Culture / Entertainment

Your Guide to Houston Zoo’s World First Galápagos Islands Exhibit — Inside an Immersive Wonder

There Is Nothing Else Like It On the Planet (Except in Galápagos)

BY // 05.14.23

The Houston Zoo is making major waves as the first zoo in the world to build a conservation-focused exhibit focused on the Galápagos Islands. The exhibit’s opening marked the conclusion of the Houston Zoo’s centennial anniversary, but it has only started the public interest in a world class treasure that can only be found in the Bayou City.

Here’s a guide to this new can’t-miss Houston experience:

The Galápagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador, are an unparalleled destination that showcases the wonders of unique species, delicate ecosystem balance and the urgent importance of conservation. In fact, 97 percent of the reptiles and land mammals in the Galápagos Islands are endemic, which means they are found exclusively in that region and nowhere else on earth.

The same holds true for 80 percent of the land birds and more than 30 percent of the plants, making them some of the world’s most endangered species.

Houston Zoo, a supporter of 33 wildlife conservation projects in 17 countries, understands the importance of the Galápagos Islands to the global ecosystem.

As you explore the Zoo’s first-of-its-kind Galápagos Islands exhibit, you are immersed in an environment evoking the archipelago’s unique landscapes and oceanic habitats. The experience also highlights specific conservation efforts undertaken by the Houston Zoo.

Introducing Pêche

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Most of the animals in the Galápagos Islands exhibit are closely related species to those on the island. They will serve as ambassadors for their Galápagos cousins.

Who doesn't love a giant tortoise? Houston Zoo's Galápagos Islands exhibit includes them.
Who doesn’t love a giant tortoise? Houston Zoo’s Galápagos Islands exhibit includes them.

“After years of planning and construction,” Houston Zoo president and CEO Lee Ehmke says. “We can now say that our Houston Zoo is home to the first major Galápagos Islands exhibit in any zoo.

“With this new exhibit, our more than two million annual guests will learn how our shared ocean connects us to species in the Galápagos. They will learn how our conservation actions here in Houston will lead to healthier oceans worldwide.”

The Galápagos Islands exhibit at the Houston Zoo is the culmination of the $150 million “Keeping Our World Wild Centennial Capital” campaign that launched in 2018.  Since then, the Zoo has created a series of transformative exhibits, new public amenities and enhanced public spaces. These projects were completed in a six-year, multi-phase plan across the Zoo’s 55-acre site.

With the funds raised from the campaign, the Houston Zoo opened the Hamill Foundation Black Bear Exhibit in 2018, Cypress Circle Cafe in 2018 and renovated the orangutan exhibit in 2019. It also opened award-winning exhibits in Kathrine G. McGovern Texas Wetlands in 2019 and South America’s Pantanal in 2020.

The largest initiative in the campaign is now the new Galápagos Islands exhibit.

Getting to Know the Galápagos Islands

Approaching the exhibit, you immediately encounter the Sea Lion Coast, a wave-tossed volcanic shoreline where California sea lions sun themselves on dramatic lava cliffs. It’s one of several sea lion viewing areas, providing visitors with up-close and personal views of these playful creatures.

As yoy enter the exhibit, tall cliff walls reveal views of a boulder-strewn volcanic meadow. Giant Galápagos tortoises lumber about, grazing on grasses, or wallowing in muddy puddles.

The tortoises are a popular attraction, and spending time watching them as they go about their daily lives is a unique treat.

After viewing the tortoise habitat from the outdoor trail, you move through a crevasse in the lava hillside. Once you enter a vestibule, you are greeted by blue iguanas sunning themselves on the ledges of a rocky outcropping. The iguanas are a curious and playful species.

Going Under the Sea

Then there is a return to the ocean shore before descending into a wave-sculpted sea cave. Everyone is treated to split-level views of sea lions swimming into the cave or resting on shaded ledges just above the water line.

In a nearby opening in the rocks, colorful Sally Lightfoot crabs are visible, scuttling about in the splashing waves.

Moving deeper underwater, you emerge into a 40-foot-long acrylic tunnel. The ocean now surrounds you, with sea lions swimming on both sides and overhead. This is one Galápagos Islands experience, you’re unlikely to forget.

This immersive experience allows visitors to get a close look at these fascinating creatures in their natural habitat.

Leaving the underwater tunnel, you arrive at a dramatically-lit room with beautiful images of sea life with glass cylinders. These cylinders contain three types of plastic waste that threaten ocean wildlife everywhere. The columns, filled with plastic bags, straws and bottles, symbolize the significant reduction in waste entering the environment. The Houston Zoo’s efforts are helping with the elimination of these products.

The captivating wall aquarium featuring jellyfish, or sea nettles, serves as a powerful reminder of the detrimental impact of plastic pollution on marine life. Animals such as sea turtles can mistakenly consume floating plastic, putting them in real danger.

See the Galapagos Islands as they were meant to be seen at Houston Zoo: Up close and personal.
See the Galapagos Islands as they were meant to be seen at Houston Zoo: Up close and personal.

Turning a corner, a 40-foot span of clear acrylic reveals the breathtaking One Ocean aquarium, appearing to extend forever to the open ocean beyond.

Within the expansive 290,000-gallon environment, the Galápagos reef showcases distinctive coral formations. It also features an assortment of volcanic boulders, creating diverse habitats.

Walk alongside green sea turtles, blacktip reef sharks, bonnethead sharks and cownose stingrays. Encounter an array of vibrant fish species seeking shelter and traversing the waters.

This one-of-a-kind aquarium experience is a must-see.

An opening in the lava tunnel wall also contains an aquarium. It features giant sea horses up to 12 inches tall, colorful sea stars and sea cucumbers.

As the lava tunnel floor rises and you round the corner, playful Humboldt penguins come into view. They waddle along a volcanic rock beach and zoom through the water below. The species is brand new to the Houston Zoo.

There’s nothing like the Houston Zoo’s new Galápagos exhibit anywhere else in the world. Unless, of course, you happen to be in the Galápagos Islands.

For tickets to the Houston Zoo’s Galápagos Islands, go here.

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