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Romance in the Galapagos

4 min read

While Valentine's Day here at home is best known for candlelit dinners and skyrocketing chocolate sales, embarking on a Galapagos cruise around this time provides an opportunity to experience many unique species in their most active breeding season.

Sunset in the Galapagos - Photo courtesy of International Expeditions
Sunset in the Galapagos - Photo courtesy of International Expeditions

While you're planning a cozy February night out with your honey, Galapagos giant tortoise are getting right down to business. Green sea turtles nest to lay their eggs in the weeks around Valentine's Day, and both the marine iguana and land iguana breed in February, as well.

Should your Galapagos Islands vacation coincide with Valentine's Day, you'll be sure to witness remarkable mating and nesting rituals. It's just one of the reasons February, and the entire warm season, is a great time to visit the area.

Let's learn more about the mating habits of four iconic Galapagos species: the giant tortoise, green sea turtle, and the marine and land iguana.

Giant Tortoise Babies on a Galapagos Cruise

The Galapagos giant tortoise is perhaps one of the most revered species in the islands, in no small part because they were brought to near-extinction by rats introduced inadvertently by European explorers. But in 2015, wild giant tortoises babies in the wild, a sight not seen in over a century! It was an important milestone in the recovery of this incredible animal.

Galapagos tortoise - Photo credit: Tiffany Merritt
Galapagos tortoise - Photo credit: Tiffany Merritt

Galapagos giant tortoises can grow to over 363 kilos (800 lbs) and are one of just two giant tortoise species on Earth. You may spot them on Pinzón Island, and they've recently been reintroduced on Santa Fe Island (also known as Barrington Island), as well. These amazing tortoises can live over 100 years and sleep as much as 16 hours a day. In February, they're entering their most active season, as mating peaks between February and June.

If you see two tortoises squaring off, it's likely two males competing for mating rights. They'll rise on their legs and stretch their necks, with mouths gaping open, sizing one another up. Typically, the shorter male will back down, although there may be a bit of head-biting if he doesn't immediately concede.

Mating is one of the few opportunities passengers have to hear giant tortoise vocalizations, as they bellow and grunt during copulation. The resultant eggs (up to 16 of them) will be laid between July and November.

Glimpse Laying Green Sea Turtles on Your Galapagos Islands Vacation

Galapagos green sea turtles spend much of their lives at sea, but return to nest where they were hatched. Each year, the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) monitors sea turtle nesting areas at Quinta Beach, Isabela Island, known as their main nesting site.

Sea turtle in the Galapagos - Photo credit: Quasar
Sea turtle in the Galapagos - Photo credit: Quasar

Breeding season starts in December and by mid-to late January, the turtles are ready to lay their eggs. The female sea turtle uses her hind flippers to dig a nest to hold an average of 70 eggs. It will take about 50 days for the eggs to hatch and depending on conditions, approximately 60% of those eggs will indeed hatch a live turtle. However, baby sea turtles face a great number of threats in their early days, including seabirds, crab and other marine predators. Only 1 in 1,000 live hatchlings survive to adulthood. Then, they may live over 100 years.

Just off Isabela Island, passengers will swim and snorkel with the incredible marine life of the area, including sea turtles and potentially Galapagos penguins and seahorses. An underwater camera is a huge asset here, where the nutrient-rich waters are alive with colorful fish, as well.

Brilliantly Colored Land Iguanas

You might come across any one (or all of) the three types of land iguana: the yellow conolophus subcristatus, the conolophus pallidus and the pink or rosada conolophus marthae are all island residents. With the potential to grow up to 1 meter (3 ft) and 14 kilos (30 lbs), they're one of the Galapagos' better known animals and a sight to be seen!

Land and marine iguanas were one species that diverged approximately 10.5 million years ago. Today, the brilliant yellow land iguanas are found on six different islands -- Fernandina, Isabela, Santa Cruz, North Seymour, Baltra and South Plaza -- although no longer on Santiago Island, where they were wiped out by feral dogs, cats and pigs. The pink or rosada variety is exclusive to the north end of Isabela Island, while the tan to brownish conolophus pallidus is found only on Santa Fe Island.

Land iguanas breed at different times of year, depending on the island on which they reside. Females will lay between 2 and 25 eggs and like other species, head to beaches to lay their eggs in the sand.

Iguana in the Galapagos - Photo credit: Quasar
Iguana in the Galapagos - Photo credit: Quasar

See Uniquely Colored Marine Iguanas for Valentine's Day

Galapagos Islands tours of Fernandina Island, Eden Islet, Española Island and Punta Suarez are great places to spot marine iguanas, and you can visit each one on our Darwin's Playground, Far West expedition. The marine iguana (amblyrhynchus cristatus) is one of many species unique to the Galapagos Islands and is the only lizard with the ability to live and forage in the sea.

Marine iguanas vary in size, with the largest found on Isabela and Fernandina Islands.

The smallest adult males live on Genovesa Island, also known as “Bird Island” and a landing site on Darwin's Playground, Central and North expedition. They range from grey to black in color, but you might also notice some with coppery green or red spots during mating season, thanks to the nutrients in the seaweed they ingest.

The best time to catch a glimpse of a marine iguana is just after sunrise, when they're most active. Watch for them basking in the sun on cliffs just above sea level, although you might also see females on sandy beaches around Valentine's Day as they lay their eggs.

Interestingly, the island of South Plaza is home to both marine and land iguanas and as a result, the two species have been known to interbreed. The resultant hybrid iguanas have some characteristics of each, but are thought to be sterile and unable to reproduce.

It's important to avoid disturbing the breeding and nesting areas of the unique and beautiful creatures that call these islands home. Your expedition is staffed with experts in ecology, biology, ornithology, conservation and more, to ensure you learn as much as possible about this fascinating region and enjoy everything it has to offer, while respecting the need for preservation and conservation.

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