos, capable of soaring throughout the islands for almost two months without landing. They like to accompany boats as they island hop, soaring feet above or alongside at eye level, and many squabble over a place to rest atop your boat, giving you uninterrupted hours to observe these graceful birds. Also known as pirate birds, you’re likely to witness nail-biting battles as they steal the food of other birds or harass them until they drop their catch.

INSIDER TIPOnly males have the large, red gular sac under their bills, which they inflate during mating season to attract the females.

PHOTO: Jennifer Berry
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Galápagos Sea Lion

There’s nothing better than snorkeling with playful sea lions. They’ll swim up to you (even though you’re trying to do the right thing and keep your distance), twist and twirl like graceful mermaids, and some are known to *kiss* unsuspecting snorkelers! Prevalent throughout the islands, Galápagos sea lions can be found snoozing on docks, benches, and beaches, and don’t be surprised if they jump up on the back of your boat in the evening to rest while it’s anchored. Pups wait by themselves on shore while their mothers fish for food. Adorable and curious, they’ll entertain you with their juvenile antics.

PHOTO: Jennifer Berry
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Galápagos Giant Tortoise

When nature calls, Galápagos Giant Tortoises make their way from the arid lowlands of Santa Cruz Island to the wet, lush forests of the highlands to breed. In  preserves such as Rancho Primicias and El Chato, travelers can walk around at their own pace, looking for tortoises as they bask in mud holes, pluck guavas from the trees (you can eat them, too), and forage in grassy fields. You’ll feel tiny kneeling next to one of these giants. Since they don’t run from you and won’t run you over, the rest of the world slows down in their gentle presence.