Imps of Darkness or Misunderstood Creatures of Beauty? Getting to Know the Only Marine Iguanas in the World

The Only Marine Iguanas in the World

The only Marine Iguanas in the world are beautiful creatures, despite the fact that when Charles Darwin first caught a glimpse of them, he thought them to be quite ugly and immediately described them as “imps of darkness”. Beauty is subjective, but that doesn’t change the fact that these creatures underwent some amazing evolutionary adaptations. How they changed their physiognomy and behaviour to be able to survive in the harsh Galapagos conditions is an incredible example of the resiliency of life!

General Information About Galapagos Marine Iguanas

Marine iguanas vary in size and colour depending on the island they are found on. Even though they can be widely observed throughout the archipelago, these small variations indicate the island on which they are found. The largest marine iguanas are found only on Fernandina and Northern Isabela Islands. The most colourful species inhabit Floreana and Española. The smallest and darkest marine iguanas live in Genovesa.

Galapagos Islands Marine Iguana
In The Galapagos Islands You Will Find The Only Marine Iguanas In The World

How Did They Get to the Galapagos Islands?

It is generally believed by scientists that both the land iguana and marine iguana evolved from the same species. These first specimens must have probably arrived to the forming archipelago by rafting, atop logs or some sort of floatable object. The marine iguana diverged from its land cousin some 8 million years ago, developing into a species of its own.

The Wonders of Evolution

Apart from their differences in size and colour, marine iguanas all underwent similar changes when adapting to their new environment. For example, they developed specialised cranial exocrine glands, which allows them to expel the excess salt on their bodies as a result of the foraging the do with marine algae. The salt is released through a sort of sneeze that causes the salt to stay incrusted on their faces, giving their faces a lighter colour. You will certainly catch them mid-sneeze at some point, because they have to do it several times a day to get all the excess salt off their system.

Marine Iguana From The Galapagos Islands
Marine Iguana With Its White Snout

Beautiful Colours

The dark colouring of marine iguanas varies subtly from island to island. Sometimes they are a bit redder (on Española) or greener (on Santiago). Nonetheless, they all share a very dark grey colour that is practically black and allows them to heat their bodies more efficiently after having been in the cold currents.

Don’t be taken aback by their not-pretty-in-a-normal-sort-of-way little faces. These amazing reptiles are friendly herbivores, whose main source of nourishment are algae and seaweed. Aided by their potent and sharp claws, they cling to the sharp lava rocks and use their short snouts to scrape their food off of them.

Adapted to Swim

Their bodies also adapted to become better swimmers. Their tails are flattened on the sides and their front limbs are heavier and more compact, which functions as a counterweight that helps dive. Marine iguanas are able to dive up to 9 metres into the water.

Where Can They Be Seen?

They are generally seen all throughout the archipelago, most commonly on rocky shores, where they can warm themselves faster after being in the comparatively colder water. They are also occasionally found in marshes and mangrove beaches. Through any of the three amazing itineraries aboard the beautiful Yacht Isabela II, you will have many opportunities to see these beautiful imps swimming around, sunbathing or even sneezing. Scratch it right off your Big15 list! You have finally seen the only marine iguanas in the world!

Updated:May 8, 2023

Published:April 28, 2017


Machu Picchu & Galapagos Islands Tour 2024 Package: 12 days / Quito, Galapagos Islands and Machu Picchu / From USD 9,598 per person



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A Font of information, Klaus has spent decades in the field, leading tours in the Amazon, Andes and Galapagos Islands. He hung up his guiding boots a few years back and now creates itineraries for the tour operator, Metropolitan Touring. Adrift in the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles from mainland South America, Galapagos is one of the most biodiverse locales on Earth.

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Santa Cruz II is a replacement for the much-loved Santa Cruz, which plied the waters of the Galapagos for 36 years. It is not a new ship; it was built in 2002 and sailed as Mare Australis under the Australis cruise brand, operating expedition cruises around Cape Horn and to Antarctica. Metropolitan Touring bought the ship in 2015 and completely refurbished it, launching it as Santa Cruz II in October 2015.

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