Galapagos penguins: Endangered but hanging in there

The Galapagos National Park Service recently completed its annual Galapagos penguin census.  They estimate a population of 2,094 penguins.  It's not a tiny number, but on the entire planet, that's it... 2,094.  This is an increase of over 100 from last year’s count.

The Galapagos penguin population is limited by the availability of food.  When food is scarce, they may abandon their nests, and no new generation of penguins will be raised.   This typically happens during severe El Niño years.  An El Niño brings with it very warm waters, and these waters chase away the sardines and other small fish on which penguins depend.  

Following the very severe 1997-1998 El Niño, the penguin population crashed to an estimated 800 individuals.  

Thanks to research carried out by the Charles Darwin Foundation, it was discovered that another of the limiting factors for penguin reproduction was the relative scarcity of suitable nesting sites.   In response, artificial nesting sites were constructed on the shorelines regularly frequented by penguins.   Subsequent monitoring of these sites show that 25% of all nesting penguins were using them.   

Galapagos National Park Service (GNPS) and Charles Darwin Research Station staff tagging a Galapagos penguin (photo credit: GNPS)


While this year’s news is good, the very fact that there are so very few Galapagos penguins in normal time makes them very vulnerable to events that could drive them to extinction.  All it would take would be consecutive severe El Niño years, and perhaps the arrival of an alien species that brought disease.  


If your itinerary takes you to penguin territory, the chances of encountering them while snorkeling are pretty good (but never 100%). Unlike sea lions, which seem to enjoy interacting or performing for snorkelers, penguins will completely ignore them as they go about their penguin business, looking for food.  They are very fast swimmers, darting about here and there.  Or they may simply bob at the surface, looking down.  They don’t seem to be afraid of snorkelers – it’s not unusual to have one floating within arm’s reach (park rules require that we maintain a 2 meter distance from wildlife – a rule not always easy to respect, as the wildlife may be the one moving towards you).

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