My 10 Favorite Animal Encounters in the Galapagos Islands

I’m an animal-lover… which might be the understatement of the year.

When I choose my travel destinations, I plan around the possibility of seeing animals. My visit to Costa Rica was primarily inspired by all I’d heard about its wildlife. Strangely and surprisingly, Panama ended up with more animal sightseeing success, and I didn’t stop talking for months about the sleeping sloth I spotted. More recently, I planned my Bolivia trip around visiting the Rurrenbaque area (though an ill-fated accident left me limping and out of animal-watching commission).

Real talk: being animal-obsessed is nothing new for me.

As a young girl I infamously begged my dad to convert our pool into a home for dolphins, and shortly after announced I wanted to become a vegetarian (much to my family’s chagrin, that was some “hippie bullshit” back then).

Two decades later and I’m not convincing my husband to turn our pool into a marine sanctuary, but the vegetarianism is still going strong, as is my passion and childlike excitement for seeing animals in their native habitat.

Not surprisingly, the Galapagos Islands have been on my radar for quite some time, and when the opportunity visit them magically appeared, I jumped for joy at the chance… before literally falling down and crying out of happiness. [No joke, it’s on video, but you’ll have to blackmail/intoxicate me with multiple bottles of vino before I’ll show it to you]

I approached my trip with a level of excitement and anticipation that hasn’t been reached in ALL of my years of traveling (and life in general). I literally couldn’t sleep. Kids the night before Christmas had NOTHING on me the night before Galapagos.

Spoiler alert: The Galapagos islands totally surpassed my expectations.

I may have been ruined for the rest of my life, because I don’t know how any destination on the planet could come close to comparing.

Enough with my chatter, on to the animals!


Pelicans

Pelican Floreana Galapagos Island

Birds. Meh. Am I right?

I held a lot of preconceptions about birds and their corresponding excitement-inspiring level before arriving to the Galapagos. I mean, they’re not cuddly, they’re not furry, they don’t like to be around humans, and their beaks can do some damage. Plus, have you ever seen Birds by Hitchcock? Yikes.

Getting up (respectfully)close and (semi)personal with pelicans in the Galapagos changed my perspective entirely. These things are massive and majestic!

Pelican Isabela Galapagos Island

Luckily for me, a newfound pelican-appreciator, they’re also everywhere in the Galapagos. They’re like the solo travelers of the bird world, badass and alone and going wherever whenever they want.

Spread the word: birds are cool!


Frigate birds

On the Way to Floreana Frigate Bird Red Neck Galapagos Island

See above re: my previous feelings about birds.

Again, my false beliefs about birds were smashed by the super weird and super unique Frigate birds. The male frigate birds have crazy red necks that they inflate like a balloon to impress and attract the laaaaadies.

They also engage in kleptoparasitism, which is the habit of bothering other birds until they throw up, so the frigate can eat their regurgitated. Gross.

Maybe my favorite thing about the frigates, though, is that they are travelers. Some fly for days and nights without stopping, over a hundred miles at a stretch. Those are some serious frequent flyer miles!


Blue footed booby

Blue Footed Booby Isabela Island Galapagos

These guys were an obvious exception to my “meh” birds concept for one very important reason. They have electric blue feet. Just like me when I wear my Vibrams!

Electric Blue Vibram Five Fingers Galapagos

The blue footed boobies use their blue feet to attract members of the opposite sex. Exceptionally bright blue feet indicate health and genetic gifts, apparently.

Sadly, it’s not all awesome feet and good feelings in the blue-footed booby world. These seemingly sweet birdies regularly engage in siblicide, meaning little baby boobies purposefully harm their brothers and sisters in the nest, in an attempt to murder them.

Blue Footed Booby Isabela Island Galapagos Blue Footed Booby Isabela Island Galapagos

[Siblicide aside, let’s be honest. It’s just fun to hear your guide yell, “Look! Boobies!”]

Giant tortoises

Giant Tortoise Breeding Center Isabela Galapagos Islands

I visited tortoises in the Giant Tortoise breeding center (which is also home to the most childishly giggle-inducing logo I’ve seen in my life). Seeing tortoises at every stage of their development, from egg and through embryo all the way up to adulthood, was incredible. It felt kinda like a scene out of Jurassic Park, to be honest.

Galapagos Tortoise Breeding Center

The breeding centers and protected areas have undeniable importance, as the tortoises have been hunted to near extinction on some islands, while hunted through extinction on others (like Floreana, where they were taken onto boats by sailors as a source of fresh meat on long journeys).

Giant Tortoise Isabela Galapagos Islands

But my favorite tortoise encounters were seeing wild tortoises along the bike path. The clunky creatures are slow and silly looking, while also maintaining a certain refined dignity.


Sea turtles

Isabela Sea Turtle Galapagos Island

While turtles on land (or I should say, tortoises) are just honestly awkward and funny, in the water they seem like a different creature entirely. They swim seemingly effortless, with a grace that they would never possess on land.

Watching turtles from under the water as they gently graze on sea plants and are entirely unperturbed by your presence feels strangely comforting in a way that I can’t explain in words. You’ve got to experience it.


Sharks

Kicker Rock Galapagos Island

I’ve had shark nightmares for as long as I can remember. My mother used to be afraid of swimming in the open water, and told me about an admittedly irrational fear of something grabbing her from below. I guess that passed on to me, in the form of a fear of sharks.

Many misunderstandings and fears (and stereotypes and hate) are best solved by gaining first hand experience. Sharks were no exception. I conquered my fear through new knowledge about shark behavior, rather than hearing myths and half-truths, and through direct experience of seeing them in their natural habitat.

My least favorite shark experience was at Kicker Rock (pictured above). There were hammerheads (enough said?) and I just hadn’t shifted my own paradigm sufficiently to appreciate them as they swished through the murky water below my feet.

My most favorite shark experience was being thrust (willingly) into a cave full of white tip sharks by my guide. I turned on my camera, fulling intending to capture an amazing video. Instead, my mind blanked as I blinked my eyes, orienting myself to a cave full of the swimming creatures. Only at the very last minute did I remember my video, catching just a glimpse of a shark swimming away.

Shark in Galapagos Island

Surreal.


Penguins

Galapagos Penguins Isabela Island

The Galapagos penguins are endemic to the islands, and the only penguins that live north of the equator (in the wild).

Galapagos Penguins Isabela Island

Hailing from FAR north of the equator myself, it was beyond weird and ridiculously cool to see these cuties in the wild. They were mostly hanging out on a rock in Isabela, and I never would have spotted them if it wasn’t for our guide knowing where they like to chill and pointing them out to me.


Marine iguanas

Isabela Galapagos Island Marine IguanaIsabela Galapagos Island Marine IguanaThe incredible Galakiwi guide, naturalist, and all-around amazing guy Pablo has the most appreciation for marine iguanas, which he imparted onto me (and I think the other guests as well).

Isabela Galapagos Island Marine Iguana

These crazy creatures are unique in the whole world, existing only in the Galapagos. They are able to swim and forage in the water, an amazing feat that I was lucky enough to be SUP-ing next to!


Dolphins

Floreana Galapagos Island Dolphin

To be honest, I’m still trying to come up with adequate words for this encounter. Thinking about it brings tears to my eyes, in a good way, and takes me back to the little girl I once, asking my dad to save dolphins in our pool. I’m an emotional person (I’ll admit it), but I wasn’t the only one tearing up on the boat. It’s a hard thing to put into words, but it’s an experience that will exist in my heart for the rest of my life.

On the boat from San Cristobal Island to Floreana Island, a pod of dolphins CHOSE to engage with us in the open ocean. They followed the boat – leaping out of the water, surfacing next to us humans on the deck, and playing together. The dolphins were choosing to interact with us with no external incentive to encourage this behavior, but just because they WANTED to.

Floreana Galapagos Island Dolphin

Seeing dolphins for the first time ever in their wild, natural habitat reconfirmed and strengthened my feelings about dolphins in captivity. After experiencing such a natural and incredible interaction, I could never imagine paying a company that enslaves these intelligent creatures just to get a selfie or experience a few minutes of “fun” at the sake of the dolphin’s freedom.


Sea lions

Isabela Sea Lion Galapagos Islands

These playful animals were the star of my Galapagos Islands adventure. While they were most numerous on San Cristobal, I was so happy to see them on each of the islands I visited!

I saw hundreds (if not thousands) of sea lions, and yet each time, I couldn’t help but exclaim “awww” and note how snuggly they look.

San Christobal Sea Lion Galapagos Islands San Christobal Sea Lion Galapagos Islands San Christobal Sea Lion Galapagos Islands

While they are cute on land, they are impossibly more awe-inspiring in the water. Sea lions are incredibly graceful and agile in the water, providing a stark contrast to their awkward maneuvers on land. The best way to see them in their most comfortable habitat is through snorkeling or SUP-ing, in which they obviously notice and engage with you by spinning and twirling and coming right up.


Honorable Mention

Sally Light Foot Crab Galapagos Island San Cristobal Island Great Blue Heron Galapagos Island Isabela Wild Flamingo Galapagos Islands Isabela Island Duck Isabela Island Galapagos Islands Isabela Giant Ray Galapagos Island

I am so thankful that companies like Galakiwi exist, providing natural, respectful, and ethical ways for animal-lovers like me to observe wild creatures in their rightful habitat.


Pin it for Later

My Favorite Animal Encounters in the Galapagos Islands


While I visited the Galapagos as a guest of Galakiwi, as always my opinions remain entirely my own.

If you want the whole truth, this post is actually a VERY scaled-down version of the praise I have for Galakiwi. My poor husband has been listening to me spout off their seemingly endless wonderful attributes for the past two weeks nonstop.

I’m already planning our next trip.


 

8 Comments

  1. May 4, 2017 / 12:54 pm

    Loved this! As an animal lover myself I can appreciate your excitement. Like the dolphins in your pool I recall asking my mum if we could have a Gaffer to keep my pony company… she said no;)

    I do also feel like the Giant Tortoise breeding centre could benefit from changing their sign, although a good childish chuckle makes it all the more merorable I suppose!

    I saw a lot of Sea-Lions in California on a recent road-trip across the west coast and totally agree, they’re so fun to watch! My favourites though were sea otters… Bloody adorable!

    • May 6, 2017 / 10:23 pm

      haha that is so sweet! A giraffe and a pony would make cute companions!

      Agreed – sea otters are SO cute!!

  2. May 4, 2017 / 4:23 pm

    Which islands did you visit while you were there? Hopefully you got up to Genovesa to see the short eared owl!

    • May 6, 2017 / 10:23 pm

      I went to Isabela, Santa Crus, San Cristobal, and Floreana.

      I didn’t make it up to Genovesa! I guess I’ll have to save that for next time, I love owls!

  3. May 22, 2017 / 9:15 am

    Great post Steph! I love both your photos & copy. You give a great overview of what the area has to offer (a lot!!) and your joy and enthusiasm shine through. I especially like your dolphin story 🙂

    • May 23, 2017 / 8:40 pm

      Thank you! One of my favorite parts of traveling has to be seeing cool animals in their natural habitats. It definitely brings me back to a feeling of childlike joy and curiosity, and my excitement can’t be contained! 🙂

  4. June 13, 2017 / 11:33 am

    Huge fan of the blue-footed boobies, sea lions and that red and yellow crab in the Galapagos too! Loved all the other ones too as they are absolutely fantastic to watch and so beautiful in the wild.
    Amazing pics and I believe (after reading Jenna & Micah’s post about Galapagos on Wander the Map too) a wonderful 10 days with Galakiwi! I’m jealous, actually! ha!

    Enjoy!
    Jul’

    • June 15, 2017 / 8:10 am

      Hi Jul’!

      Agreed, seeing animals in their wild, natural habitat is a thing of beauty and transcendence for me.

      Yes – I was with Jenna and Micah of Wander the Map in the Galapagos 🙂 amazing couple and incredible trip!

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