One of the biggest thrills of a Galapagos Cruise can be found in the unexpected encounters, and few more so than catching a glimpse of breaching Galapagos whales. The very fact that Galapagos whale sightings are unanticipated make them all the more exciting when they do happen. Over 20 different species of Galapagos whales have been recorded in the ocean of the archipelago. They are attracted by rich feeding grounds and afforded proper protection by the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Possible sightings for Galapagos whale watchers include blue whales, sperm whales, humpbacks, orcas, and bryde’s whales – some are just temporary visitors, others stay all year round. So during Galapagos whale watching season keep your camera handy and stay out on deck - lucky tourists might just catch a moment of rare beauty.
Keep reading for more information about Galapagos Whales. Which whale species are most common here? When can you see whales in the Galapagos? Where are the best spots for Galapagos whale watching?
Galapagos whale watching can be rather hit and miss, you need to be in the right place at the right time. The oceans of the marine reserve are huge, and whales can cover a lot of ground each day, so there is no guarantee where or when they will surface. What you can do to increase your chances of success is travel during whale season, and with a cruise itinerary to the areas whales are most likely to frequent.
Whale watching is an activity for the open ocean, so for starters you’ll need to be aboard a Galapagos Yacht Cruise. The best region of the marine reserve for whale activity is in the channel between Isabela & Fernandina islands, so look for a cruise itinerary heading to the west of the archipelago. Whilst cruising this channel the yacht captain and naturalist guide will be scanning the horizon on the lookout for whale activity, alerting passengers if a sighting is made. Depending on the location of the whales you can then view them from the deck, or make a short dinghy ride to get closer to these gentle giants.
Another top spot for Galapagos whale watching is at Darwin and Wolf islands in the far north west of the archipelago. Here the waters are colder and very nutrient-rich, attracting a large concentration of shark and whales species. The only means to visit these islands is aboard a specialist scuba diving cruise.
The best time to spot Galapagos whales is usually from June to November.
As ocean nomads, whales can migrate to wherever the best feeding grounds are to be found throughout the year, and at Galapagos that means the cold water months. Around May/June each year, the cold Humboldt current reaches Galapagos from the southern oceans, which together with the upwelling of the Cromwell current, causes a drop in water temperature and increase in sea nutirents. So for the latter part of each year, Galapagos seas are full of plankton, krill, sardines, anchovies, and mackerel – the perfect feast for a hungry whale!
Some whale species can even be found year round in Galapagos waters, such as Orcas, Bryde’s and sperm whales, but nothing is set in stone with Galapagos whale watching.
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Which species of whales are at the Galapagos Islands? Whales come in two distinct categories: Toothed whales and Baleen whales. Toothed whales are fish eaters, such as orcas and sperm whales. By contrast, Baleen whales are filter feeders – using a fine comb in their mouth to sieve plankton from huge gulps of water – such as blue, bryde’s and humpback whales.
Read on to learn about some of the more common species of Galapagos whales to keep your eyes open for.
The Galapagos Orca is an apex predator, meaning that they are at the top of the food chain, and have no natural predators (other than humans). Orcas are fearsome and highly intelligent hunters, entering Galapagos waters on hunting raids year round, especially in areas with colonies of their favorite food – Galapagos sea lions. They travel in family pods, and hunt in packs hence their nickname ‘wolves of the sea’, often hunting close to shorelines.
These attractive black and white cetaceans are in fact the largest species of dolphin in the oceans, growing up to 32 ft. long, weighing as much as six tons, and capable of swimming a speedy 20 miles per hour.
Of the toothed Galapagos whales, Orcas are the most commonly sighted species. Two types of Orca are found at Galapagos: permanent residents who live in the temperate waters all year round, and transient pods that visit from July to December when waters are cooler and food is most plentiful. Interestingly their diet often differs, resident Galapagos killer whales feed mostly on schools of fish, while transient orcas hunt sea lions, green sea turtles, penguins, and humpback whale calves.
Blue whales can be spotted every year at the Galapagos islands, traveling from as far away as Southern Chile - a 5000-mile journey. At Galapagos blue whales feed and breed in the fertile waters between the months of July and December.
These giants of the deep are the largest mammal species on the planet, growing to 80-100 feet, and weighing a staggering 150-200 tons – the equivalent of a large herd of elephants! Blue whales are extremely graceful in the water, but also capable of reaching speeds of 25 miles per hour when necessary.
The blue whale is a baleen whale, gulping in huge mouthfuls of water to filter out krill (a small shrimp like creature). Incredibly, an adult will eat up to 8000 pounds of krill a day, while filtering millions of gallons of water. They often feed in pairs, surfacing to exhale loudly through their blowhole, before deep-diving, sometimes with their tail fluke out of the water as they begin to descend.
Blue whales are also the loudest whale in the ocean, producing whistling calls up to 188 decibels, that can travel as far as 500 miles underwater.
Humpback whales visit the Galapagos Marine Reserve annually in their thousands to feed and breed. They are the most acrobatic of all the whales, breaching their massive bodies as high as 40 feet out of the water, so have your camera at the ready if lucky enough to come across these social creatures. Humpbacks tend to visit Galapagos from June to October, and are most frequently spotted between Isabela and Fernandina, as well as up at Darwin and Wolf islands.
Humback whales are easily recognised by their appearance and behavior. Their backs unsurprisingly have a hump, heads are nobbly, they are acrobatic in the water, and usually show their tail fluke when diving. The tail fluke of a humpback whale is as unique as a human finger print, with different patterns of pigmentation and scars used by scientists to identify each individual.
Humpbacks are baleen whales, eating an impressive 4 tons of small fish and krill each day, and weighing as much as 40 tons. These agile swimmers hunt intelligently in packs; diving beneath schools of fish to blow air upwards forcing them to the surface, then rising from the depths to swallow them with huge mouthfuls of water.
Humpback whales communicate with their heralded song, eerily traveling beneath the water to others in the pod. Studies have shown that the intelligent creatures take one song and create subtle variations on the tune, communicating directions when traveling and hunting.
Humpback whales can also be spotted from the Pacific coast of Ecuador, with common sightings in the Machalilla National Park from July to September, and often spectacular acrobatics.
The most common species of Galapagos whale is the Bryde’s whale. They like to congregate to the north of San Cristobal island, and at the western islands. Bryde's whales come to Galapags between May and November each year to eat their fill of fish, krill and plankton.
The Bryde’s whale is a Baleen species, small to medium in size, growing up to 50 Feet long and 25 tons. They often pop their heads above the surface, allowing Galapagos visitors to identify the three distinctive ridges that run from blowholes to mouth. Other distinctive features include their blue-grey colour, short flippers and prominent dorsal fins.
Bryde's whales are most often spotted alone, spouting air from their blowhole before descending on two minute long dives for food. They are very skilled in the water, capable of swimming at fast speeds, as well as quick changes of velocity or direction. They are also more social than most other Galapagos whales, sometimes even approaching tourist yachts out of curiosity. So keep your eyes open as you cruise.
The Minke Whale is another temporary visitor to the Galapagos Islands. They travel northwards each year alongside the Humboldt current from June to December, and are most often spotted close to Darwin and Wolf islands.
This baleen species is small in size for a whale, but of course that’s all relative as they still grow up to 30 Feet long and 10 tons. Minkes are shaped rather like a dolphin with a distinctively hooked dorsal fin, black back and white belly. They are most easily identified as they arch their back with dorsal fin out of the water just prior to diving. As you might imagine, their small size makes them fast and agile swimmers, and they are sometimes curious enough to approach tourist yachts.
The Sei is another species of migratory baleen whale found in small groups at Galapagos during the cold water months from May to November to feed and breed.
They are steel grey in colour, and large in size – up to 65 feet in length and 45 tons. Often confused with the Bryde’s whale, the principal difference being that the Sei has just one ridge on it’s snout, while the Bryde’s has three. Despite their size they are fast swimmers, capable of reaching speeds as fast as 31mph for short bursts.
Short-finned Pilot whales are frequent visitors to Galapagos, often hanging out in large pods of 50+ individuals and happy to mix with dolphins or porpoises. Like dolphins they are very social creatures, and if lucky they can be spotted from the sun deck of cruise yachts. Keep your eyes peeled in areas of deep open water around the archipelago.
They are a toothed whale species, hunting at night for small fish, squid and octopus. Small in size – up to 21 feet long and 4 tons, Short-finned pilot whales have black bodies, large bulbous heads and prominent dorsal fins.
Sperm whales are the world’s largest species of toothed whale, growing to the size of a double-decker bus! One third of their size is taken up by a huge head, large enough to carry the heaviest brain of any animal on the planet. Sperm whales visit the Galapagos Marine Reserve from June to November, and are most likely sighted between Isabela and Fernandina islands. Galapagos sperm whales are never easy to spot though due to their deep diving bahavior.
Sperm whales are incredible divers, capable of hitting depths of over 2km for more than one hour at a time, in search of giant squid. They themselves used to be the hunted – back in the 1800’s whaling ships were a common sight in Galapagos waters, with sperm whales their number one target.
In conclusion, sighting of Galapagos whales can be a wonderful unexpected bonus during a Galapagos cruise. The waters of the Galapagos Marine Reserve are very attractive feeding grounds that attract many whale species. If you visit during Galapagos whale season then try to include Isabela and Fernandina into your cruise itinerary. Then it's all down to your luck and kean eyesight. We wish you all good luck for some spectacular Galapagos whale watching!