Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, blue-footed booby, boobies, penguin, flightless cormorant, waved albatross, pelican, frigatebirds

Sailing on Galapagos Breezes: Seabirds to Spot on Your Galapagos Cruise (part 1)

While you are cruising the Galapagos Islands, you’ll see a variety of seabirds. They may sail on the breeze above your ship. For others, you’ll land on the coast and hike up to their nesting grounds.

Even though seabirds are defined as those who spend much of their lives far out at sea, the Galapagos Islands proves to us that this isn’t always the case. Some species – like the penguin – are natural non-flyers. Others – like the flightless cormorant – have evolved to become land-bound birds.

In total, 23 species of seabirds are regularly seen in the Galapagos Islands. Of these, 14 are endemic. These species or subspecies are found only in the Galapagos, although closely related species may be found elsewhere. Five indigenous or resident species live and breed in the Galapagos, though they are not unique to the archipelago. Four other seabird species are migrants, temporarily visiting the Galapagos on a regular basis.

Get your binoculars and camera ready to check out these beautiful creatures that spend much time at sea. In this first part, we aim our binoculars and cameras on the Galapagos Islands’ most famous seabirds.



Boobies are the most famous of the Galapagos seabirds. Three comical species call these islands home.

Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, blue-footed booby, boobies, penguin, flightless cormorant, waved albatross, pelican, frigatebirds

Blue-footed Booby. photo by Nicolas de Camaret (

Blue-footed Booby

The Blue-Footed Booby is the darling of the Galapagos Islands. These birds are famous for their courtship dance, in which the males “dance,” showing off their blue feet to prospective female mates. Blue-footed Boobies are easy to spot when they fish, as they plunge head-first into the sea, like a dive bomber. In recent years, breeding has been declining as the boobies’ favored food, sardines, are scarcer in the warming seas around the islands, which is being caused by climate change.

  • Scientific name – Sula nebouxii excisa
  • Spanish name – Piquero patas azules
  • Length – 80-85 centimeters (32-34 inches)
  • Wingspan – 152-158 centimeters (60-62 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – North Seymour, Española; also Fernandina, Floreana, Genovesa, Isabela, Pinzon, Santa Cruz and other islands south of the equator.
  • Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: April-May; nesting: July-December


Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, blue-footed booby, boobies, penguin, flightless cormorant, waved albatross, pelican, frigatebirds

Red-footed Booby. photo by Brad Gratwicke (

Red-footed Booby

Red-footed Boobies, as the name implies, have red-colored feet. Their beaks are blue and bodies white with dark-brown markings in the wings and back. It is the smallest of the booby species in the islands. It is estimated that the Galapagos’ Red-footed Booby colony is the largest in the world.

  • Scientific name – Sula sula
  • Spanish name – Piquero patas rojas
  • Length – 70 centimeters (28 inches)
  • Wingspan – 1 meter (3.25 feet)
  • Best islands to see them – Genovesa; also San Cristobal at Pitt Point and Pitt Islet, Gardner-by-Floreana
  • Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: June; nesting: September-December


Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, blue-footed booby, boobies, penguin, flightless cormorant, waved albatross, pelican, frigatebirds

Nazca Booby. photo by Derek Keats (

Nazca Booby

The Nazca Booby is much different from its cousins. This booby species is white, with a black mask around its eyes, and dark-brown bands edging its wings and tail. Its beak ranges from rose to bright orange, and its feet a dull olive or blue-grey color. Nazca and the Masked Boobies used to be considered the same, but are now classified as distinct species. The Nazca Booby is the largest of the Galapagos’ booby species. Because of its large size, it often nests near the tops of cliffs.

  • Scientific name – Sula granti
  • Spanish name – Piquero de Nazca
  • Length – 1 meter (3.25 feet)
  • Wingspan – 1.5-2 meters (5-6 feet)
  • Best islands to see them – Genovesa, Española
  • Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: December-February, June; nesting: August-September


Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, blue-footed booby, boobies, penguin, flightless cormorant, waved albatross, pelican, frigatebirds

Waved Albatross. photo by protographer23 (

Waved Albatross

The Waved Albatross is another fantastic bird sought out by many Galapagos visitors. This endemic species can spend years at sea without touching land. They arrive en masse to the Galapagos Islands with the March equinox to mate, and stay until December to raise their young. The fledglings will not return to Española for five years, when they will then join in on the elaborate mating dance this species is known for. You can take a multi-day or day cruise to see them.

  • Scientific name – Phoebastria irrorata
  • Spanish name – Albatros de Galápagos
  • Length – 1 meter (3,25 feet)
  • Wingspan – 2,4 meters (8 feet)
  • Best islands to see them – Española
  • Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: April; nesting: May-October


Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, blue-footed booby, boobies, penguin, flightless cormorant, waved albatross, pelican, frigatebirds

Galapagos Penguins. photo by taquiman (

Galapagos Penguin

The Galapagos Penguin is the second-smallest penguin in the world, and the only one found north of the equator. This flightless bird is endemic to the Galapagos Islands. Like their cousins, these penguins are black and white, with a white line around the face. They have a relatively long bill. They can dive to a depth of eight meters (26 feet), though on occasion can go as deep as 55 meters (180 feet). These seabirds are heavily affected by the El Niño phenomenon, when their food supplies are limited. In February, they migrate from Bartholomé Island to Isabela and Fernandina. Watch for them torpedoing through the water.

  • Scientific name – Spheniscus mendiculus
  • Spanish name – Pingüino de Galápagos
  • Height – 49-53 centimeters (19-21 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – Bartholomé, Isabela, Fernandina
  • Breeding / nesting season – April-May, August-September


Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, blue-footed booby, boobies, penguin, flightless cormorant, waved albatross, pelican, frigatebirds

Flightless cormorant. photo by Brian Gratwicke (

Flightless Cormorant

The Flightless Cormorant is the largest cormorant and the only one incapable of flight. Its long body is a velvety dark grey. This cormorant has stunning sapphire-blue eyes. It has short legs and a long, hooked bill. After swimming, it comes to land and spreads its tatty wings to dry. This species is also very affected by the El Niño.

  • Scientific name – Phalacrocorax harrisi
  • Spanish name – cormorán no volador
  • Length: 89-100 centimeters (35-39 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – Isabela, Fernandina
  • Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: July; nesting: August-September. If food supplies are plentiful, Flightless Cormorants may also mate and nest in October and/or December.


Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, blue-footed booby, boobies, penguin, flightless cormorant, waved albatross, pelican, frigatebirds

Brown Pelican. photo by Anne Dirkse (

Brown Pelican

The Brown Pelican is instantly recognizable by its large, pouched bill. This bird is common throughout the Galapagos archipelago (especially at the Fishermen’s Wharf in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island). During the breeding season, the adults have white and chestnut-colored markings on their heads and necks. The Brown Pelican breeds on all the central islands, as well as on Española and Marchena.

  • Scientific name – Pelecanus occidentalis urinator
  • Spanish name – Pelícano café
  • Length – 1.2 meters (4 feet)
  • Wingspan – 2 meters (6.5 feet)
  • Best islands to see them – Española, Fernandina, Floreana, Isabela, Marchena, San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Santa Fe, Santiago.
  • Breeding / nesting season – Year-round


Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, blue-footed booby, boobies, penguin, flightless cormorant, waved albatross, pelican, frigatebirds

Magnificent Frigatebird. photo by E.K.111 (


Frigatebirds are known as the pirates of the seabird world, as they steal food from other birds while in flight. The reason is that Frigatebirds lack sufficient oils to waterproof their feathers, and thus cannot dive into the sea to catch their food as other seabirds do.

Two species of Frigatebirds are found in the Galapagos Islands. At Cerro Tijeretas on San Cristobal, you can see both types living side by side. Both are approximately the same size, and breed and nest year-round. Additionally, both species are black, and the males have a red throat that they inflate during the mating display.

The Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens magnificens) is endemic to the Galapagos. Males have a metallic-violet sheen to their black plumage. The females are black with white underside and black throat; a thin blue ring circles their eyes. A large colony of the Magnificent Frigatebird is on North Seymour Island.

The Great Frigatebird (Fregata minor) is a resident Galapagos species. It is slightly smaller than its Magnificent cousin, and has a greenish hue to its black feathers. The females are black with white underside and throat, and a red ring around its eyes.

  • Scientific name – Fregata spp
  • Spanish name – tijereta, fragata
  • Length – 1 meter (3.25 feet)
  • Wingspan – 2.4 meters (8 feet)
  • Best islands to see them – Throughout the archipelago, but especially San Cristobal, Genovesa and North Seymour
  • Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: year-round, depending on the island (March-May on San Cristobal and Genovesa, June on North Seymour); nesting: May-October, depending on the island


There are many more seabirds you’ll see as you cruise through the Galapagos Islands. In Part 2, we’ll focus our binoculars on those that are truly sea-faring aves, including gulls, terns and petrels.


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Photo credit: Brad Gratwicke

Galapagos Islands, expedition, scientific research, California Academy of Sciences, Charles Darwin, evolution, Darwin’s finches, giant tortoises, San Francisco, earthquake

A Galapagos Expedition with a Mission: California Academy of Sciences, 1905-1906

The California Academy of Sciences 1905-1906 Galapagos expedition set sail with a mission. Despite the challenges it faced, it came home triumphant, leaving us with a deeper understanding of the islands’ evolution and ecology.

The California Academy of Sciences (CAS) was founded in 1853 in San Francisco, California, only three years after that state joined the union. It was the first institution of its kind in the western United States. CAS was a cutting-edge academy, drawing the best scientific minds of the time and encouraging women scientists to join its ranks.

At the beginning of the 20th century, CAS decided to expand its scope of study from that of California’s fascinating natural history. It would set sail for the Galapagos Islands. The mission: to gather as many Galapagos Islands species as possible and to prove Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

On June 28, 1905, the 89-foot schooner Academy left San Francisco, then the major and richest U.S. port on the Pacific coast. Aboard were eight sailor-scientists, including a geologist, mammologist, ornithologist and other specialists. At the helm of the expedition and the ship was Rollo H. Beck, considered to be the foremost specimen collector of his day.


The California Academy of Sciences Explores the Galapagos

The turn of the century found scientists concerned with the disappearance of species around the world. The thought at that time was that as many specimens should be collected before extinction set in. It was better that these flora and fauna be preserved in museums for future scientific research.

The Academy began its 15-month journey by making occasional stops along the Pacific coast of Mexico and Central America to gather specimens. The crew also found their sailing ship at the mercy of uncertain currents and the weather’s whims, at times becalmed and at other times lashed about in strong winds.

On September 23, 1905, the sailor-scientists finally caught sight of Chatham (San Cristobal) Island. This was the beginning of a systematic survey of the Galapagos’ flora and fauna, collecting as much as possible before the expected extinction of the islands’ unique wildlife. They touched land on 24 islands, including all the major ones (San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana, Isabela, Santiago and Española) which they visited numerous times.

These sailor-scientists gave us many lasting legacies of their time there, but three stand out. One is that they captured the only known specimen of the Fernandina species of giant tortoise (Chelonoidis phantastica); it is believed this species had a natural extinction due to the island’s frequent volcanic eruptions.

The second one is that the crew witnessed the real-time destruction of Barrington (Santa Fe) Island’s environment. Not only did they see the damage being caused by introduced species like the black rat on land iguanas and other local animals, but also the near-extinction of that island’s giant tortoise population at the hand of humans.

The third major legacy of this expedition was the name of Academy Bay on the south side of Santa Cruz Island. On November 5, 1905, upon entering this bay, the schooner Academy almost shipwrecked on a reef. (At the time, this island was uninhabited. It is amazing to think it is now home to Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galapagos Islands.)

The crew of the Academy received horrifying news on April 20, 1906 from the passing cargo ship, the Cotopaxi: A devastating 7.8 earthquake had struck their homeport, San Francisco, two days earlier. The city was heavily destroyed. What these sailor-scientists would not know for many months yet to come was of the three-day fire that swept the city afterward, nor the fates of their families and of the California Academy of Sciences. Their scientific mission must continue.

After one year and one day in the Galapagos archipelago, the Academy and its crew of sailor-scientists departed Culpepper (Darwin) Island – the same last visage Charles Darwin had of the Galapagos – and sailed northward.


The California Academy of Sciences’ Galapagos Mission Continues

When the Academy pulled into San Francisco harbor on November 29, 1906, it found a city rebuilding itself. The CAS museum and labs – which had been destroyed in the earthquake and subsequent fire – were still in ruins. The CAS would not reopen until 1916.

The over 78,000 plant, mollusk, insect, bird, mammal and reptile specimens the scientists gathered would become not only the basis for the CAS’ new museum, but also the largest Galapagos specimens collection in the world. With such a vast array of specimens, scientists gained a better understanding of the origins and evolution of the Galapagos Islands’ iconic species, the Darwin finches and the giant tortoise. Into the 21st century, these specimens are still used by scientists.

The 1905-1906 CAS expedition also yielded dozens of scientific publications, including Beck’s log (which can be read online). The entire voyage is recounted in Log of the Schooner “Academy” On a Voyage of Scientific Research to the Galapagos Islands 1905-1906 (California Academy of Sciences, Occasional Papers, XVII, 1931) by Joseph Richard Slevin, the expedition’s  assistant herpetologist and second mate, and Collecting Evolution: The Galapagos Expedition that Vindicated Darwin by Matthew J. James (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Since that first expedition to the Galapagos, the CAS has continuously returned to the islands, sponsoring dozens of expeditions. In the past few decades, it has focused on the archipelago’s marine environment. In this underwater world, CAS scientists have discovered dozens of new species. The CAS also helped establish the Charles Darwin Research Station and Galapagos National Park, and continues to collaborate in scientific research projects with these institutions.


The majority of the present-day knowledge of the Galapagos Islands stems from the California Academy of Sciences’ 1905-06 expedition. To this day, we continue to enjoy its legacies at the Academy’s museums, in scientific literature and in the islands themselves. When you walk the grounds of the Charles Darwin Research Station, keep your eyes peeled for a plaque dedicated to the Academy’s arrival at Academy Bay.


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Photo credit: Paul Krawczukm

Family watching Galapagos islands videos

Twelve Titles on Galapagos – Videos

You’re dreaming of going to the Galapagos Islands – and you can do so virtually! Grab a bowl of popcorn and your favorite munchies, and settle in to watch these videos that’ll help you escape to the Enchanted Isles and their amazing wildlife.

We have chosen movies made in this new millennium, dealing with not only Galapagos animals but also evolution and human history. The entire family, from seven to 77, will enjoy these adventures. Some videos may be used as lesson plans for your younger members.

Check at your favorite local or on-line video shop for these and other works. You can also check on-line for these titles, or borrow them from your public library.


Wild Galapagos

National Geographic, 2017

Duration: 1 hour

This part of National Geographic’s “Mission Critical” series examines the endangered species of the Galapagos Islands.



BBC, 2017

Duration: 3 one-hour episodes

Naturalist host Liz Bonnin joins the crew of a research vessel on a scientific expedition to the Galapagos Islands. The episode “Cauldron of Life” explores Fernandina, Isabela and Wolf islands, with a visit to see rare pink iguanas. In “Secrets of the Deep,” the expedition dives deep into the Galapagos’ underwater world. Human effects on the Islands’ environment are discussed in “Future Frontiers.”


Galapagos: Islands of Change

BBC, 2015

Duration: 1 hour

Legendary nature commentator David Attenborough takes us to see the modern-day Galapagos. Can its unique wildlife survive in this ever-changing world?


Access 360º World Heritage: Galapagos

National Geographic, 2014

Duration: 45 minutes

In its series “Access 360º World Heritage,” National Geographic examines the challenges of preserving and maintaining UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This episode focuses on how new technology is helping to preserve the Galapagos Islands’ environment.


Galapagos 3D

Sky TV, 2013

Duration: 3 one-hour episodes

David Attenborough visits the Galapagos for the fourth time in his career, and narrates the islands’ natural history from their fiery birth and through the evolution of their astonishing animals. The three parts are:  “Origin,” “Adaptation” and “Evolution”. This is the first 3D movie filmed in the Galapagos Islands. Re-released in a 2D version, under the title “David Attenborough’s Galapagos.”


The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden

Zeitgeist Films, 2013

Duration: 120 minutes

Cate Blanchett narrates this long-awaited documentary about the murder-mystery that shrouded Floreana Island in the 1930s. What did happen to the Baroness and her lover? What caused Friedrich Ritter’s strange death? Includes interviews with Galapagos residents about life in the Galapagos Islands.


Darwin’s Secret Notebooks

National Geographic, 2009

Duration: 90 minutes

Armand Leroi leads on a journey to the Galapagos Islands and other places that inspired Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.


Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life

BBC, 2009

Duration: 1 hour

In most people’s minds, Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution was born in the Galapagos Islands. But it was a decades-long process. David Attenborough leads us on the long road to discovery, from Down House (Darwin’s home in Kent), to Cambridge University and London’s Natural History Museum.



BBC, 2006

Duration: 3 fifty-minute episodes

Narrator Tilda Swinton leads us on a three-part exploration of the Galapagos Islands’ fauna and their evolution. The episodes are: “Born of Fire,” “The Islands That Changed the World” and “Forces of Change.”


The Galapagos Islands: Land of Evolutionary Change

Discovery Education, 2005

Duration: 45 minutes

Jeff Corwin follows in the footsteps of Charles Darwin, encountering giant tortoises, land and marine iguanas, and other species that have evolved since Mr. Darwin’s visit. Perfect for children in grades 3-8.


Two Years in Galapagos

ABC/National Geographic TV, 1999-2000

Duration: 50 minutes

Nature film producers David Parer and Liz Parer-Cook document their three-year-old daughter’s adventures in the Galapagos Islands, while mom and dad were making the award-winning “Dragons of Galapagos” and “Islands of the Vampire Birds.”


Galapagos: Beyond Darwin

Discovery Education, 1996; re-edited and re-released on DVD in 2008

Duration: 86 minutes

Roscoe Lee Browne leads us into the Galapagos’ deep seas, a world Charles Darwin could not explore during his 1835 expedition to the Islands. We also learn how these volcanic islands developed life. Suitable for students in grades 6-8. The Discovery Education website includes study materials.


Check out the other parts of Galapagos Travel Planner’s exclusive “Twelve Titles on Galapagos” series: Natural History, Human History, and For Children. Did we include your favorite video? Share it in the comments below.


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Photo credit: Personal Creations