Galápagos Penguins are the most northerly occurring of all the penguins and are the only penguin that crosses the equator. Galápagos Penguins are the third smallest of the world’s penguin species as well. The word Penguin first appears in the 16th century as a synonym for the now extinct Great Auk. When European explorers discovered what are today known as Penguins in the Southern Hemisphere, they noticed their similar appearance to the Great Auk of the Northern Hemisphere and named them after this bird, although they are not closely related. They stand 40-45 centimeters tall and weigh 1.6-2.5 kilograms. Galápagos Penguins have a thin white band that runs under their chin and a black upside down horseshoe shape around their belly. They may look like the Magellanic Penguin but they are smaller and their black markings on their belly are thinner. They are found only around the Galápagos and Isabela Islands just north of the Equator. Galápagos Penguins are thought to have been brought to the Galápagos Islands by the Humboldt Current, which brings cold waters and nutrients north from Antarctica. One of the main problems for these penguins is keeping cool. Living close to the equator, it can get to over 38 °C (100.4 °F) during the daytime. They keep cool by swimming & hunting for food in the cold water of the Cromwell Current during the day. During the cool nights, they sleep & nest on the land. They hold their flippers out to help cool themselves and protect their feet from getting sunburned by holding their flippers over their feet when on land.
Galápagos Penguins eat mostly small fish such as Mullet & Sardines. They are dependent on the ocean currents to bring fish to their feeding grounds. 20 years ago, an El Niño caused a severe shortage of food where over 70% of the Galápagos Penguins died. When swimming on the surface, these penguins in general move slowly with most of their body submerged and their head sticking up. At times however, they swim with their head down in the water looking for fish. 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. Galápagos Penguins mate for life and are opportunistic breeders. In good conditions, a pair can produce 3 clutches in a year. They normally molt before breeding and are the only penguins to molt more than once a year. During the 2-week molting period they avoid the water and fast. Courtship involves preening of the mate’s head, wing slapping and bill crossing.
Nesting occurs on Fernandina & Isabela Islands throughout the year with the majority of nests being seen May-January. Some Galápagos Penguins may mate as often as every 6 months. Females lay 1-2 eggs each season. The eggs are laid in burrows under the lava and the pair shares the responsibility of watching over the nest. In years with warm waters from the El Niño events, life changes in the Galápagos including heavy declines in local penguin populations. Both parents tend the eggs for 38-40 days. Chicks molt, get their adult feathers and are on their own in about 60-65 days. Endangered populations are estimated between 3,000-8,000 Galápagos Penguins. It is reported that there are about 800 breeding pairs left in the world. In the water, they are preyed on by sharks, Killer Whales, Southern & Galápagos Fur Seals and Southern Sea Lions. On land, major threats include overheating, starvation or predation by introduced cats, dogs & rats on Isabella Island. To avoid terrestrial enemies, Galápagos Penguins simply turn their backs and let their black coats blend naturally into the surrounding black lava rocks.