Natural History in Galapagos

During the various geological successions that have taken place, the Galapagos has been colonized by many species of quite different origins with surprisingly adaptive capacities. The succession of various marine currents within the archipelago seasonally mark changes in climate, influencing water temperatures and the renewal of the vegetation cover. These two factors regulate food availability and the biological activity of the entire food chain present on the archipelago.

The seasons suitable for wildlife observation are therefore not the same for all species. However, given the abundance of wildlife, it is possible to observe the most emblematic animals of the Galapagos throughout the year. This short guide on the succession of the main natural events will help you see more clearly so that you can plan your trip according to your observation desires.

Calendar of natural and climatic events in Galapagos

January

With the increase of the air and water temperature, the warm season (known as the rainy season) begins. It lasts until June and intensifies between January and March. It is a period punctuated by rain that last no more than two hours and do not prevent you from enjoying the wonders of the archipelago.

The climate is ideal until the beginning of June for snorkeling due to the arrival of warm northern waters currents. The sea is relatively calm and offers good underwater visibility. Due to a decrease in the quantity of plankton in suspension in the water, wildlife activity is reduced. At this time, it is common for a marine current coming from the depths from the north to strike the coasts, producing large backwashes which in turn raise sediments that reduce underwater visibility in some bays and marine cliffs in the norther part of the archipelago.

This is the best time to observe the moonfish (Mola mola and Mola alexandrini), although it is possible to observe them until April.

Depending on the arrival of the first rains, land birds begin to nest. The beginning of this nesting period can therefore vary between January and February.

Until June is the best time to observe and photograph the Darwin finches. During this period of heavy rains, the food resources available are important and are conducive to nesting. The great majority of the territories are occupied, and the specimens vocalize a lot. This facilitates the identification of these birds, which is usually difficult.

The Galapagos Petrels are beginning to clean their nests in the nesting areas located in the highlands of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Santiago and Floreana.

With the arrival of the rains, land iguanas also begin their reproductive cycle, especially on Isabela and South Plaza islands.

On Española Island, adult marine iguanas don a colorful livery to initiate their courtship ritual.

This is the beginning of the mating period of the giant land tortoises, which will last until March and sometimes May. This is the best time to observe the “fights” for territory, between the males and the females, as in the highlands of Santa Cruz. At the same time, became the hatching of the giant turtle eggs, from the last season.

The green turtles (sea turtles) arrive on the beaches of the archipelago for the egg-laying period, from January to April.

Large Grond Finch (Xavier Amigo)

February

It is a relatively hot month with an average of about 25°C (77°F). This temperature remains constant until April.

Currently, the nesting season of the Galapagos Dove reaches its peak, while on Floreana Island, the majority of Greater Flamingos (endemic sub-species of Galapagos) begin their nesting period. However, these opportunistic birds may postpone this period by a few weeks or even months.

The Nazca Booby on Española Island (also called Hood Island) begin their nesting period.

The Galapagos Penguins, for their part, have left Bartolomé Island to follow the cool, nutrient-rich waters currents along the western edge of the archipelago. The movement of these small colonies restricts sightings of this emblematic species around Bartolomé and Santiago, as they go further offshore and spend more time in the water to find their food, which was rarer at that time.

Marine iguanas are beginning to nest on Santa Cruz Island, with males displaying beautiful red and black mottling while females of some subspecies tend to be green.

Beginning of the Land Iguana nesting season on Plaza Sur and at the same time, eggs-hatching begin on Santa Fé.

The endemic subspecies of the White-cheeked Pintail begins its nesting season.

Greater Flamingos (Vincent Mouret)

March

The rainy season is at its peak although rainfall is only punctual. The humidity level is such that it is not uncommon to land “wet” in places like Puerto Egas, Gardner Bay or Bartolomé.

The days are no less pleasant because they are sunny and warm. The air temperature can reach 35°C (95°F).

Snorkeling can be practiced over longer periods of time thanks to the mild water temperatures, even in the westernmost part of the archipelago, where diving conditions are optimal in terms of visibility and wildlife activity.

March 21, the day of the summer equinox, generally corresponds to the arrival of the Albatross on Española.

This is also the time when marine iguanas nest on Fernandina Island.

The Galapagos Petrels begin their nesting which lasts until October.

From March to May the Frigatebirds are particularly active: you will be able to observe their characteristic crop, especially at Frigatebird Hill on San Cristobal Island, Darwin Bay on Tower Island or even on Genovesa Island.

On the western islands, Galapagos Penguins are highly active, especially on Punta Vicente Roca. These opportunistic birds’ nest when feeding conditions are good, which normally occurs during the cold season. They can, however, nest throughout the year if there is sufficient food available.

Marine Iguanas (Xavier Amigo)

April

This is one of the best months (with also May) to visit the Galapagos due to the mild climate. The air and water temperatures are perfect and are accompanied by an increase in biological activity for many species.

The rainy season is coming to an end, the islands’ vegetation is green and visibility in the water is still good. The surface diving sessions are very pleasant.

Green sea turtle eggs are beginning to hatch, and it is possible to see this phenome until July.

This is the month of the massive arrivals of Galapagos Albatrosses on Española Island and the beginning of their curious courtship display.

At the same time, it is the end of the breeding season of the Giant tortoises.

The eggs of the land iguanas begin to hatch on Isabela Island.

Between April and May, the giant tortoises migrate from the high areas to the plains to initiate the beginning of the nesting season.

The colonies of Strom Petrels are very active from April to October on the island of Genovesa.

In Bahia Urbina, as in other similar localities, the concentration of Darwin Finches is even greater. Most of the juveniles wander out of the nests.

Land Iguanas (Xavier Amigo)

May

Although the water starts to cool down from the second fortnight, May is one of the two best months to travel around the Galapagos, thanks to a pleasant climate, optimal water temperature and a particularly active wildlife.

Indeed, the first parade of blue-footed boobies takes place on many islands, especially on North Seymour Island.

Albatrosses begin to lay their eggs on Española Island and Strom-Petrels begin their nesting period.

Although this may vary from year to year, the waters of Bartolomé are generally those that offer the best visibility conditions for observing Penguins in the water and during their fishing, all in an idyllic setting. From May to October they are particularly active. Caleta Tagus is also an excellent place to observe them: the presence of prey is constant, and the fishing proves fruitful for these birds.
The west coasts of Isabella and Fernandina are particularly good places to observe the interactions between penguins and pelicans. The penguins come mischievously to steal small fishes protruding from the pelicans’ beak, a rather clumsy species. Similar phenomena occur with other species of predators such as the Galapagos Hawk and the Short-eared Owl.

The presence of Marine turtles is still high on the beaches of Bahia Garder, Punta Cormorán and Puerto Egas, for the last weeks of egg-laying.

The vast majority of marine Iguana eggs hatch on Santa Cruz until mid-June on most of the archipelago and those of marine turtles on Gardner Bay, Punta Cormoran, and Puerto Egas.

Palo Santo trees (Bursera graveolens) are beginning to shed their leaves.

Penguins (Vincent Mouret)

June

The climate is changing. The season becomes cool and dry and rainfall is scarce. A kind of permanent fog and a drizzle called “garúa” cover the tops of the islands with a light drizzle. Clouds begin to form over the highlands of the larger islands. This phenomenon is less pronounced on the coasts and lasts until November.

The currents are stronger and some cetaceans, which migrate at this time, can be observed when sailing between the islands. Some groups of humpback whales migrate to equatorial latitudes and sometimes reach the Galapagos to stay until September. However, sightings are rare, and the Ecuadorian coasts are the best place to observe them.

The south-east trade winds are beginning to blow. The tides are stronger and are accompanied by imposing waves. The first swells start to be felt. The waters become richer in plankton and visibility is altered.

It is also possible to observe whale sharks around the islands of Darwin and Wolf, in the north of the archipelago.

Migratory birds from the south have begun their journey north. The Galapagos is a resting place for these birds.

Giant turtles continue their migrations on Santa Cruz Island, from the highlands to the lowlands, in search of better nesting habitats.

The parade of Magnificent Brigatebirds, adorned with their voluminous, swollen red ruffles, can still be seen on North Seymour Island.

June also sees the arrival of thousands of hammerhead sharks that migrate to the Darwin and Wolf walls. Closer to the central islands, Kicker Rock and Roca Gordon are also excellent sites to observe them.

This is also the beginning of the mating season for Galapagos Sea lions, which lasts until August, although it is less pronounced all year round (except for the hottest months, from January to May).

From June to October (during the cold season) Red-footed Boobies nesting intensifies and the presence of juveniles is more important, although these semi-pelagic birds can nest practically all year round.

Hammerhead Shark (Pierre Ferron)

July

In July, the sea temperature drops below 21°C (70°F), thus enriching itself with nutrients for wildlife.

Cetaceans, such as blue whales, are mainly found in the western part of the Galapagos Archipelago, on the west coast of Isabela Island. Dolphins, on the other hand, have become rare in recent years.

From July to October, impressive gatherings of hammerhead sharks can be observed in deep waters at Wolf and Darwin Islands, while diving. Although the visibility due to the massive presence of plankton is altered, this is the best time of the year to observe them.

July is also a good time to see blue-footed boobies reproduce. Only the colony of Punta Suarez (Española Island) is not observable during this period. During this month it is possible to observe the four stages of nesting of this species: eggs, chicks, juveniles and young adults.

Flightless Cormorants exhibit their spectacular mating display on Fernandina Island and at Punta Moreno on Isabela Island, where observations are easier because the water is calm. Tagus Cove is another possible site to observe the frenetic competition that rages between the females to conquer the best males and the nesting thanks to the algae supply for the platform. Following this bird on its fishing dives is probably one of the most interesting experiences of a visit to the Galapagos.

Meanwhile, along the beaches of Puerto Egas (Santiago Island), Short-eared Owls begin to nest while land-based Iguanas mate on Fernandina Island.

The lava lizards begin to parade before the mating season, which lasts until November.

Until November, when it is hot and dry, the giant turtles lay their eggs on the lowlands of Santa Cruz and Isabela. The adults then move up to the highlands as the wet season returns and the abundance of food it provides.

Giant turtles (Xavier Amigo)

August

The ocean is quite unpredictable at this time of year and offers currents of unparalleled strength during the rest of the year. Until September, water temperatures continue to drop below 18°C (64°F) in certain areas of the archipelago, particularly on the southern and western islands.

The Galapagos Hawk begin their courtship on Española Island and Santiago.

The giant turtles, as for them, continue their ascent towards the highlands after nesting (Santa Cruz).

Nazca Booby and Swallow-tail Gulls nest on Genovesa Island.

This is also the month when the birth of Galapagos Sea lions begins, especially on the central and western islands.

Late August to late November is also the mating season for Galapagos Fur seals with a peak in October in Puerto Egas and Genovesa.

Galapagos Sea lions (Xavier Amigo)

September

Here we are in the heart of the cold season: the air temperature reaches 19°C (66°F), the swell is at its peak.

Migratory birds are beginning to arrive and stay on the archipelago until March.

Most of seabirds are very active on their nesting grounds and Galapagos Penguins show remarkable reproductive activity on Bartolomé Island where it is possible to swim around them.

It is also the breeding period of the Nasca boobies on Genovesa.

Both Galapagos Sea Lion and Galapagos Fur seals are very active and visible thanks to the high concentration of food resources in the water.

At the beginning of the breeding season the Sea lions can be seen playing with the males until November.

Galapagos Fur Seals (Xavier amigo)

October

It is the end of the cold season. The days are not very sunny, though. The drizzle is frequent on the archipelago except for the western islands where mornings are foggy, and afternoons flooded with sunshine. The tops of the highlands are clear, the fog covering only the coastal lines.

The first rays of light, at dawn, allow for beautiful photography, especially on the western islands.

The blue-footed boobies raise their chicks on Española Island and Punta Vicente Roca (Isabela).

Lava Herons (a subspecies of the Striped Heron) begin to nest (from October to March). At the same time the Galapagos Petrels stop nesting during this month.

It is also the last days of egg-laying for the giant tortoises.

Galapagos Sea lions are in the middle of their mating season. It is the time for the males to gather the females in harems by strong slabs and some slightly muscular interventions. Brawl shows are frequent, especially on the western islands.

Heron des Laves (Xavier amigo)

November

The month of November is a transition period. The climate is generally very pleasant as we move from one season to another. The trade winds and tides are calm. The water temperature rises slowly.

The visibility underwater is good which allows to practice scuba diving in the best conditions. However, be aware of the presence of jellyfish species along the coasts of some northern islands.

Thousands of hammerhead sharks migrate and leave the Galapagos. Despite these massive displacements, they are present all year round in Galapagos with high concentrations during the cold season.

Brown Noddis make their first niches while Petrels, Shearwaters and Strom-Petrels begin their second nesting period.

Meanwhile the Masked Boobies begin their breeding period in Genovesa and Española until February.

The juvenile Galapagos Petrels are ready to take to the air while the young Red-footed Boobies are emancipated from November to December.

This is also the breeding period for sea turtles at Tortuga Negra and Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz Island, and this is until March, with a breeding peak between December and February.

Late November and early December are the best times to watch the baby sea lions playing in the waves (as in Champion Islet), although it is in practice possible to see these “games” all year round.

(Vincent Mouret)

December

The rainy season begins: all plants in the dry zone start to produce leaves. The Galapagos archipelago is tinged with a rich range of greens and the climate becomes very pleasant. It is the beginning of the hot season and the underwater visibility is good.

It is the departure of the first Albatrosses from Española Island and the month when the iguana’s scaly livery changes and begins to turn green and red.

This is the beginning of the hatching of the eggs of the land turtles and the mating period of the giant turtles.

(Vincent Mouret)