Located around 1,000 km off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos archipelago has been called its own “world within a world", and it's an apt description. This remote and beautiful part of the planet is home to some of the most unique wildlife species on the planet, many of which are endemic. But while we often focus on the terrestrial species, those that live in the oceans that surround the islands are every bit as fascinating and – for wildlife watchers who visit on a Galapagos wildlife cruise – just as exciting to encounter.
The Marine Species of the Archipelago
Nowhere else can you encounter such a diverse variety of endemic marine life as accessibly as here. 20% of Galapagos’ species cannot be found anywhere else in the world, and even pelagic species like hammerhead sharks and manta rays venture quite close to shore. This diversity of life is supported through a range of habitats, including coral reefs, beaches, lagoons, salt flats and the open ocean.
Three of the most sought-after sightings on a Galapagos wildlife cruise are the Sea Lions, the Galapagos Penguins and the Marine Iguanas.
Sea Lions: The endemic Zalophus wollebaeki can be seen everywhere around the archipelago. While they appear clumsy and oafish as they waddle along the beaches or over rocks, they are transformed into torpedoes once they get in the water, and are able to dart and dive with killer precision. Like the majority of the terrestrial wildlife, the Sea Lions are not afraid of humans and will often swim in the shallow waters, happy to venture quite close to snorkelers. Visitors are asked to keep their distance, however, and fully-grown males have been known to show aggression.
Penguins: The endemic Galapagos Penguin, Spheniscus mendiculus, is the most northerly species of penguin and, in fact, the only one found north of the Equator. They have numerous adaptations that enable them to tolerate the warm waters of the archipelago. They are smaller than their southern counterparts (growing to a height of around 49 cm) and are distinguished by a relatively large bill and a thin white line around their faces. Even though there is only a population of around 1500 in total (they're classified as endangered), they can quite often be seen playing in the shallow waters, particularly around Bartolomé, Fernandina and Isabela islands.
Marine Iguanas: These prehistoric-looking endemic creatures are the world's only marine lizards. Amblyrhynchus cristatus can grow to more than a metre in length, and – thanks to the naturalist Charles Darwin – their other claim to fame is the label of “the most disgusting-looking lizard in the world". Despite their rather plain appearance, they have developed incredible ecological adaptations in order to survive in their marine habitat, including blunted noses to aid in scraping algae off underwater rocks, and a flattened tail that allows them to dive and propel themselves through the water.
Encounter the Marine Species on a Galapagos Wildlife Cruise
Three major currents come together in the waters surrounding this remote and beautiful archipelago, creating a completely unique environment where vastly different marine species co-exist unlike anywhere else on Earth.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in the Galapagos Islands. For those interested in a Galapagos wildlife cruise , Marissa recommends theitineraries organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of species in one of the most spectacular regions on Earth.