Home to some of the world's most unique endemic wildlife species, the Galapagos Islands is a highly sought after destination for keen amateur naturalists and photographers. For those who embark on a Galapagos holiday, encountering the fearless wildlife of the archipelago is a truly fulfilling experience.
With its cheeky demeanour and inquisitive nature, one species everyone wants to see is the endemic Galapagos Sea Lion (Zalophus wollebaeki), which is found in abundance here – with an estimated 50,000 of the animal dispersed throughout the islands.
The males (bulls) are larger than the females (cows) and grow to an average of two metres in length and weigh in at 250-400kg. There is a large disparity in size between the sexes: females can be up to four times smaller than the males. Despite their size, they have a very sleek and streamlined physique, which enables them to dive to great depths (up to 350m) at an astounding speed in search of food.
As well as being larger, the bulls have a large bump on their head, making it easy to distinguish between the sexes. The males also tend to have short, thick necks and a narrow middle section, while the females have slightly more elongated necks and a stouter torso. When wet they all appear the same shiny dark brown, but when they're dry there is a huge variation in colours – from light to very dark brown.
At Home in the Water
As well as their aforementioned streamlined body, the species has other adaptations to assist with its agility in the water. The fore flippers have a dorsal fin and the addition of digits. They're also able to control each flipper independently from the other, which enables them to propel themselves through the water with incredible precision and change direction quickly.
Feeding and Breeding
Their staple diet is sardines and they often travel quite long distances out to sea to hunt. However, the open water is also where they are in danger from their greatest predators – sharks and killer whales.
The breeding season is generally the months between May and January. Females give birth to a single pup and it stays with her in the rookery for up to three years. However, within two to three weeks of giving birth she will mate again, so a female is constantly caring for multiple offspring. A rookery operates as a huge communal nursery and it's quite common for females to go off on the hunt and leave their pups to be cared for by other females.
Where to See Them On a Galapagos Holiday
It's almost easier to ask where you won't see them, as they have a wide distribution throughout the islands of the archipelago, including Mosquera, Plaza Sur, Espanola, Rabida Island and Santiago. They are extremely social animals and, as with the rest of the wildlife, have little or no fear of humans. They can most often be seen sleeping and sunbathing on the beaches and rocky outcrops of the breeding colonies. One of the most memorable highlights of a Galapagos holiday is the opportunity to snorkel or kayak in the clear, warm waters amongst large numbers of curious, playful pups.
While it's believed their ancestors came from the South American Coast, possibly blown in by tremendous storm activity, today the Galapagos Sea Lion breeds exclusively throughout the islands of this ecologically fascinating archipelago.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in the unique wildlife of the Galapagos Islands. Marissa chooses the expert-led Galapagos holiday itineraries organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in one of the most spectacular regions on Earth.