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Waved albatross

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What to do in the Galapagos: our highlights guide

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Galapagos Islands

Wildlife

By Audley Galapagos specialist Michael

Visiting the Galapagos is a completely unique and intimate wildlife experience. Due to the way species have evolved on the islands, most of the animals don’t have any real predators, making them completely fearless.

For visitors, this creates a unique and intimate wildlife experience, where you often have to step over iguanas basking in the sunshine and sea lions parade around you on the sand.

Snorkelers with sea lions in the Galapagos

Snorkelers with sea lions in the Galapagos

Snorkel in the Galapagos

While wildlife can be easily spotted above water in the Galapagos, seeing it below the surface offers a completely new perspective. Snorkeling is one of the main highlights of visiting the islands and all the cruise itineraries will include it, as will a lot of the day trips.

Even if you are anxious about snorkeling, I would encourage you to try it because it’s incredible to see some of the creatures that lumber on land glide fluidly through the water. You can also encounter reef sharks, different types of ray, and fish of all colors, shapes and sizes.

There are regulations saying that you should stay two metres away from the wildlife at all times, but their lack of inhibition makes this virtually impossible. Even swimming off the beach you may be surrounded by sea turtles, fish, rays, and the ever-present sea lions. In the western islands you might be lucky enough to swim with Galapagos penguins, but they are so fast in the water that you often just catch a flash as they zoom past.

My best snorkel trip was at Punto Vicente Roca. We saw around 40 turtles, half of them sleeping and the rest swimming around us, as well as eagle rays and a pod of eight or so manta rays, which is extremely rare. We then returned to the boat to follow a pod of killer whales chasing some sea lions in the area. Traveling on one of the pangas (dinghies) we were able to watch them hunting, which was incredible.

A green sea turtle

A green sea turtle

Dive in the Galapagos

Diving is also popular in the Galapagos, but is not suited to beginners as the currents are strong and cold. You’ll want to have logged over 30 dives and have cold water experience, before trying it here. That said, if you are a proficient diver it’s a rewarding experience.

If you want to dive in the Galapagos there are two ways to do it. You can stay in one of the hotels on land and take day trips out to dive locations around the islands, or you can stay aboard a boat on an intensive dive cruise (also known as a liveaboard diving experience). This allows you to visit dive sites around the far northern islands and go to very remote areas that other cruises can’t visit.

A liveaboard dive cruise is the best way to maximize your chances of seeing whale and hammerhead sharks as well as a greater proliferation of the creatures you see when snorkeling. Around Wolf Island, for example, large schools of hammerhead sharks can often be seen between June and November.

Diving is one of the best ways to see manta rays on the islands. They’re less common than stingrays and golden rays and are a magnificent sight if you are lucky enough to encounter them. You are most likely to see them if you are on a liveaboard dive cruise, and if you visit in ‘Manta Season’ which runs from December to May.

Wildlife spotting in the Galapagos

Blue-footed boobies on North Seymour Island

Blue-footed boobies on North Seymour Island

Look for the blue-footed booby

The blue-footed booby is well distributed across the islands, and a particular curiosity is their mating dance, which can be seen between May and July. The males attract the females by showing off the blue hue of their feet.

The first time I saw this was on North Seymour Island. We noticed two birds on top of the cliffs performing a strange little dance. Mirroring each other they repeatedly opened their wings, arched their necks, and picked up one foot after the other showing off their feet over and over again before reaching their heads up to the sky and letting out a small cry. The female then tucked her head under her wing signifying the success of the male in courting her.

Cormorants are found on only two Galapagos islands: Fernandina and Isabela

Cormorants are found on only two Galapagos islands: Fernandina and Isabela

Meet the flightless cormorant

The flightless cormorant is only found on the western islands, and in certain spots on Fernandina and Isabela. Its stubby and tattered looking wings are solely used for swimming and they are extremely fast in the water. They can dive to great depths and their ability to remain underwater for a long time is incredible.

If you’re traveling around the western islands between May and October you might also see their courtship in progress. The male and female swim in circles around one another before moving back to the cliffs where the female sits and the male brings her presents of flotsam from the ocean. If she likes them she incorporates them into her nest.

The flightless cormorants are impressive to see at any time of year, but witnessing this courtship performance is very memorable.

Wild giant tortoises of the Galapagos can weigh over 400 kg (880 lb)

Wild giant tortoises of the Galapagos can weigh over 400 kg (880 lb)

See giant tortoises

Due to ongoing conservation work by the national park authorities, the endangered giant tortoises are making a comeback on the Galapagos, where once their populations were decimated by early explorers, buccaneers and whalers. They were considered to be a useful source of fresh meat on journeys, as they could be stored alive below deck.

There are now breeding centres that are working to increase their numbers, releasing the tortoises back into both wild and semi-wild environments. The most common places to see them are in the highlands of Santa Cruz, and in these breeding centres.

Galapagos albatross nesting amongst the sparse vegetation and lava boulders

Galapagos albatross nesting amongst the sparse vegetation and lava boulders

Look for the waved albatross

The waved albatross is another extraordinary creature. It’s only found on Española Island in the southeast of the Galapagos and can be seen there from April to November or December. At this time of year you can see around 12,000 breeding pairs of these magnificent birds with their enormous wingspan of up to eight feet.

In early April you might also spot them performing their courtship dance, in which they clatter their beaks together. Whilst not on land, they spend their time fishing out at sea for months at a time.

Sea lions can be found on each of the islands of the Galapagos archipelago

Sea lions can be found on each of the islands of the Galapagos archipelago

Watch sea lions playing in the water

You’ll spot sea lions everywhere in the Galapagos. As well as on the beach and in the water around Santa Cruz and San Cristobal, they can sometimes be seen lounging on the benches in the town and begging for scraps at the fish market.

Ungainly on land, once in the water these playful creatures become elegant and streamlined, zipping past or even circling around you whilst snorkeling.

Nesting pair of frigate birds

Nesting pair of frigate birds

Witness the frigate bird mating display

The frigate bird has a similar wingspan to the albatross, but is differentiated by its red throat pouch, which the males puff out like a balloon to attract a mate.

Also known as ‘pirate birds’, the lack of waterproofing on the frigate’s feathers means they can’t spend any significant time in the water. To feed they often chase other sea birds, such as the boobies, harassing them until they regurgitate their catch. Different species can be seen in various locations across the archipelago, and the birds can often be observed soaring above the boats as you sail between the islands.

The diet of marine iguanas is underwater algae and seaweed

The diet of marine iguanas is underwater algae and seaweed

See marine iguanas basking in the sunshine

Endemic to the Galapagos Islands, these prehistoric-looking reptiles are powerful swimmers. When not in the water, they can be found basking in the sunshine, warming up between dives, snorting out excess salt and clustering together for warmth.

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