Standing a little over a foot and a half tall, the adult Galapagos penguin weighs about six pounds and has a black face and body feathers with a white front. Its black feet and jaw are tinged with pink. It has shorter feathers than other penguin species, helping it to survive in warmer conditions. Living in colonies of up to about twenty pairs, the Galapagos penguin spends much of the day in the water where cooler temperatures are more to its liking, returning to land after the heat of the day. They travel between islands at speeds of up to twenty miles per hour in the months between breeding, often swimming together, feeding on small fish and crustaceans.
Lifetime mates, these penguins breed at least annually and sometimes twice a year. Constant year-round weather conditions in the Galapagos Islands eliminates the need to schedule parenting duties according to the weather, unlike Antarctic breeds that must contend with the hazards of freezing temperatures. Females lay one or at most two eggs, deposited in shady areas and crevices of volcanic rock where temperatures remain coolest. Eggs take five weeks to hatch. Family life lasts about two months before chicks start to navigate life on their own.
Visitors on Galapagos tours will find the greatest numbers of the species on the west side of the archipelago where the waters beyond Isabela, in and around Bolivar Channel, are the region’s coldest. They fish here in the quiet waters of Tagus Cove and gather on the rocks at Punta Espinosa on nearby Isla Fernandina.
Smaller numbers of penguins frequent Sullivan Bay, gathering on the north side of tiny Bartolome Island at the base of the Galapagos landmark, a tuff cone called Pinnacle Rock. Penguins may also be seen on the east side of the island where they swim in a volcanic pool. At nearby Santiago Island, the fourth largest of the Galapagos Islands, and a frequent stop during Galapagos tours on the other side of Sullivan Bay, Galapagos penguins gather on a small beach adjacent to a lava flow. They sometimes fish around Rabida, south of Santiago, and in Post Office Bay at Punta Cormorant on the north side of Floreana Island, one of the most southerly of the Galapagos Islands.
Though temperatures in the Galapagos Islands allow the species to reproduce at a faster rate, this species is more vulnerable than many other penguins during unusual weather patterns. When El Nino disturbs the upwelling of ocean currents, it reduces the availability of nutrients that attract the food supply close to home on which the Galapagos penguins depend. Past episodes of El Nino have had a devastating impact on this species, diminishing its numbers to a few hundred birds in the mid-1980s. Today between 3,000 and 7,000 penguins inhabit the Galapagos Islands.
Though this species is increasing in numbers, like other Galapagos wildlife, its nemesis is the introduction of non-native species to the islands, including dogs and cats that run wild in the archipelago. Sea lions also prey on the Galapagos penguin. The species is designated as “Endangered.”