No other animal embodies the strange mix of tropical and antarctic
fauna in the Galapagos as well as the Galapagos penguin (Spheniscus
mendiculus). Closely related to the Humboldt penguin (S.
humboldti), which is found along the coast of Chile, and from
which it probably evolved, and to the Magellanic penguin (S.
magellanicus), which is found along the east and west coasts
of the tip of S. America, the Galapagos penguin is the world's
smallest penguin, and the only one to live and breed on the equator.
The ancestors of the Galapagos penguin probably
found their way to the Galapagos by following the cold Humboldt
current. It is typical to see a few penguins at Pinnacle Rock,
Bartolome, and around Rabida.
I also once saw one at Floreana, but they are found in the greatest numbers in the colder
waters on the western side of the islands, around Fernandina
and Isabela, After years of occasional
penguins at Bartolome, I was shocked to see some 200 at Elizabeth
Bay on Isabela!
Although penguins are considered to be flightless,
they do not have any of the skeletal adaptations to flightlessness
typical of other flightless birds, such as a reduced keel on the
breastbone. Indeed, their keel is strongly developed, as are their
very sturdy, flipper-like wings. Penguins, in fact, are not flightless
at all. Rather, they are simply adapted for flying through a different
medium - water.
When swimming on the surface, penguins move slowly,
with most of their body submerged and the head sticking up. At
times, however, they swim with their head down in the water, looking
for fish. But when they move into action, they dip under the water
and move with incredible speed, using their powerful flippers/wings
for propulsion and their feet as rudders. I have only seen penguins
fish independently at Bartolome, but when there are large schools
of fish and several penguins, they fish cooperatively.
On land, Galapagos penguins walk more upright than
other birds because their legs are farther back. They take small,
waddling steps and two-footed hops. Often they will touch the
tip of their beak down at the spot to which they intend to hop.
When coming out of the water, they jump up onto the rocks with
both feet. I have seen penguins hit by large waves as they try
to get out and am always surprised to see them still standing
on the rock after the wave recedes!
Galapagos penguins are opportunistic breeders.
In good conditions a pair can produce three clutches in a year.
They normally molt before breeding, and are the only penguins
to moult more than once a year. During the two week moulting period
they avoid the water, and fast. Courtship involves preening of
the mate's head, wing slapping, and bill crossing. Two eggs are
laid in holes and crevices on the rocky shore, and both parents
share incubation. Typically, only one chick survives to fledging,
and it is cared for for about two months, until it can live independently.
Penguins are usually silent, but at times they
make a braying noise that sounds very much like a donkey. They
will stretch their necks out, spread their wings, and visibly
force air from their chest, issuing forth a loud "eeh-aaah".
Some of my most memorable Galapagos moments involve
penguins at Pinnacle Rock. In 1991 my son Jeremy and
I were snorkeling and we found a few penguins sitting on some
low rocks at water's edge. We sat down next to them and they sat
looking at us with their beautiful, salmon-colored eyes. In 1995
my daughter Ellen swam up to a penguin sitting on a rock. It bent
down and gazed intently into her face. On my 1997 trip I was swimming
with a pair of penguins who were slowly swimming together, taking
turns gently gripping and shaking each other's beak. I instinctively
raised my camera to take a picture, but did not because of the
strobe. While the camera was up and the birds momentarily out
of view, I felt one of the penguins come up, grasp my finger,
and shake it in the same way.