Photo credit: Collin Dunn
When it comes to the Galapagos, most people think: Islands; tropical; Equator; volcanoes; some variation on those general ideas probably pops to mind, unless you've been here. If you have been here, you probably know that a few of the islands are home to the Galapagos Penguin.
If you haven't been here (or studied the islands, or just know a lot about it), you may be thinking one thing: What the heck are penguins doing on the equator?
Photo credit: Collin Dunn
The answer isn't really too shocking, actually. The penguins are endemic -- that is, found nowhere else on the planet -- in the Galapagos, and are unusual in that they're the only penguins that live in the wild north of the equator. Our group saw them on Bartolome Island, just east of Santiago Island, which is just a few minutes south of the equator, but they do venture to the north of the Equator on the island of Isabela on occasion.
Because they're considered an endemic species, the penguins have been here a long time. They can survive here in the islands because of the cold waters brought from the Antarctic on the Humboldt current, and may have ridden that at least part of the way here. They tend to stay in the cool water -- most island water hovers around 19 or 20 degrees Celsius (66 - 68 degrees F) this time of year -- during the day, because that's where their food is, and then venture on land at night. We were lucky to find a few catching some rays on the rocks on this sunny afternoon.
They're the third smallest of all penguin species, and aren't quite as round as their more famous cousins who inhabit the Antarctic -- they don't need quite so much fat to live in this tropical climate, even in the cold water. Perhaps owing something to their svelte physique, they are really something to behold underwater.
We spent part of our time on Bartolome snorkeling in the waters off the east side of the island, and were fortunate to swim with the penguins in the water. They are amazing swimmers, remarkably quick in the water and surprisingly fast. I saw one, had time to think to myself, "Wow, that looks like a penguin," before it was past, off in search of food -- they eat mostly small schooling fish, like mullet and sardines -- with apparently no regard for my presence in the water even though the penguin was no more than three feet away when we crossed paths. The other teachers agreed that there's really nothing quite like seeing one darting through the water, moving with real speed, changing directions on a dime. It was remarkable
The Galapagos Penguin is predated upon by quite a few large animals of the islands; in the water, that means sharks, sea lions, and fur seals; on land, the Galapagos Hawk (at the top of the terrestrial food chain), owls, and introduced rats, and feral cats will make a meal out of a penguin, baby penguin, or penguin egg.
Though not critically threatened or endangered, their habitat is also being encroached upon and destroyed as more mangrove forests -- mangroves are the trees that grow around the edge of many islands, since it is able to process salt water -- are ripped out by commercial fisherman who use the space to farm shrimp, and want to harvest the space they occupy of fish. As Galapagos conservation has strengthened, this practice has slowed somewhat, but human activity remains a real threat for Galapagos Penguins.
Still, they remain an unusual, somewhat beguiling, and truly fascinating animal. Seeing them in the wild is a real treat, and swimming around them even more so; here's hoping conservation efforts continue their success and the Penguin will be swimming in these waters for generations to come.
More on the Galapagos
5 Things Everyone Should Know About the Galapagos: An Introduction
Endangered Galapagos Penguins Get New Homes
3 Amazing, Galapagos -Only Birds Possibly Headed for Extinction
Are the Galapagos Islands Ready for More Tourism?