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Galapagos Fish Facts | Galapagos Islands Wildlife Guide

Some of the Galapagos Islands’ greatest natural wonders live below the water’s surface. Almost 450 different species of fish have been identified here, many of which are found nowhere else—from massive sharks to delicate seahorses. It’s no wonder the archipelago is considered one of the world’s best scuba and snorkeling destinations. More than 180 of these fish are found in much of the tropical eastern Pacific, and about 50 species are endemic. Godfrey Merlen’s Field Guide to the Fishes of Galapagos is highly recommended for snorkelers. This booklet describes and illustrates more than 100 of the most frequently seen species. One interesting fact that you may learn from this book is that many species of tropical fish change their color and shape as they age; a few can even change their sex midway through life. This certainly makes identification confusing!

Tropical Fish

 Because the Humboldt Current brings cold water from the south, the water temperature tends to be cooler and more varied than in many other tropical destinations. Typically, the temperature fluctuates between 68° and 76°F, varying by season and location. As a result, only a few species of coral grow here, primarily in the subtidal zone. Still, a thrilling abundance and variety of tropical and temperate species can be found just off shore.

One of the great pleasures of a Galapagos snorkeling excursion is the opportunity to see some of the myriad species of colorful fish, with equally colorful names, that inhabit the waters here. These include the blue-eyed damselfish, white-banded angelfish, yellow-tailed surgeonfish, Moorish idols, blue parrotfish, concentric puffer fish, yellow-bellied triggerfish and hieroglyphic hawkfish, to name a few and to give you a sense of the variety in form and color. Your naturalist guide should be able to help you identify some of the more common species.


The chance to swim in close proximity to a shark is one of the great underwater thrills for any nature enthusiast, and the Galapagos is home to about 30 different species, including whale sharks, hammerheads, Galapagos sharks, horn sharks, tiger sharks, and whitetip and blacktip reef sharks.

An underwater encounter with a whale shark is particularly exhilarating because of their colossal size and remarkable beauty. They are the world’s largest fish (reaching up to 40 feet in length and weighing up to 20 metric tons) and can be spotted year round in the Galapagos, especially around the northern islands during the warm season (May to December). But don’t worry—they aren’t dangerous. As with baleen whales, whale sharks are filter feeders and mainly eat plankton.

The Galapagos is considered one of the best places in the world for hammerhead shark encounters. The scalloped hammerhead is the most common species and may be seen throughout the archipelago in coastal areas. They often form large schools consisting of hundreds of individuals near Wolf and Darwin islands—a spectacle that attracts divers from around the world.


Rays are another fish that give snorkelers a real thrill. The Galapagos is home to several different species, including the spotted eagle ray and the golden ray, which are often seen in sheltered bays. Keep an eye out while on open water for some of the larger eagle rays and giant mantas. Large giant mantas have a maximum spread of around 20 feet, and they often leap out of the water and make a mighty splash upon reentry.

Stingrays are also common in shallow water near certain beaches. They can inflict a painful wound if stepped upon so it is important to remember to shuffle your feet in the sand when wading in order to scare them off.

Header photo: Cassiano Zaparoli
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