Photography by Evan Thornton
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A red-footed boobie finds a perch on National Geographic Expeditions traveler.

Photography by Evan Thornton

Galápagos Wildlife: Common Sightings and Rare Finds

Galápagos creatures are famed for lacking a fear of humans, but that doesn’t mean they all come running when your ship sails in. Here’s a guide to the species you’re almost certain to see on a trip to the archipelago, as well as those you might have to look a little bit harder for.

What You Will See: Sea lions

A ubiquitous mascot of the Galápagos, sea lions make their presence known throughout the archipelago and are particularly charming when you happen upon them communing with humans on settled isles. You’ll spot them napping on public benches, lolling about on beaches, and begging for scraps at the local fish market. But the best sightings often happen underwater, where these curious creatures are prone to playing with snorkelers and divers.

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Portrait of a Galápagos sea lion

What You Might See: Fur seals

Fur seals are a close cousin to the sea lion, primarily distinguished by their smaller size, thicker coats, and the shapes of their ears, eyes, and snouts. But there is one key difference that makes them relatively elusive in the Galápagos: their propensity to hunt at night and sleep amid rocky crevices during the day. Try spotting them from Zodiacs as you cruise by the western isles’ coastal cliffs, or watch for them as they fish under the light of your ship late at night.

What You Will See: Frigatebirds

Two types of frigatebird can be found across the archipelago—the great and the magnificent—and males from both species sport a resplendent red throat pouch during the mating season. Aside from this beguiling balloon-like feature, the frigatebird’s glide gives it away. Their W-shaped wingspan makes flying a breeze, and you can watch them for hours as they weave and hover high overhead without so much as a single flap.

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The frigatebird can soar for hours without a single wing flap.

What You Might See: Flamingos

Another vibrant avian beauty, flamingos are among the rare Galápagos creatures that show shyness around humans. Only a few hundred live throughout the islands, and to spot one you’ll have to venture inland, to one of the brackish lagoons where they feed on crustaceans—the food that gives the birds their pink plumage.

What You Will See: Marine iguanas

During the day, marine iguanas—the world’s only oceangoing lizards—sun themselves on the rocky shores of most Galápagos isles, absorbing heat in preparation for their scavenging trips out to sea. You won’t spot just one, or even a handful: you’re likely to come upon literal heaps of them, piled on top of one another in an attempt to stay warm.

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A marine iguana wades in the shallows.

What You Might See: Pink land iguanas

Pink land iguanas rank among the archipelago’s most elusive creatures; their habitat spans just 15 square miles across the slopes of the active Wolf Volcano on Isla Isabela. With about 200 left in existence, the species hovers on the brink of extinction and is especially vulnerable due to the volcanic activity in its ecosystem.

What You Will See: Sally Lightfoot crabs

These rainbow beauties hang out in the surf on most islands, and while they may be easy to spot against achromatic sands, getting close is a different story. Their escapist abilities are so legendary, John Steinbeck once wrote of them: “If you walk slowly, they move slowly ahead of you in droves. If you hurry, they hurry. When you plunge at them, they seem to disappear in a puff of blue smoke.”

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The Sally Lightfoot crab's rainbow shell makes it no easier to catch.

What You Might See: Octopuses

Octopi are masters of disguise, possessing the ability to change colors—and even textures—to match their surroundings. In the Galápagos, they frequent both coral reefs and the tidepools that form among seaside rocks; but you’ll need to keep your eyes peeled to spot these sneaky cephalopods.

What You Will See: Giant tortoises

Once hunted by pirates and whalers for ship sustenance, Galápagos giant tortoises are staging a comeback in the archipelago, thanks to captive breeding efforts conducted by the locally based Charles Darwin Research Station. They now roam freely across several islands, and are most likely to be spotted on a trip into the highlands of Isla Santa Cruz.

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Galápagos giant tortoise numbers are on the rise in the archipelago.

What You Might See: Green sea turtles

It’s not uncommon to see several sea turtles while snorkeling or kayaking in the Galápagos—certain bays are teeming with them. To maximize your chances, visit during the hatching season (between December and April). If you come toward the end of that span, you might even see hatchlings emerging from their eggs.

Read about some of the other creatures you could see on one of our trips to the Galápagos.