The Big 15 and More Reasons to Visit the Enchanted Galápagos Islands

Reasons to visit the Galapagos - images of some of the endemic species, birds, rays, iguana, and crab

Welcome to the extraordinary world of the Galápagos Islands, a paradise for nature lovers. Visiting the Galápagos is a chance to experience nature nearly untouched by humans. Hike in the morning on a “young” volcanic island, with very little vegetation, and snorkel in the afternoon in one of the richest marine environments on Earth. Come face-to-face with some of the unique species that inspired Darwin’s theory of evolution. The most iconic of these are the Big 15, the wildlife on most travelers’ Galápagos bucket lists. Read on as we introduce these amazing animals, share fun facts about the Galápagos islands, and hopefully give you lots of reasons to visit the Galápagos Islands.

Traveling to the Galápagos has been a lifelong dream for me. In college I’d read Darwin’s Origin of Species as part of my thesis work in evolutionary biology. Finally, 40++ years after writing my thesis, I stepped onto the legendary islands. We were on a small group Galapagos cruise and had the great fortune to be to be guided in the Galápagos by Metropolitan Touring. This Ecuadorian company, fully carbon neutral since 2017, offsets each tour’s carbon emissions through their foundation, Fundación Futuro. Big points for sustainable travel! And the Galápagos experience Metropolitan Touring gave us, in terms of naturalist guides, accommodations, meals, etc., was excellent. Highly recommend!

Reasons to visit the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. Booby flying beside ship.
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Why visit the Galápagos Islands?

Imagine you’re 22-years-old and on a voyage to map the coast of South America. You’re on board as the (underqualified and often seasick) naturalist. The ship anchors in an uninhabited archipelago where you think you see iguanas swimming and cormorants that can’t fly. You are intrigued… After 5 weeks of exploring and collecting you leave the islands, never to return. But the experience stays with you and almost 25 years later you publish a book that will change the course of scientific study. – You are Charles Darwin.

Well… we can’t all be Darwin but if we’re very lucky we can now travel to the Galápagos Islands and experience the extraordinary wildlife he observed in 1835. And like Darwin, our visit to the islands will stay with us forever. (And we’ll undoubtedly have better accommodations than Darwin had on the HMS Darwin.)

The Galápagos Islands (the Galápagos Archipelago) is a group of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles from the coast of mainland Ecuador. The archipelago is made up of 18 main islands, 3 small islands, and over 100 tiny uninhabited islands, with 97% of the land mass designated as a national park. Each island has a unique ecosystem, creating a natural landscape and biodiversity that is not found anywhere else in the world. In 1978 the Galápagos Islands were designated as one of the first UNESCO world heritage sites.

The wildlife in the Galápagos is ‘environmentally naive’ in that having little contact with humans, most have no fear. Thus, the islands are a fantastic place to observe and photograph extraordinary animals. (At this time there are over 150 endangered species in Galápagos Islands.)

A visit to the islands is also an opportunity to enjoy active travel. Whether you enjoy hiking, snorkeling, or wildlife photography, most everything to enjoy in the Galápagos is outdoors. And fortunately, the outdoors in the Galápagos is lovely all year. There are two seasons – the dry season between July and November, and a warmer, possibly wetter, season, December through June. Temperatures are moderate all year – 69°-84°F (21°-30°C). The best time for your trip to these enchanted islands is whatever works for your schedule!

But for most travelers the reason to visit the Galapagos Islands is the iconic wildlife – specifically the Big 15.

The Big 15 of the Galápagos Islands

The ‘Big 15′ concept was developed to highlight the extraordinary significance and intrinsic value of the islands’ unique wildlife and to attract tourism to the islands. There is some variation on which animals belong in this group. For our purposes we include endemic species unique to the archipelago and others that fascinated us.

Endemic: A native animal or plant. One that does not occur naturally in other parts of the world.
Blue-footed booby, one of the most endearing of the endemic species of the Galapagos, and one of the Big 15

Blue-footed Booby

Undoubtedly the stars of the Galápagos, the blue-footed boobies are appealing and comical on land but are spectacularly graceful in the air (and underwater!)

  • Why the blue feet? The birds eat fish that contain carotenoid which, in addition to being the pigment that turns the feet blue, also strengthens the immune system. The bluer the feet, the healthier the bird.
  • The females are looking for the healthiest mate, so the courtship dance features a lot of blue foot displaying.
  • These birds are everywhere in the archipelago, so have your cell phones and cameras ready.
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

Fun Fact: The Galápagos Islands are estimated to be between 3 and 10 million years old. They were formed by volcanic eruptions and have remained isolated from the mainland, allowing the wildlife to evolve in incredible ways.

Galapagos giant tortoise with Dave and Amy of the Traveling Tulls

Galápagos Giant Tortoise

Mention the Galápagos Islands to someone and they’ll think of giant tortoises. The tortoises of the Galápagos are the largest living tortoises on the planet and an iconic symbol of the archipelago. (For Dave, a huge turtle and tortoise lover, seeing these animals living freely was his #1 reason to visit the Galápagos Islands.)

  • The giant Galapagos tortoise can weigh up to 900 pounds and live for over 100 years.
  • The shape of the shell and the length of the neck vary from island to island depending on how humid or dry the climate is.
  • Centuries of hunting drove this species to near extinction. The population is very slowly recovering thanks to the efforts of the park services and other wildlife organizations. The hatchlings are transferred to breeding centers where they are protected from the threat of introduced species such as rats and feral cats, until they are large enough to be released.
  • We encourage you to visit one of these centers to see the tortoises and support the conservation work that is being done. You can also travel to the highlands of Santa Cruz to see them in their natural habitat.
  • Conservation Status (IUCN Red List): Critically Endangered

Fun Fact: Tortoises are turtles, but not all turtles are tortoises. Take a glass bottom boat or snorkel to see the Galápagos green sea turtle. These green turtles are on the endangered list.

Marine iguana, the only iguana that swims.

Marine Iguana

Charles Darwin was apparently of two minds when he saw the Galápagos marine iguanas. He described one as “a hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black colour, stupid and sluggish in its movements.” But that didn’t stop him from being amazed and intrigued that these iguanas could swim!

  • The marine iguana is the only ocean-swimming lizard. It has developed adaptations to maintain temperature even in cold ocean currents. It feeds on algae in the sea.
  • Marine iguanas sneeze to eliminate excess salt from their bodies. They have a gland which extracts salt from their blood and lets the iguana sneeze it out.
  • And though we may not blame Darwin for calling them hideous (they do look a bit like Godzilla), if he’d visited during mating season, he would have seen the marine iguana in vibrant colors of blue, pink and green.
  • Conservation Status: Vulnerable

Fun Fact: The Galápagos Islands also have a rich marine biodiversity. The surrounding waters are a haven for various marine creatures, including sea lions, penguins, dolphins, sharks, and an extraordinary array of colorful fish. The Galápagos Marine Reserve was created to protect the surrounding waters and was included in the UNESCO designation in 2001.

Galapagos golden land iguana on North Seymour island

Galápagos Land Iguana

We had two opportunities to enjoy the land iguana at close range. First at the airport where it was our first glimpse of Galápagos wildlife and again on our last day on North Seymour Island where this handsome iguana literally crawled up to us. We had to step around him (her?) to walk up the path!

  • Land iguanas are primarily herbivores and disperse seeds over the volcanic islands.
  • These reptiles can live up to 60 years, but invasive species – rats, cats, and dogs – have caused a decline in the population. The Galápagos National Park is actively working to eradicate introduced species in the islands.
  • Conservation Status: Vulnerable

(not so) Fun Fact: There is a dark mystery surrounding some of the early European settlers on Floreana Island. In the 1930s an Austrian Baroness settled on Floreana island intent to build a hotel on the island. She lived a colorful life on the island with two paramours before disappearing without a trace in 1934. Was she lost at sea on the way to Tahiti as some claimed, or was it murder? And why did another of her neighbors die suspiciously soon after?
[watch the documentary The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden for more on this lurid story]

Flightless cormorant with bright blue eyes, one of Darwin's first sightings on the Galapagos Islands

Flightless Cormorant

One of the oddities of the Galápagos, this member of the cormorant family has evolved away from flight.

  • This is the biggest and heaviest member of the cormorant family and the best diver.
  • The cormorant hunts within 100 yards from its nesting site. It feeds on eels, small fish, and octopus.
  • If you’re lucky enough to get close to one of these birds, note the stunning turquoise blue eyes.
  • The flightless cormorants can only be found on the westernmost islands -Fernandina and the west coast of Isabela.
  • Conservation Status: Critically Endangered

Fun Fact: The Galapagos National Park, together with various organizations and researchers, strives to safeguard the islands’ biodiversity and raise awareness about the environmental challenges they face. From controlling invasive species to promoting sustainable tourism, these conservation initiatives are vital for preserving the Galapagos’ natural heritage for future generations.

Galapagos sea lions enjoying sunset on San Cristobal

Galápagos Sea Lion

It’s hard to believe that Galápagos sea lions are endangered when you’re visiting the islands. These adorable sea lions are everywhere! (Be careful where you step when you’re walking the beaches!) But water temperature rises brought on by frequent El Niño events is causing a sharp decline in the population.

  • Sea lions give birth on land. The mother will stay with the pup for about a week before having to return to the ocean to feed. She’ll return every few days to nurse her pup. But while she’s away the hungry pup will try to snatch a meal from another mom. It’s fun to watch how long it takes for the mom to realize it’s not her pup!
  • Sea lions can dive over 300 feet in search for food.
  • Try to stay at least 6 feet from these animals. This can be challenging when you’re snorkeling, and a playful sea lion comes to investigate.
  • Conservation Status: Endangered

Fun Fact: The Galápagos Islands is situated at the junction of three tectonic plates – the Pacific, the Cocos, and the Nazca, and three strong ocean currents – the Humboldt Current, the Cromwell Current, and the Panama Flow Current. The Humboldt and Cromwell Currents rise up from the depths of the Pacific bringing large amounts of rich nutrients to the waters of the Galápagos.

Red-footed booby perched on a cliff in the Galapagos. One of the Galapagos Big 15

Red-Footed Booby

The red-footed booby is a strong and nimble flyer, able to catch flying fish in the air. Their characteristic red feet do not develop until they are mature. But look closely and you’ll see another colorful feature of the red-footed booty – a beak straight out of a child’s coloring book – pale blue fading to pink around the mouth.

  • Red-footed boobies perch of small shrubs and trees on the cliff’s edge, an oddity for birds with wide webbed feet. But this perching position makes take-off easier for the large birds.
  • This is the most numerous of the three species of boobies in the Galápagos but will only nest on a couple of the islands. To have a chance to see the red-footed booby head to Genovesa or Punta Pitt, the eastern tip of San Cristobal island.
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

Shoutout to the largest of the Galápagos boobies, The Nazca Booby: These black-and-white birds with bright orange beaks can be found throughout the archipelago, but nest primarily on Genovesa.

Galápagos Penguin

  • The Galapagos penguins are the only penguin species found north of the equator. The cool waters of the Humboldt and Cromwell Currents allow it to survive despite being in a warm climate.
  • They are one of the smallest penguins in the world.
  • These birds have no specific breeding season. A pair will mate for life, with the female laying eggs up to three times a year. Both male and female care for the young.
  • Conservation Status: Endangered

Fun Fact: The name Galápagos comes from the Spanish word for saddle. Why? Because the shells of the giant tortoises reminded the Spaniards of horse saddles.

Galapagos albatross, or waved albatross, in breeding ground in Galapagos

Waved Albatross (also known as the Galápagos Albatross)

  • The waved albatross breeds almost exclusively on Española Island in the Galápagos. With a 7-8-foot wingspan it’s considered a ‘medium-sized’ albatross.
  • The adult birds arrive on the island at the end of March and nest on the high cliffs of Española. The birds choose to nest on these cliffs as it makes flight take off easy. Just jump off the edge!
  • If you’re lucky to visit during breeding season, you’ll enjoy the albatross’ elaborate courtship dance, which involves a lot of strutting and bill tapping.
  • Conservation Status: Critically Endangered

Fun Fact: The airport on Baltra Island, the only access point into the Galápagos, is entirely powered by wind and solar energy. Before your flight lands in the Galápagos, the cabin crew will disinfect all baggage to prevent any invasive species from hitching a ride into the islands.

Galapagos hawk on beach, one of the Big 15, and a reason to visit the Galapagos Islands.

Galápagos Hawk

  • The Galápagos hawk is the only endemic raptor in the archipelago and is the islands’ apex predator.
  • The hawk feeds primarily on lava lizards but will eat the young of many of the archipelago’s other animals.
  • The males of the species are monogamous, while the females are polygamous. The group of males together guard the nest and help to feed the chicks.
  • Conservation Status: Vulnerable

The Galápagos hawk is just one of the fabulous birds we enjoyed in Peru and the Galápagos.Visit Undercover Birding: Peru and Ecuador to see more photos from this trip of a lifetime.

Galapagos fur seal is one of the reasons to visit the Galapagos Islands.

Galápagos Fur Seal

  • The Galápagos fur seal hunts primarily at night. They head offshore to find fish and squid that rise naturally at night. When there is a full moon, the squid do not need to head towards the light, so the fur seal tends to stay on the rocks and skip hunting on and close to the full moon.
  • This is the smallest member of the “eared seal” family. (Adult males are ~4.4 feet in length and weigh ~ 175 lbs)
  • The Galápagos fur seals can be found on many of the islands of the archipelago but stay primarily on the western coasts – Fernandina Island and the west side of Isabela Island.
  • Conservation Status: Endangered

Fun Fact: Being on the equator, the Galapagos has 12 hours of daylight all year round. Though you might be tired after a long day exploring, take some time after dark to enjoy the spectacular star-filled skies over the ocean.

Lava lizard, a smaller species but unique to the Galapagos Islands

Lava Lizard

  • There are seven species of lava lizards found in the Galápagos.
  • These small lizards are vital to the ecosystem of the island. They are predators to insects, and prey to snakes, Galápagos hawks and herons.
  • The male lava lizard patrols a large territory and can be seen doing “push-ups” to show strength and discourage other males from entering his space.
  • Lava lizards can regrow their tails! They have the ability to drop their tail if under attack, and can then grow a new one.
Traveling to the Galápagos was the bucket list trip for me. Isn’t it time to plan your dream destination trip? Read Trips of a Lifetime: inspiration to book your dream destination.
Española mockingbird, one of the unique species that inspired Darwin's theory of evolution.

Galápagos Mockingbirds

On the Beagle‘s journey, Charles Darwin, Robert Fitzroy (Captain of the Beagle), and cabin boy, Syms Covington, collected specimens from all over South America and the Galápagos. It’s estimated their collection introduced more than 1500 species that were previously unknown in Europe. But it was the unique features of the mockingbirds that first made Darwin question adaptation and led to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

  • There are four distinct species of mockingbirds in the Galápagos. Each of these species has adapted to the habitat of its home island by developing different markings, beak characteristics, and body size.
  • The Española mockingbirds are the most outgoing of the various species. They have been know to not only approach visitors but perch on a shoulder for a bit. (I didn’t get that lucky!)
  • Unlike their mainland relatives, the mockingbirds of the Galápagos do not mimic other bird species.
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

(not so) Fun Fact: There is very little natural fresh water in the archipelago. And, due to pollution, even the islands with natural springs (Floreana) or a freshwater lake (San Cristobal) need to import most of their drinking water.

Magnificent frigatebirds in the Galapagos Islands. Male with red gullet displayed

Great and Magnificent Frigatebirds

Many travelers to the Caribbean will have seen these large birds soaring high in the sky. But in the Galapagos, you will find them nesting on the ground or in low shrubs, totally oblivious to your presence.

  • There are two species of frigatebirds that nest in the Galápagos, and surprisingly, they nest in close proximity to each other. Your guide will be able to identify them for you but, if in doubt:
    • Males can be distinguished by the sheen of their feathers. The male great frigatebird has a green sheen to it’s feathers while the magnificent frigatebird’s sheen is a purplish.
    • Most female great frigatebird has a red eye ring while the female magnificent has a blue one.
  • Neither species has waterproof feathers so cannot land in water. Because of the both species are kleptoparasitic, which means they steal food from other birds.
  • Both species can be seen throughout the islands, but best option for seeing nesting birds is on North Seymour Island.
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

International non-profits supporting Galápagos conservation

If you can’t visit the Galápagos, you can still help to save this vulnerable ecosystem.

  • Support the Charles Darwin Foundation, an international non-profit founded in 1959 and dedicated to scientific research for the conservation of the environment and biodiversity of the Galapagos archipelago.
  • In the U.S, get involved with the Galapagos Conservancy, a non-profit working with the Galápagos National Park Directorate to save endangered species and rewild ecosystems in the islands.
  • In the UK, support the Galapagos Conservation Trust. The trust focuses on three core pillars of activity: protect the unique species of the Archipelago, restore the Islands’ natural habitat, and provide sustainable solutions including ridding the Islands of plastic.

Flamingo in the Galapagos. Fun facts about the Galapagos Islands

American Flamingo
(soon to be a separate species, the Galápagos Flamingo):

  • The flamingo found on the islands is currently classified as a American flamingo, but it is understood to be genetically a distinct species and will likely be categorized as the Galapagos species soon.
  • There are estimated to be less than 500 flamingos left in the archipelago.
  • The birds feed on crustaceans found in lagoons. They can be seen in the lagoons of Floreana, Santiago, and Santa Cruz island. But the majority of flamingos can be found in the Quinta Playa lagoon on Isabela.

Important Facts: Visiting these extraordinary islands is a privilege, and with privilege comes responsibility. Please take careful note of the rules governing travel in the national park.

  • Visitors to any protected areas within the Galápagos National Park must be accompanied by a naturalist guide authorized by the national park
  • Travel only with tour operators and/or boats authorized to work in the protected areas of Galápagos
  • Remain on marked trails at visitor sites and respect signs at all times for the protection of wildlife, and for your safety
  • Maintain a distance of at least six feet (two meters) from wildlife to avoid disturbing them, even if they approach you
  • Never feed wildlife, as this can cause health problems
  • Flash photography is not permitted when taking photos of wildlife
  • It is your responsibility not to introduce food, animals, or plants into the Archipelago. Cooperate fully with all environmental inspection and quarantine officials during your visit.
  • Do not take or buy any products or souvenirs made from banned substances, including black coral, shells, lava rock, animal parts, or any native wood or vegetation prior to leaving Galápagos. This is illegal and must be reported.
  • Practice “leave-no-trace” principles in order to maintain the beauty of the environment.
  • Pack out all trash and dispose of or recycle it in the populated areas or on your tour boat.
  • Smoking and/or campfires are strictly prohibited within the Galápagos National Park, as fires poses a serious risk to the flora and fauna of Galápagos.
Visit the Galapagos Islands to experience nature at its best. Enjoy snorkeling, hiking, and birdwatching in this living laboratory. Couple in panga boat on coastal exploration.

Why should you visit the Galápagos Islands?

The Galápagos Islands are home to an astonishing array of endemic species. We’ve showcased the iconic Galápagos Big 15 in this article but the archipelago is home to hundreds of other species. (Many among the 150 endangered species of the Galapagos.) There are birds here that exist nowhere else and an ocean full of colorful marine life. Your ecotourism visit supports the preservation of this important ecosystem.

Your visit to the Galápagos Islands will be a travel experience you will never forget. Whether you choose to snorkel in the crystal clear waters, hike, or just enjoy the view from your expedition boat’s deck, you have a chance to be in a world (almost) free of the impact of man. You will come home with an appreciation for wildness and a desire to protect it. I hope you’ve enjoyed some of the fun facts we’ve shared, but more importantly, I hope we’ve given you many reasons to visit Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands yourself.

Traveling Tulls celebrating a visit to the Galapagos Islands

We traveled to the Galápagos Islands on a Tauck tour of Peru (Machu Picchu) and the Galapagos. Once in the UNESCO world heritage site all guiding and touring operations was run by Metropolitan Touring, an Ecuadorian company. No part of this trip was subsidized by Tauck or Metropolitan Touring. Our opinions are our own.

Photo left: Amy and Dave are wearing trip-tested button-down shirts from the Toad & Co. travel collection. Both are made from sustainable fabrics (Dave’s shirt is hemp and Amy’s organic cotton) and performed beautifully all trip.

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Reasons to visit the Galapagos Islands, a wildlife lovers paradise off the coast of Ecuador. The Galapagos Big 15, the iconic animals of this #UNESCO world heritage site. Fun facts about the endemic and fascinating animals of these volcanic islands. Why visit the Galapagos islands. #wildlife #darwin #bucketlisttravel #bucketlist

5 thoughts on “The Big 15 and More Reasons to Visit the Enchanted Galápagos Islands

  1. Penguins??? omg I loooove penguins! I always thought of the Galapoagos as a lot of fish, insects, reptiles—but I never thought PENGUINS!

    1. Thanks Heather! This was my first tour with Tauck and have mixed feelings. We saw some amazing sites in Peru and thoroughly enjoyed the Galapagos, but didn’t have the best tour director. Our traveling companions had traveled on several Tauck tours and said our TD was unusual, so I guess we’ll have to try another before passing judgement.

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