What is the first word that comes to your mind when you think of penguins?

While you would not be off the mark if you said ‘snow’, ‘polar’ or ‘iceberg’, the species of penguin that we are going to talk about today would be as much at home in the snow as the proverbial square peg in a round hole. In fact, this rare bird is the only penguin species that lives near the equator – on the Galapagos Islands, to be exact!

The most northerly occurring penguin species and one of the smallest, Galapagos Penguins are endemic to the Galapagos Islands, meaning they are found there and nowhere else. You would easily be able to identify them if you saw them. As the only penguin species on the Islands, they are unmistakable. At 20 inches, they stand only about half as tall as the Emperor Penguins, the largest penguin species. The disparity in weight is even more incredible – Galapagos Penguins weigh only between 4 and 6 pounds, compared to 50–100 pounds for an Emperor Penguin! They sport white bellies as well as the white line that starts behind the eye and circles down to the throat.

You might ask here – how did these cold water-loving creatures find themselves near the equator? Simply put, several thousand years ago some penguins were transported by the cold, nutrient-rich waters of the Humboldt current up the South American coast and eventually to the Galapagos Islands. Over evolutionary time, they adapted by losing excess fat that they did not need in the warmer weather and by becoming smaller. Luckily, like their closest penguin cousins in the genus Spheniscus, they already had a way to release excess heat through their webbed feet and through hairless spots on their cheeks. They also avoid the hot midday sun, preferring to stay in the shade or going for regular swims.

Galapagos Penguin by Santiago Island

Galapagos Penguins continue to rely on cold water currents to survive and breed. Driven by strong winds, the cold water from the Humboldt current displaces the warm, low-nutrient water on the surface, a phenomenon that is known as upwelling. These cold waters are rich in nutrients because they bring with them organic matter deposits found on from the sea floor; the nutrients contained therein feed in turn the phytoplankton that are vital to the productivity of marine ecosystems. Their abundance in the Humboldt Current in fact makes it one of the world’s most productive ecosystems, thereby accounting for the abundance of fish. The strong influence of the Humboldt Current in the Galapagos is the primary reason for the Galapagos Penguins’ continued survival on the equator.

Galapagos Penguins have no fixed breeding season; they are opportunistic breeders and get frisky when conditions are favorable. Over 95 percent of Galapagos Penguins are found on the westernmost islands of Isabela, Fernandina, and Santa Cruz. Small colonies are also found on the islands of Bartolomé, Santiago, and Floreana. As with several other penguin species, Galapagos Penguin pairs are monogamous for life, and breeding pairs can produce up to three clutches of eggs per year – quite exceptional for penguins!

Distribution Map of Galapagos Penguins (Photo credit: Nrg800)

Galapagos Penguins are endangered because the highly specific conditions that they require to breed are disrupted by the recurring weather phenomenon known as El Niño, which warms up Galapagos waters to the extent that food becomes periodically scarce. In fact, nearly 77 percent of this tiny penguin species’ population was wiped out by the El Niño event in 1982-83, leaving no more than 463 individuals. The good news is that the population seems to be on the rise again, and there are about 2,000 Galapagos Penguins alive today.

You would have a wonderful opportunity to see these adorable penguins on our fall trip to the Galapagos Islands, along with a host of other fascinating wildlife. Since these birds are not wary of humans, we may seem them close to our landing site. If we are lucky, we may even find them swimming among us as we snorkel. 

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Galapagos Islands II
Tour Dates: Oct 16-26, 2023 | Click here to learn more