The Galapagos Fur Seal is undeniably cute. Those big gorgeous eyes looking up at you, and furry little bodies like an adorable house dog. It's perfectly normal for visitors to go all gooey eyed. The Galapagos fur seal is a very shy and retiring creature. Although their population size is similar to that of Galapagos Sea Lions, it is far rarer to encounter them. If visitors are lucky they'll usually be seen huddled together in protected grottos. The Galapagos fur seal is only found at the Galapagos islands, so you'll need to plan a visit here to see one.
Read on to learn more about the Galapagos Fur Seal. Where and When can you see them? Plus heaps of other fun Fur Seal facts.
The Galapagos Fur Seal is an: ENDEMIC SPECIES
Conservation Status: Endangered
Scientific Name: Arctocephalus Galapagoensis
The Galapagos Fur Seal population is estimated at about 10,000-15,000 individuals. They live on almost all Galapagos islands, but can be difficult to spot during the day. They typically hang out in shady caves or rocky grottos to escape the sun, and are most active at night.
Galapagos Sea Lions are everywhere, but it can be more of a challenge for visitors to find Galapagos Fur Seals. The three Galapagos sites for easiest sightings are at James Bay (Santiago), Darwin Bay (Genovesa), and on the west coast of (Isabela island). These are all cold water regions of the archipelago, rich in nutrients and marine life.
Fur Seals can be seen at Galapagos all year round. Their nesting season lasts from August to November. The best month to spot cute fur seal pups is usually in October.
The Galapagos Fur Seal is the smallest member of the eared seal family (otariids). Adults have a thick grayish-brown fur coat, while newborns adorn a black coat which turns brown after molting.
Tourists at Galapagos often confuse Fur Seals with Sea Lions. At first glance they do look quite similar, but there are 3 easy ways to tell the difference. Firstly, Fur Seal have thicker and furrier coats. Secondly, Fur Seals have bulgier eyes and more protruding ears. Finally, Fur Seals tend to be smaller in size, with broader and shorter heads.
Another interesting distinction is that Galapagos fur seals are much shyer than sea lions. They tend to hang out together in hidden and shady rocky grottos. Sea lion, on the other hand, are incredibly social creatures, commonly spotted lazing on sandy beaches or coming right up to visiting tourists. While snorkeling with a Galapagos sea lion is often a big tourist highlight, you'll rarely share the same experience with a fur seal.
If all else fails your naturalist tour guide will be happy to help you make a correct identification.
Galapagos Fur Seals tend to live in large colonies. During breeding season, territories are divided between dominant males. Each male will protect his breeding ground on land to prevent any rival from taking advantage. They need to be on attention non stop, and will even forgoe food for much of the day. This behavior eventually becomes counter productive as the dominant male loses weight and strength. Another male can then move into his territory and the process is repeated.
Pregnant reproductive females are also territorial, and will claim a specific area of beach to raise her pup. Fur seals have the lowest reproductive rate of all seal species, bearing just one pup at a time. The mother stays at the side of her newborn for a week, before leaving on hunting trips, returning to suckle the pup. When she returns from the sea, a mother can recognize her pup by smell and sound. This is important because females exclusively nurse their own pups, and will often violently reject any other.
They prefer to live in rocky areas, close to large boulders or lava caves. Here they find protection from the strong daytime sun, and keep themselves to themselves.
Galapagos Fur Seals hunt at night, using their large eyes with night vision to locate their prey. The Galapagos Fur Seal diet consists mainly of fish, squid, and shellfish. These are caught by diving to depths of between 10 & 50 meters close to shore. They hunt at night because their prey can be found closer to the surface. It also helps them to reduce risk of predation by sharks.
Galapagos fur seals are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List. In truth their population numbers have fluctuated greatly over the centuries.
Their thick fur may keep them warm, but it also attracts fur hunters. The pelt of fur seal pups was particularly sought after for it's silky smooth properties. Throughout the 1800s they were hunted to the point of extinction. Fortunately, Ecuadorian law now protects them, and fur seal hunting has been banned.
Natural predators also cause a dent in the Galapagos fur seal population size. Orcas and sharks hunt both seals and sea lions. Invasive species like feral dogs are another threat.
Another big problem for the Galapagos Fur Seal population is the El Niño weather phenomenon. El niño occurs every decade or so, affecting the whole coast of South America. It causes a small rise in sea temperatures, which in turn reduces the important nutrients found in the ocean. Fewer algae, plankton and nutrients means fewer fish, which also means hungry seals. The last severe El Niño event ocurred back in 1982/3. Before that the population size was recorded around 40,000 seals. During that year not a single fur seal pup or dominant male survived. On top of that 30% of females and non-dominant males passed away. The population were decimated, and is still today trying to recover. Due to their low reproductive rate it may take many more years to repopulate back to previous numbers.
• The Galapagos fur seal is the only fur seal species to live in the tropics. Similar to the Galapagos Penguin, they came attracted by abundant food within the marine reserve. Of course fur seals are built for cold conditions with thick fur, so they have had to learn to adapt. The most important adaptation is thermo-regulation. That is, their ability to cool off when their body temperature becomes too high. They have learnt to spend the days in the shade, while mothers even teach their pups to cool off in shady rock pools. Unlike sea lions a fur seal is able to sweat, which also help them stay cool. They have a thinner layer of blubber compared to other fur seal species. Finally Galapagos fur seals can redirect body heat into their flippers, where heat can be more easily lost through convection.
• At Galapagos, Fur seal colonies rarely overlap with Sea lion colonies. This is principally to avoid competition for food between the two.
• Fur seals adapt their hunting behavior according to phases of the moon. During a new moon when nights are dark, their dives may last 50 to 70 hours. While during a full moon with better visibility dives are shorter, fo just 10 hours.
• In the wild, Galapagos fur seals enjoy an average lifespan of up to 22 years.
In conclusion, the Galapagos Fur Seal is one of the cutest creatures at the islands. These shy animals are shy but photogenic, and demonstrate interesting behaviors for tourists to observe. Although Galapagos seals can be difficult to find, it is certainly worth the extra effort to do so. When you are planning your Galapagos vacation, try to include a visit to either western Isabela or Santiago islands. The Galapagos fur seals are waiting for you!