In April 2016 we will embark on another Penguin World expedition as we join WildPhoto Travel on a 11 day boat cruise around the Galapagos Islands of the coast of Ecuador. The archipelago is located right on the Equator, but still it is home to a very specialized penguin – the Galapagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus).

The Galapagos penguin is endemic to the Galapagos Islands, where its total population is thought to number fewer around 1,800 individuals. This species is the northern most penguin in the world, and approximately 95 % of the population is found on Isabela and Fernandina Islands in the western part of the archipelago. This is also where we hope to encounter them and photograph them in their natural environment.

Long-term monitoring indicates that the Galapagos penguin is undergoing severe fluctuations, primarily as a result of marine perturbations that may be becoming more extreme. These perturbations have caused an overall very rapid population reduction over the last three generations (34 years). In addition, it has a small population, and is restricted to a very small range, with nearly all birds breeding at just one location. These factors have resulted in the species being listed as Endangered.

The distribution of Galapagos Penguins are highly linked to the cool and nutrient-rich oceanic waters in the western archipelago that allows for a high density of prey year-round. It nests at sea-level, and appears to forage close to shore and at relatively shallow depths, concentrating foraging within 1 km of the shore.

In recent decades, this species has been influenced primarily by the effects of El Niño on the availability of shoaling fish. This had been most evident in 1982-83 and 1997-98, when the penguin population underwent dramatic declines of 77 % and 65 %, respectively. The population has recovered slowly but the current population size is still 48 % below the pre-El Niño population levels (1,009 individuals counted in 2007). Climate change may lead to an increase in the frequency of El Niño events in the future, which will also reduce the species’ resilience to other threats such as disease outbreaks, oil spills, or predation by introduced predators.

Local fishing boats operating in inshore waters in the western part of the archipelago are documented as incidentally drowning Galapagos penguins due to floating nets and illegally used bait fisheries in gill nets. Recent plans to establish longline fisheries in the Galapagos raise additional concern. Aside from the impact of by-catch caused by this technique, in the case of Galapagos Penguins, it is likely that an increasing demand for baitfish will dramatically increase inshore bait fisheries with all its associated problems. Contamination from oil spills poses a severe potential threat. Predation by introduced cats on the Galapagos penguin population at its main breeding site resulted in adult mortality of 49 % per year. Feral cats are also vectors of parasites, which have recently been found in Galapagos penguins. An expanding human population exacerbates many of the above threats.

Going into 2016 we are looking at what could be the strongest El Niño recorded. At the moment the effects are most severe in the northern Pacific Ocean, and no effect has been recorded in Galapagos. However, it is unlikely the archipelago will be unaffected by the influx of warm water in the near future. Bearing in mind the effect on the penguin population in 1982-83 and 1997-98, and the already heavily reduced population, this might be the last time we get the chance to see this unique Penguin species in the wild. The Galapagos penguin is on the brink of extinction.

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