The Galapagos penguin is one of the smallest and rarest of the 20 species of penguins alive today. Only knee high, it’s also the only penguin that lives in the northern hemisphere (some of them live just a tad above the equatorial line in Galapagos). Its ancestors likely drifted up on the cool Humboldt current, which originates in Antarctic waters.
Penguins are among the most delightful animals you’ll see while snorkeling in Galapagos. Floating like corks, they can suddenly dive and zoom away, zipping about back and forth as they chase their next meal alone or in groups of 2 or 3. They are undisturbed by snorkelers – it’s not unusual to have one or more swim buy within arm’s reach, or simply float there while you inspect them more closely. Unlike sea lions (which can behave like an excited puppy) they don’t seem to be interested at all in humans and largely ignore them.
Penguins appreciate the cooler waters in Galapagos. Those waters tend to be richer in nutrients, which in turn lead to more small fish – what penguins like to eat. Typically, you’ll find these mostly on the western shores, though some penguins frequent a few visitors sites in the central archipelago. Here’s a list of the visitor sites where you’re most like to see them. Most are accessible only by embarking on a cruise.
Punta Espinosa, Fernandina Island
Only a few hundred thousand years old, and free of invasive species, this is likely the most pristine island you’ll see in your lifetime. Its central volcano dominates the landscape, spreading lava fields all the way to the shore. The island’s highlight features the flightless cormorant nesting site, “marine iguana city”, penguins and if you’re lucky, the Galapagos hawk.
Fernandina Island, Punta Mangle
Punta Mangle is a superior snorkeling site and a beautiful location for riding in a panga through a grove of mangrove trees. A 500m hike can also be done. While you are on your ride, you are likely to see plenty of marine iguanas, sea lions, penguins, tortoises, pelicans, rays and many birds.
Elizabeth Bay, Isabela Island
A panga ride site – no snorkeling here – but you should be able to spot penguins darting about from the skiff that will take you deep into the mangrove bays and lagoons. A tour here may reveal Galápagos green turtles, golden cownose rays, spotted eagle rays, and white-tip reef sharks. Galápagos penguins prefer the rocky islets, and marine iguanas enjoy the plentiful algae. Other species seen here include flightless cormorants, pelicans and lava herons.
Albemarle Point, Isabela Island
Albemarle Point is a seldom visited site at the northern end of Isabela and if so, often by panga ride. A World War II radar station was built here by the USA. Visitors can walk to the ruins of the radar base. Marine iguanas on the north end of Isabela are some of the largest in the archipelago, and if you spot any penguins, you’ll be seeing one of the very few that live in the northern hemisphere.
Tagus Cove, Isabela Island
A deep water cove frequented by whales and pirates as attested by old graffiti on shoreline cliffs. A short steep hike leads to the salt water Darwin Lake, lying within a tuff cone. With nice vistas, you can spot a variety of finch species, hawks, yellow warblers, Galapagos flycatchers. A panga ride along the cliffs may reveal flightless cormorants, Galápagos penguins, and Galápagos sea lions.
Bartolomé Island has two visitor sites that are usually combined into one visit. The first is a swim and snorkel off a nice beach, around the iconic Pinnacle Rock; the underwater world there is really impressive. Snorkelers are in the water with the penguins, marine turtles white-tipped reef sharks, rays and other tropical fish. The second site is accessible via a long staircase leading up to a spectacular view point from which you can see the manifestations of recent volcanic activity.
Sombero Chino Island
The landing site is at a small crescent-shaped white-sand beach. A trail runs from the landing site — where you may see penguins, sea lions and Sally Lightfoot crabs — to the rocky shore of the western part of the island. Here, you’ll enter a primeval world of volcanic rubble, sharp outcroppings, and lava formations. A visit usually includes a snorkel/swim.
Tintoreras, Isabela Island
This is a group of small islets just a few hundred metres off the coast of Villamil – you don’t need to be on cruise to visit this site, but you will need to be taken out to the site by small boat. You may spot sea lions, sea turtles, marine iguanas, rays, and other species in the tranquil waters of the bay. A famous shark viewing lagoon is usually on the agenda at low tide. You may be offered to go snorkeling.
Sullivan Bay, Santiago Island
While it doesn’t boast much wildlife, Sullivan Bay provides visitors with an opportunity to walk across a recent lava flow and examine its otherworldly beauty. Don’t worry; the lava isn’t hot, as it was formed in the late 19th century. The trail here crosses pahoehoe lava, dotted with pyroclastic cones. Inland, striking red and yellow tuft cones rise above the flow. Penguins dart about the shoreline – get in the water and see if you can spot a few.