Conservation Status: Endangered
Scientific Name: Spheniscus mendiculus
Meet the only penguin species crazy enough to live at the equator! The Galapagos penguin is a cute little fella, and offers a unique bucket list opportunity to snorkel or swim with penguins .
So, how exactly did a cold water penguin end up living in the tropics? They are related to the Humboldt Penguin from Chile, and are believed to have washed up on Galapagos shores some 4 million years ago on the ocean currents. These penguins then adapted to survive in their new habitat by reducing their physical size, and losing body fat.
They are the second smallest penguin species in the world, measuring just 19inches long, and weighing a mere 5.5 pounds. A Galapagos Penguin is easy to identifty, being the only penguin species found at Galapagos. Their head is black with a white border, and bodies are black on the back, with a white underbelly.
Where to find them:The largest colonies are found on the west side of Isabela island, and on Fernandina. Smaller groups can often be spotted at Bartolome, and somtimes swimming close to Puerto Villamil Harbor (Isabela), on Floreana’s northern coast, or the Eastern side of Santiago.
When to see them: All year round.
Colonies of Galapagos Penguin are only found at a few special visitor sites, so be sure to check that your cruise itinerary will visit one of those mentioned above. The current Galapagos Penguin population is believed to be just 2000 birds.
Galapagos Penguin habitat is typically on old lava rocks, in caves and crevices to provide shade and shelter, and close to shore for easy access to the water.
Nesting usually takes place between May and January, but can be hightly variable. There will be just one or two eggs per clutch, with both males and females sharing the work of incubation for 35-40 days to keep eggs cool. Similarly, they share the toil of rearing chicks and hunting food for them. Dark colored chicks typically fledge after eight to nine weeks.
They are flightless birds, and rather clumsy on land, but once they enter the water they swim like bullets, reaching speeds of up to 35km/h, and showing off great agility to make sharp direction changes look easy.
What do Galapagos Penguin eat? Their diet consists mostly of cold water fish such as anchovies, sardines and mullet. The cold Galapagos waters from May to November, when the Arctic Humboldt current dominates, is the perfect time for adundant feeding.
• They are the only penguin species with no set breeding season. They choose to mate when food in abundant, capable of laying eggs up to three times in a good year, or in times of food scarcity they may not mate at all.
• Perhaps the most important Galapagos Penguin adaptation is their method of thermo-regulation. They have no sweat glands, so if they become too hot then they’ll either slip into the water, spread out their flippers and lean forward to keep their feet in shade, or pant to keep cool.
• Penguins are loyal lovers, mating for life with a single partner. A pair can often be observed preening each other and tapping bills to strenthen their bond and communicate emotions.
• The Galapagos Penguin is the rarest and most endangered species in the world. They are under threat from predators such as Galapagos hawks, owls, snakes, sharks and invasive species like cats and dogs. The El Niño weather phenomenon also leaves them very vulnerable – when sea temperatures rise, there is simply not enough food in the seas to support them. During the last strong El Niño event, back in 1982, approximately 77% of the population were wiped out in just one year.
• An active conservation project led by the Galapagos Conservancy is underway, aiming to reverse the decline of the Galapagos Penguin population. One of the reasons for their endangered status is the lack of suitable nesting sites - many old nests either no longer exist or are now occupied by Marine Iguanas. So, in 2010, Dr. Dee Boersma of the University of Washington and her team built 120 high-quality, artificial nest sites for them to use, with monitoring trips since then indicating that penguins are putting the nests to good use.
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.