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The Galapagos Islands: What You’ll See and When to Go

By Justin Willig

The Galápagos Islands are on every nature traveler’s bucket list due to the many unique species found there, and the ability to experience up-close encounters like nowhere else. Having evolved in the absence of humans and other large predators, many Galápagos animals are less fearful of human presence, allowing visitors an unprecedented chance to be a part of nature in a personal way. Moreover, one feels a part of evolution’s history in Galápagos, the site that more than anything else inspired a young Charles Darwin in 1835 to elaborate his Theory of Evolution and Natural Selection.

A wild Galápagos giant tortoise on Santa Cruz Island. © Roderic Mast

What is the best time to go to Galápagos?

The truth is that there is really no bad season, as the Galápagos Islands are amazing to visit year-round! The best time to go is when you can fit it into your schedule. Since the archipelago straddles the equator, the weather and climate remain relatively stable throughout the year, though there is some seasonal variation to keep in mind when planning your trip. January - May is the warm season, during which skies are typically clearer and the sun can be harsh; June - December is called the “garúa” season, garúa being the local word for mist, since light drizzle often falls for an hour or so daily. Both seasons are comfortable and great for wildlife viewing and photography on land. If there is one time of year to avoid, it is September, which tends to have the "roughest" weather.

Despite lying on the equator, water temperatures can be surprisingly cold due to upwellings, especially in the western islands. Overall, water is warmer in November - December, but can still be quite cold locally, especially in the west. Snorkelers are recommended to use at least a 3 mm full-length wetsuit to assure comfort in the water and to protect from the sun while getting to and from snorkel sites. Remember, since Galápagos lies on the equator you cannot get closer to the sun anywhere on Earth unless you climb a mountain! As such, you must always take care to protect from UV radiation with a hat, sunglasses, long sleeves, and liberal use of a coral safe sunscreen.

Species You May See on our Galápagos Island Cruises

The Galápagos Archipelago lies about 1000 km (600 miles) from the South American mainland, and comprises some 13 major and 7 smaller islands, with countless more rocks and islets. Our Galápagos Islands cruise will take you one of two routes. The central / southern route has stops at the islands of San Cristóbal, Española (Hood), Floreana, Santa Cruz, Bartolome, South Plaza, and North Seymour. Our northern / western route stops at the islands of San Cristóbal, Genovesa (Tower), Santa Cruz, Fernandina, Isabela, Santiago (James), and Rábida.

Two Galápagos sea lions rest side-by-side. © Roderic Mast

Marine Mammal Species (Highlights and Seasons)

Galápagos sea lions are commonly seen on beaches and rocky shorelines throughout the archipelago, as well as in the adjacent waters. Sea lion breeding season occurs between June and December. If you want to see newborn pups, you should travel between March and May. Regardless of when you visit, you will see lots of sea lions!

Galápagos fur seals are an endangered species that can be found on rocky shorelines that have access to deep water. Their breeding season occurs between August and November, and November is the best time to see pups at nurseries. Genovesa (Tower) and Santiago (James) Islands are both great places to encounter fur seals. You can see them on our western / northern route.

Common dolphins are one of around 24 marine mammal species found in the Galápagos.

There are also 24 species of whales and dolphins that have been identified in Galápagos’ waters, most notably in the western region between Isabela and Fernandina Islands. These include baleen whales (blue, Bryde’s, humpback, minke, and sei) and toothed whales (orcas, pilot, and sperm whales, and bottlenose, common, and striped dolphins). Bryde’s whales, sperm whales, orcas, and dolphins can be seen in the Galápagos waters’ year-round. Blue and humpback whales can be found seasonally between June - December when they migrate to the area to feed. In general, whale and dolphin sightings require a bit of luck.

Reptile Species (Highlights and Seasons)

Galápagos giant tortoises can be seen in captivity at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora (Santa Cruz Island) and at the Tortoise Reserve in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island, a stop on both of our itineraries. Giant tortoise mating occurs between March and April, and females lay eggs between June and December. It is very rare to see wild giant tortoises outside of the Santa Cruz highlands.

A Galápagos giant tortoise at the Charles Darwin Research Station. © Roderic Mast

There are four species of sea turtles that occur in waters throughout the Galápagos, though the most commonly seen are the green (locally called black) turtles. Green turtle nesting occurs on beaches, late at night, between December and June, peaking in February.

A brightly colored marine iguana, typical of those on Espanola Island. © Roderic Mast

Marine iguanas are commonly found on rocky shorelines throughout the archipelago, and especially on Española (where they have unique green and red markings), Fernandina, Genovesa, Isabela, San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz, Santa Fe, Santiago, and South Plaza Islands. They can be seen in abundance year-round, and are known to nest on Santa Cruz Island in February, and on Fernandina and North Seymour Islands in March.

The two species of Galápagos land iguana are endemic to the islands and can be found primarily on Fernandina, Isabela, Santa Cruz, North Seymour, Baltra, and South Plaza Islands. You can see land and marine iguanas on both of our cruise routes, year-round.

There are two species of Galapagos land iguana, endemic to the islands. © Roderic Mast

There are also 7 species of lava lizards found ubiquitously throughout the Galápagos Islands. They are notable for their mating rituals during warm months, in which the male lizards bob their heads and do “push ups” to threaten competing males.

In general, November - December is the best time for reptile activity.

Bird Species (Highlights and Seasons)

There are 13 species of Darwin’s Finches that are endemic to the Galápagos Islands. You will be able to see finches year-round, with uniquely adapted species found at each island.

Waved Albatross are the largest birds seen in the Galápagos, with a wingspan of 8 feet! They can spend years at sea, but nest only at Española (Hood) Island. They lay their eggs from mid-April to late June, and can remain through December. The albatross are out at sea between January-March, and cannot be seen during these times. Waved Albatross can only be seen on our central / southern route.

Waved Albatross perform their courtship ritual. © Wayne Sentman

There are three species of boobies found throughout the Galápagos: Blue-footed Boobies, Red-footed Boobies, and Nazca (Masked) Boobies. Boobies are notable for their “sky point” mating ritual, in which they dance and point their beaks to the sky, spreading their wings to attract mates. Blue-footed and Nazca Boobies can be found throughout the archipelago year-round. Red-footed Boobies are harder to find, though the world’s largest colony can be seen at Genovesa Island. All three species of boobies can be found on both of our cruise routes.

A close-up view of a Blue-footed Booby. © Roderic Mast

Galápagos Penguins can be found year-round on Isabela and Fernandina Islands, and there is a small colony that can be seen on Bartolomé Island. They are occasionally seen on Floreana and Santiago (James) Islands. You may be able to swim near penguins on both of our cruise routes.

There are two species of frigatebirds that reside in the Galapagos Islands. The Magnificent Frigatebird is commonly seen on North Seymour Island, while the larger, Great Frigatebird can be found on the outer islands. Frigatebirds are notable both for their mating displays, in which they inflate their red neck pouches like a balloon, as well as for their aerial acrobatics while performing kleptoparasitism on the other seabirds.

Frigatebirds are known for their impressive mating displays. © Roderic Mast

Galápagos Greater Flamingos can be found individually or in small groups in saltwater lagoons, breeding between July and March. Our greatest chance to see them will be at Floreana Island, a stop on our central / southern route.

Flightless Cormorants can only be found on Fernandina and Isabela Islands. The birds inhabit rocky, volcanic shorelines and have no ability to fly. They nest between April-October when sea temperatures are colder, and fish are plentiful. Flightless Cormorants can only be seen on our western / northern route.

Overall, April - May is the best time for bird nesting activity.

Plan Your Trip

Hopefully you’ve come away with a better understanding of the amazing wildlife of the Galápagos Islands and the seasonal variations that you may want to consider when planning your trip. But remember: there isn’t a bad time to visit the Galápagos!

If you have questions or would like more information, please don’t hesitate to contact us—we’ll be happy to help! For information about our Galápagos Islands Cruises including itineraries, photos, extensions on to Machu Picchu, and more, click here.

Author

Justin Willig is the coordinator of our conservation travel programs. He has an extensive background in marine ecology and policy, and is passionate about protecting species and reefs around the world. Justin is an avid snorkeler and scuba diver, and holds a B.S. in Aquatic and Fishery Sciences from the University of Washington, and a M.A. in Marine Affairs from the University of Rhode Island.