The Galapagos Islands are one of the largest marine reserves on the planet, offering protection to an incredible diversity of colourful Galapagos fish species, and one of the best snorkeling or scuba destinations on the planet. Many of the real-life counterparts of favorite characters from Pixar and Disney movies are found here like Dori (surgeonfish) and Nemo (pufferfish) from Finding Nemo, and Oscar (wrasse) and Lola (lionfish) from A Shark’s Tale.
In total, over 450 different fish species can be found here - an unbelievable 10% of them are endemic to Galapagos (only found here), while other migratory species are just passing through. This impressive biodiversity is largely due to the mix of habitats - from mangrove to coral, sandy bottoms & rocky shores. Galapagos fish species include: tropical fish, rays, sharks, whales, seahorses, eels and octopuses, as well as less exotic sea slugs and cucumbers.
Read on to learn about some of the more common Galapagos Fish species to see while snorkeling, as well as how and where to find them.
Two unmissable underwater activities to see tropical fish at the Galapagos islands are Snorkeling and Diving. Snorkeling is an integral part of any Galapagos Cruise or Land Tour, while specialist scuba diving can be booked as a live-aboard cruise or day dives. Either way, you are in for a real treat!
There are so many top spots, but here are a few that we particularly recommend to snorkelers:
Prince Philip Steps (Genovesa): Deep water snorkeling with a large variety of tropical fish including schools of surgeon fish, butterfly hogfish, unicorn fish, king angelfish, parrot fish, manta rays and even hammerhead sharks if lucky.
Los Tuneles (southern Isabela): Amazing snorkel or dive day trips from Puerto Villamil, to see rays, whitetip reef sharks, and giant seahorse.
Punta Vicente Roca (northern Isabela):One of the very best snorkel sites at Galapagos to see: moonfish, galapagos batfish, parrot fish, wrass, frogfish, rays, and perhaps even port jackson shark or mola mola.
North Seymour: Another great spot with a wide variety of species such as king angelfish, parrot fish, hogfish, rays, and whitetip reef sharks.
Galapagos fish can be spotted year round, but the greatest diversity are present from May/June through to November, when the cold Humboldt current brings rich nutrients north from the Antarctic, providing adundant food for all Galapagos marine species.
What fish will you see in Galapagos? Read on for some of the more common species that you should look out for.
King Angelfish are one of the more stunning tropical Galapagos fish species, popular among snorkelers for its large size (up to 35cm long) and beautiful blue, orange, yellow and white color combinations.
Parrot Fish are named after the uncanny likeness of its mouth with the beak of a parrot. The four main parrot fish found at Galapagos are: blue chin, bumphead, bicolor and azure. Parrot fish are important reef cleaners, spending much of their time eating algae and dead organic matter.
Pacific Creolefish are recognised by their salmon colored underbelly, and grey/Brown/red back. They form an important part of the diet of blue footed boobies, easily caught as they school together feeding on plankton.
Yellowtail Surgeonfish are a common species at Galapagos, and among coral reefs around the world, often together in large schools feeding on sea algae. Take special care not to handle them, and to avoid the sharp spines on their tail.
Sun Fish (Mola Mola) are unmistakable due to their huge size (up to 1000kg, making them the largest bony fish in the world), and unusual appearance. Two species can be found in Galapagos waters: the Ocean Sun Fish and the Southern Sun Fish, named due to their preference for swimming close to the surface to bask in the sun.
Hieroglyphic Hawkfish, also known as the Giant Hawkfish, is popular for its lovely colors - olive green skin, with pronounced golden stripes – which are said to resemble a hieroglyph.
Sergeant Major Fish is a species of Damsel fish named for their black colored stripes resembling those of a military sergeant. They are common among coral reefs, swimming over reef tops in schools of several hundred during the day to feed, and seeking refuge in crevices during the night.
Moray Eels can be found right across the Marine Park, with 16 different species present, including the wonderful black and white striped zebra moray eel, and uniquely camouflaged speckled moray.
Blacknosed Butterflyfish have a yellow/silver compressed body, with a black band along the base of the dorsal fin, and pretty facial markings. They are a cleaner fish species, waiting to feed on parasites from larger fish at cleaner stations.
Yellow-tailed Grunt are so named for the strange sound that they make by grinding teeth together when disturbed. They can often be sighted at Devils Crown, Floreana.
Galapagos Hogfish (Harlequin Wrasse) are a bottom-grazer species, feeding on crab, shrimp, eggs, snails and worms.
Galapagos Batfish (Red-lipped Batfish) are identified by their bright red lips, almost as if wearing lipstick. They are poor swimmers, usually found walking the sea floor on their pectoral and pelvic fins, giving the appearance of a bat.
Yellow Tang are found in crevasses around reefs and in shallow caves and cracks of volcanic underwater walls, Yellow Tangs are the only completely yellow reef fish in the Galapagos waters.
The small, disk-like fish are herbivorous, eating filamentous algae along the reefs of the islands, and from the shells of sea turtles and other, larger marine creatures. They are territorial and spawn according to the lunar calendar. Two places that they are sometimes seen are off the shores of Santa Cruz, Darwin, and Wolf Islands.
Clownfish are bright orange with a white band around its head and black outlines on the tips of the fins, the clownfish is one of the more recognizable fish beneath the Galapagos sea. True to their name, the small, agile fish dart back and forth, coming close to snorkelers and divers in curious forays from their positions in the nooks and crannies of reefs and volcanic rock. Clownfish feed on plankton and algae are found in shallow waters around reefs all over the islands in small teams of two or three.
Lionfish are an invasive species in the Galapagos waters, having immigrated from the Indo-Pacific oceans to the Atlantic, and tropical Pacific seas.
The canorous fish is tribally adorned with tentacles protruding from above and below their mouths, and brown, maroon, and white stripes circling their body in vertical rows from head to tail. Their fins resemble Japanese fans, and long spines along their back deliver a toxic sting to those who dare to get close enough.
They are vivacious hunters, feeding on shrimp, reef fish, and crabs by ambushing them from hiding places in volcanic rocks and fingers of coral reef. Lionfish can expand their stomachs up to thirty times its normal volume, eating until bloated after the food runs out.
Cortez Rainbow Wrasse are one of the marine cleaners of the Galapagos. Found around coral reefs, on wall dives, and around diving sites where sharks, rays, sea turtles, and larger fish gather. As juveniles, they have yellow, black, and red horizontal stripes-the older the fish, the more pronounced the black stripe is, and the yellow stripe is more diminished.
Pufferfish are seen close to the surface from boats and on the sandy, flat bottoms of shallow lagoons, the slow-moving and clumsy concentric pufferfish is one of the most unique in the ocean. Instead of out-running predators, the reef fish swallows large amounts of water and inflates its elastic stomach, growing in size to a ball that won’t fit into most pursuer’s mouths.
Another unique habit of a species of pufferfish in other parts of the ocean is a courtship ritual. Males spend up to five weeks making elaborate, circular designs are the sandy ocean floor. Once finished, the female swims to the middle of the maze to signal approval.
Concentric pufferfish feed on algae and plankton and are aptly named for their leisurely swimming patterns near the surface of the water.
Pacific Seahorse (Giant Seahorse) can grow to between 20-30cm in length, and are the only seahorse species found in the Eastern Pacific. The best place to see them at Galapagos is Los Tuneles, Isabela.
Rays are common right across the archipelago, and often easy to spot even from aboard a yacht. There are 15 different species of rays at Galapagos, including: spotted eagle, marble, sting, manta and golden rays.
Written by John Potts
John is the original founder of Happy Gringo. He is from London UK and has over 17 years of travel and work experience in Latin America. John´s biggest passions in life are travel and nature, he has had the pleasure to visit more than 75 different countries, and calls Quito, in Ecuador, home.